Early one afternoon last week, Chub Lake Christmas Tree Farm owner Jim Whorton walked through his farm to evaluate trees, choosing which ones to sell and which ones need another season or two to grow.
"You see that one there," he said, pointing to a 6-foot tree near his storefront. "That one's not ready yet. It was probably too close to one we just cut. It needs a couple more years to fill out and then it will be ready."
For more than 30 years, Jim and his wife, Bev, have owned and operated the Carlton tree farm, selling trees, wreaths and other seasonal items at their farm and storefront on East Chub Lake Road.
Jim and Bev first started growing and selling Christmas trees near Cook when Jim worked as a forester for the U.S. Forest Service and then Northwest Paper Co.
"We both grew up on farms in Missouri," Jim said. "Trees grow naturally in Minnesota, and we had two sons who needed part-time jobs at the time, so it just worked out."
After the Cook paper mill was sold to Potlatch, the Whortons moved to Carlton and started growing trees in Carlton County in 1986, sold their first trees in 1993 and "haven't missed a year since," Bev said.
Even selling trees after just seven years was a stretch. Typically, trees sold from the Whorton's farm are closer to 12 years old, which makes the Christmas tree business difficult to start.
"It's like any business," Jim said. "You've got to research it and form a long-term plan. It's got to be long term when you have a 12-year crop."
Over the years, the Whortons have had to attempt to follow trends in Christmas tree sales.
Several years ago, their farm had more than 40,000 pine trees growing on the property and was selling an average of 2,500 per year. Almost overnight, the number dropped to around 500 as families started buying balsam and fraser firs instead.
Jim said firs tend to be more aromatic, and the needle structure makes them easier to clean up than pine trees.
The Whortons have also found a way to give back. Each year, the Chub Lake Tree Farm serves as a drop point for the FedEx "Trees for Troops" program, which has delivered more than 200,000 trees to military families and bases around the world over its 14-year history.
For the last 10 years, the Whortons have donated at least 100 trees per year to the program.
"It's simple, but providing a tree to them is one of the things we can do for our active military," Jim said.
Now retired, the pair live most of the year in northern Missouri, but each Christmas, they make the trek back to Carlton, where one of their sons lives. They live in a small building on the farm where Bev and some employees make wreaths with the trimmings from harvested trees.
Jim said there are many reasons they continue to do it. Customers who were children when their families first came to buy a tree at the Chub Lake Farm are now bringing their children and grandchildren for the experience.
"I like to see things grown," Jim said. "We're into our third generation for some of our customers; I like to see their kids playing in the snow. You get to where you look for those people every year."
The Chub Lake Christmas Tree Farm opens at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 23. It will remain open from 10 a.m. until dark, seven days a week throughout the Christmas season.