Aaron and Michelle Peck bought BEL tree farm in May. Jerry and Marlene Eck started the farm in Smolan in 1965 with two other teachers and became the sole owners in the 1980s. Both Pecks have full-time jobs, Michelle with Saint Francis Foundation and Aaron with Cargill.
What’s the history of BEL tree farm?
Aaron: In the mid to late ‘90s, I used to work at the Smolan tree farm for a couple of years in late high school and college as a tree cutter. That’s how I became familiar with the ownership and the operation side of things.
Around 2000, 2001, the Ecks built this one and everything moved here. The Smolan tree farm was closed down.
Technically, we’re just the second owners.
Michelle: We grow Scotch and Austrian pines. Right now there are about 5,000 Christmas trees on the land here at BEL Christmas Tree Farm.
They’re some of the healthiest Christmas trees around. We found out we’re part of the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association. Jerry Eck is a key figure in that group, with his knowledge and experience and expertise. We definitely have some of the healthiest trees in the area. A variety of things make them healthy — the quality of the needles and the quality of the trees, shaping, shearing, and they are pest-free.
Aaron: Every year about 1,200 to 1,500 trees go out of here and about 400 wreaths.
What’s staying the same at the tree farm?
Michelle: One of the things that was important to us is the tradition of BEL Tree Farm, and we’ve been bringing out our kids to the tree farm for the last 12 years. And the free popcorn and free cider and sitting around the big fire, the horse-drawn hayrack rides that have been around for a long time have been important. Also the free ornaments for the children when they come out here. So we are definitely keeping all the traditions of BEL Tree Farm through this change.
Aaron: We’ve always felt like you could go about anywhere and buy a Christmas tree, any big-box store, but there are not very many people offering something that creates a memory and a tradition for a family, and that’s really what our primary focus is about here.
Michelle: We do have some new hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Friday through Sunday, starting the Friday after Thanksgiving and through Saturday, Dec. 23, and also by appointment.
We now offer events and are able to rent out the facility. Whether it’s a wedding or a company Christmas party or birthday party, we are able to offer indoor and outdoor facilities.
We’ve had several events already at the tree farm. We have photographers come out; we even have someone from Manhattan to do a photo shoot.
We’ve had some weddings out in the trees.
How do you staff the tree farm?
Michelle: It’s definitely a family affair. Our daughter Adia is 11 and she’ll help do popcorn and the ornaments, and our son Noah plans to be out here. He’s 10 and he’ll be helping haul trees with me.
We hire 25 to 30 part-time employees for the Christmas season — tree cutters, wreath makers, artists and florists that will put the different wreaths together. You’d be amazed at how many wreaths go out of here — wreaths, swags, garlands, all used with trees from the tree farm.
Aaron: The rest of the year it’s just us mowing, tree shearing, tree planting. In the spring we’ll plant probably 2,000 trees. There's some spraying involved, building maintenance.
What else are you doing?
Michelle: The Kansas Tree Growers Association selected us to donate the Christmas tree for the governor’s mansion at Cedar Crest this year. We are donating a 10-foot tree to the people of Kansas and taking it to Topeka on Nov. 21. The kids are so excited. We’re taking them out of school.
We like to give back to the community, so we are also donating to Trees for Troops. Trees for Troops partners with FedEx and sends trees to bases around the country, and even overseas, for the families of service people.