Parkers work year-round on Christmas tree farm, but reach out much further

Parkers also serve as foster parents, take mission trips and build Habitat homes

By Jennie ZeitlerStaff Writer

Chuck Parker prepares to plant 1,500 evergreen seedlings. The flags are positioned on the field for seedling location. Chuck and his wife, Kathy, and helpers plant all seedlings by hand.

Chuck and Kathy Parker both grew up in Long Prairie, but never imagined they would own a Christmas tree farm not far from there.

Chuck farmed with his father and after he and Kathy married, they bought the farm and lived there for about 10 years. But at that point the farm either needed to be updated and expanded or they needed to do something different.

After a year of Chuck working off the farm and Kathy doing chores, the cows were sold. The farm was then sold to an Amish family and the Parkers moved to Sauk Centre, where their three kids grew up.

“Gradually the area around Lily Lake became more built up, with more houses around and we looked for a place with more room outside,” said Kathy.

The place they found was Cornerstone Pines near Grey Eagle, a Christmas tree farm with mature Balsam fir trees that were 30 years old.

“Since evergreens can be harvested at  eight – 10 years, and we’ve been here four years, we have not yet harvested a tree that we planted,” Chuck said.

“We are big supporters of Arbor Day and Earth Day. We like to show people how to plant and care for trees,” he said. “And for each tree cut, we plant two or three new ones.”

The average number of trees cut each season is currently about 250. This month, 1,500 seedlings will be planted by hand.

“We found that seedlings planted by machine have a lower survival rate, so we would rather do it by hand,” Chuck said.

The Parkers use a four-inch auger to drill the hole for the seedling, then plant the bare-root seedling and pack the dirt tightly.

Cornerstone Pines was formerly called Oak Haven Tree Farm, and owned by a state forester who did many conservation projects on the property.

“He had some far-ranging goals, and I’m still discovering the signs of things he was working on when he died,” said Chuck.

“When we moved in and changed the way things are done, it wasn’t easy for some of the neighbors. But one day a neighbor came and told me, ‘Thank you for keeping Mike’s dream going,’” Chuck said.

There is a water area that had been laser-levelled, and Chuck only saw signs of that last summer when the water level was high.

“When it comes to Christmas trees, there is a misconception that it is a negative thing to cut a tree and take it into the house,” said Chuck.

“Photosynthesis in plants benefits the environment, but that slows down as an evergreen reaches cutting size. By planting two or three seedlings for each one cut, there is more photosynthesis happening and more benefit for the environment.”

Trees cut at Cornerstone Pines are recycled by using them for mulch. Customers are encouraged to return their trees after Christmas for recycling.

The Parkers stay busy most of the year preparing for the pre-Christmas events. Starting soon after the trees are cut, fields are already being readied for planting.

“We take the most conservative approach possible, and don’t till up the soil,” Chuck said. “The gopher mounds are smoothed out by lightly dragging the field.”

Soil tests are done to determine which species of tree will go in which areas of the farm. There are many low areas where few types of trees grow well.

The majority of trees grown at Cornerstone Pines are Meyer spruce, Balsam fir and Fraser fir.

“But we are adventurous enough to have a lot more varieties,” said Chuck. “We do our own testing to see which do the best for us.”

After the fields are flagged for new seedling locations and then planted, there is fertilizing, mulching and mowing between trees to be done for the duration of the season.

The 100-acre farm currently grows about 15,000 trees.

“Starting about now and going throughout the summer, cones are harvested from the ground to be used in decorations for sale during the Christmas season,” Kathy said.

Gophers are always a challenge. Kathy focused on trapping them starting the second year and their numbers have been drastically reduced. But that is still on ongoing process.

As members of the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association, the Parkers volunteer at a State Fair booth every year. They also entered two white spruce in competition at the Fair last year, and received a first place for the six-foot-and-under class.

The Christmas season begins at Cornerstone Pines in October with a tagging event. On two different days, people can come out to the farm and tag the tree of their choice. It will be reserved for them until after Thanksgiving, when they can come back to cut it.

“We really encourage the whole family to come and share in the experience,” said Chuck. “Come, pick out a tree and cut it, go on a 20-minute sleigh ride, drink hot chocolate or cider and visit the gift shop.”

People are not obligated to pay for a sleigh ride, but donations are accepted to help defray the costs.

Dogs are allowed, if they are on a leash. Power saws cannot be used, however, because of liability issues.

“Families often come and spend hours having snowball fights, taking photos, looking at the Nativity scene, visiting Santa’s workshop and warming up near the bonfire,” he said.

“The biggest profit we’ll ever see will be in the eyes and smiles of the children who come here,” said Chuck.

To find out more and to make plans for Christmas, visit www.cornerstonepineschristmastrees.com.

In addition to offering Christmas trees and a very special tree-cutting experience, the Parkers have influenced families around Minnesota and in foreign countries in other ways.

While still living in Sauk Centre, the Parkers decided to become licensed foster parents. That is something that was on Kathy’s heart for many years, to help people in need in that way.

Also, Chuck had been a Sunday School teacher for more than 20 years and had at that time a very challenging student. The student went on a mission trip with the Parkers and during that time they found out the student was a foster child.

“She thought Kathy and I would be great foster parents,” said Chuck. “Then she died in a car accident. That combined with other things prompted us to go ahead and be licensed.”

The Parkers provide respite foster care and emergency care, as well as long-term care. In January 2007, they took four siblings under age 7, and it was a challenge. But they did not want the children to be separated.

“By the time they left, they were our kids to us,” said Chuck.

The Parkers have gone on numerous mission trips to Mexico and to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

This year they are going to the Bush area of Alaska. They will fly into Nome and go out to the villages to minister to them.

“We will do projects for them, teach Sunday School, just show them someone out there loves and cares for them,” said Kathy.

“We will maybe get a soup kitchen in Nome up and running while we’re there,” Chuck said.

Their trips started while they were members of First Lutheran Church in Sauk Centre, and continue now through American Lutheran Church in Long Prairie.

The Parkers are happy to have participated in Habitat for Humanity home-building projects in several parts of Minnesota as well.

“In 2010 we worked on a home near Grand Rapids,” said Chuck.

“Our kids classify us as insane,” Kathy said. “But there is so much need out there.”

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