Green Friday Frenzy
October 5, 2022
Written By Jason Jenkins
For many, Christmas traditions begin with an annual pilgrimage to The Branch Ranch
Across the nation, the day after Thanksgiving—known to most as “Black Friday”—is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Retailers of all kinds attempt to lure shoppers into their stores with limited, money-saving specials on everything from tube socks to TVs.
Customers line up, often in the wee hours of the morning, for the chance to snatch up doorbuster deals before they disappear. Frenetic and sometimes frustrating, shopping for Christmas on Black Friday may be a thrill for some. But in northeast Missouri, many avoid this consumer chaos and opt for an alternative outing.
“We call it ‘Green Friday,’” said Butch Augspurg, owner of The Branch Ranch Christmas tree farm. “We get to start the Christmas season with about 600 families every year.”
For the past 26 years, Butch and his wife, Darlene, known to most as “Tootsie,” have welcomed generations of families to their farm in Marion County. Here, just outside the tiny hamlet of Philadelphia, the couple provides more than just fresh-cut Christmas trees. They offer their customers an opportunity to make memories, forge traditions and enjoy the magic of the season.
“How much excitement can there be walking into Lowe’s and walking out with a tree?” Butch wryly asked. “Out here, the kids can run around, play hide-and-seek in the trees, eat a cookie, drink some hot chocolate and pick out their very own Christmas tree to take home and decorate.”
Tree Farm Fancy
When the Augspurgs bought their 120-acre farm, Butch already had a full-time career as a kitchen designer. They knew traditional row crops weren’t in their future, but the idea of raising Christmas trees appealed to Tootsie.
“I absolutely love Christmas,” she said. “We used to drive past a Christmas tree farm on our way to Columbia, and it was just beautiful. I told Butch that I thought some trees would be fun. I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.”
Butch and Tootsie planted their first trees in 1990 and immediately began learning all the things that can go wrong. Some of them did.
“The first year, cows ate the tops off all the trees. The next year, we learned that fescue can choke out your seedlings,” Butch recalled. “It wasn’t until about the third year that we could see that we were in the tree business.”
To learn more about raising trees, Butch joined the Missouri Christmas Tree Association, an organization for which he has served as president on two occasions. He also received some advice from his local state forester. Soon, he knew how to prevent damage from sawflies, spider mites and bagworms and how to control diseases such as brown spot needle and diplodia tip blight. By 1997, the Augspurgs were ready to sell their first trees.
“We sold about 25 trees that year; that’s all the family we had,” Butch said jokingly. “Rather than cut them and bring them to town, we decided then to let folks come out, choose their own tree and then cut them. Otherwise, if you cut it and didn’t sell it, it was just ditch fill.”
Today, roughly 15 acres of the 120-acre farm are devoted to Christmas trees. At one time, the farm comprised 10,000 trees, ranging up to 16 feet tall. These days, Butch says he doesn’t let any trees grow taller than 8 feet.
“I didn’t like growing those big trees,” he said. “The longer they’re here, the better the chance they’ll get disease. And they are more trouble to handle. A 10-foot tree will weigh about 100 pounds until it rains or snows. Then, it’s a 400-pound tree.”
The Augspurgs grow three varieties of Scotch pine, which Butch said are hardy enough to grow in their clay soils even during the hottest of years. “A Scotch pine will grow out of a rock, where the rest of them—the firs and the spruces—you have to water them and shade them and talk nice to them,” he quipped.
The pines are planted as 18-inch-tall bareroot seedlings. When they reach 3 feet tall, the pruning process begins. It’s important to prune the top growth, called the primary leader, as it determines the distance between each row of limbs, Butch explained.
“That leader can grow up to 30 inches in a season, but you don’t want that much space between the rows of limbs,” he said, adding that the trees are also trimmed to create the familiar conical Christmas tree shape. “You need to go through and trim it back to 12 to 14 inches.”
Each October, trees that have reached at least 5 feet tall receive a coating of a green vegetable-based sealant to ensure their needles remain a deep verdant color for the Christmas season.
“I’m as green as a leprechaun by the time I get them all sealed,” Butch said.
Cookies, Cocoa & Christmas Memories
While procuring a Christmas tree is the primary purpose for a visit to The Branch Ranch, there’s much more to the experience. When the gate opens at 9:30 a.m. on “Green Friday,” the fun begins.
Families pour into the property, park their vehicles and begin to explore. Some start by hopping on the “Tree Trolley,” a wagon pulled by an antique John Deere Model A tractor, to make their way to the Christmas tree fields. Others begin at the “Baumhaus,” the original 12-by-16-foot shed where Butch and Tootsie first started selling their trees off the farm. Inside, visitors find antique tools, more than 700 Christmas decorations and the “Christmas Tree Express,” a model train that circles the structure’s interior perimeter.
Once the ideal tree is found, a family may elect to harvest it themselves using a hand saw or allow one of the farm’s sawyers to cut it with a chainsaw.
“It’s become a family tradition for us,” said Cathy Page, a neighbor who lives in nearby Emerson, Mo. Her family has harvested a tree at The Branch Ranch annually since 2013. “Even if our kids and grandkids can’t be home for Thanksgiving, they try to be here to pick out the Christmas tree every year.”
Other families have similar experiences. Richard and Debbie Adair moved from New Jersey to Missouri in 2011 and fell in love with the Branch Ranch experience.
“They’re such nice people, and the Christian atmosphere starts the season off well,” Richard said. “The first time we say, ‘Merry Christmas’ is usually here.”
In preparation for the season, Tootsie bakes homemade Christmas cookies to share with everyone who visits The Branch Ranch. The Augspurgs also offer hot chocolate and cinnamon cider.
“I make right at 250 dozen cookies. That’s 3,000!” Tootsie said. “It takes me about two months to get them all baked. This is our Christmas party, and we consider it a mission, too, because Jesus is the reason for the season.”
This year, the Augspurgs will have 800 Scotch pines ready for harvest. Butch also is bringing in 160 pre-cut Fraser firs from Michigan.
While making memories at The Branch Ranch will continue for several more years, the Augspurgs made the decision to plant their last trees in 2021.
“I’m 78 now, and Tootsie’s 81, so when we start selling that last batch, I’ll be 84 and she’ll be 87,” Butch said. “We’ve had a ball doing this, but I think by then, we’ll be ready to be done fooling with trees.”
The Branch Ranch, located at 2551 County Road 159 northeast of Philadelphia, Mo., will open for its 2022 season at 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 25. For more information, call 573-439-5789 or visit www.thebranchranch.com.