By Sarah Neubecker

Special to the Osceola Edition

Christmas morning in the American household is a time of gifts, laughter and family togetherness as children and adults alike race to see what festively-wrapped gifts bear their name.

As the presents are spotted, wrapping paper flies and chaos ensues, while above the action, beautifully decorated, stands a traditional holiday symbol, without which the day would not be the same.

The Christmas tree could be a Douglass Fir, a Fraser Fir or maybe even a White Pine, but Christmas tree farmers across America sincerely hope it is not artificial.

“The real thing is always better,” said Linda Duddles, co-owner of Duddles Tree Farms in Reed City.

While an artificial tree may be constructed quickly on an assembly line in another country, a real Christmas tree takes years of labor, care and maintenance, Duddles said.

At Duddles Tree Farms, trees are planted as seedlings between 8 and 16 inches tall, 10 years before they are cut and used as Christmas trees.

Dick Duddles, co-owner of Duddles Tree Farms, said tree planting begins in early April on his 1,500-acre farm.

“One guy drives the tractor and the other guy rides the tree planter and you individually take them out of the bundles,” said Duddles. On a good day, his team can plant up to 4,000 trees.

On his farm, Duddles grows Scotch Pine, Blue Spruce, Douglass Fir, Fraser Fir and a few White Pine.

“Douglass Fir is the most popular, then Fraser Fir,” Dick Duddles said.

After trees are planted in a field, the team trims, fertilizes and maintains them for 10 years until they are big enough to be sold as Chistmas trees. After a field of trees is cut and used during the holiday season, the team of up to 12 employees work hard to prepare the soil for the next batch of trees.

“After a crop is off the land, we clear the land and plant some sort of cover crop,” Linda Duddles said, “Some kind of oats or wheat or sorghum grass to feed the soil.”

After a year of cover crop, the land is fertilized and ready for trees to be planted again. This cycle has continued on the Duddles farm since it first opened in 1957.

Duddles opens to the public every year starting the day after Thanksgiving, and sells fresh-cut trees as well as cut-it-yourself trees at an average price of $40 per tree.

“The retail time is the most fun time when you get to actually meet and deal with the people who are going to put the trees in their house,” Dick Duddles said.

Duddles said when customers come to buy Christmas trees, their decision to go out and cut their own tree or choose one that has already been cut depends largely on the weather.

“If the weather is nice, they like to go to the field.” Duddles said. “If it’s cold and snowy and the wind’s blowing, they want to get a tree quick and go.”

Though there are some factors of a Christmas tree that are appealing to most people, the perfect Christmas tree looks different for each person.

Duddles said a woman came to his farm last year and asked for the wildest tree he had.

“I showed her some pretty wild ones that hadn’t been trimmed in about 3 years and she said, ‘ I want one wilder than that.’”

Even though different people have different idea of what ‘the perfect tree’ looks like, they all want the tree to stand up straight.

“The thing that people dislike the most is a crooked tree,” Duddles said.

He said every once in a while he grows what he calls a “banana tree, ” a tree that grows in a semi circle and look like a banana.

“Those don’t sell too well.”

Along with selling between 500-600 trees in retail each year, Duddles Farms also ships 10,000 trees at wholesale to companies in Utah, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Florida and Georgia.

When the season is over, Dick and Linda take a much-needed break from the busy season in their line of work.

After a few months of rest, the crew starts work on the fields again, preparing to bring a symbol of Christmas cheer to hearts and homes for years to come.