Santa, Christmas tree growers weigh in on Kansas climate during annual tradition

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CEDAR CREST — Heavy is the head that wears the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association presidency. 

David Wilderson said he feels a lot of pride in his first year at the helm of the association, representing Christmas tree growers across the state at the annual welcoming of the Christmas tree to the governor’s mansion. Every year, horses deliver a Christmas tree and give Santa a ride at Cedar Crest, about five miles west of the Statehouse in Topeka. 

But a Kansas drought might threaten the future of this tradition, causing Christmas tree crops to die off at unusually high rates. 

Christmas tree seedlings typically have a 70-80% survival rate, but this year growers are seeing a loss of about 50% of the seedlings, Wilderson said.

“The survival rate has decreased because of the droughts,” he said. “This year especially, I talked to a lot of the growers in our organization. We had a much lower survival rate of the seedlings we planted this year.”

Wilderson said that drought and several dry summers have forced growers to find new approaches to keep their trees healthy. Some have switched to different trees, moving away from white pine and trying new irrigation methods. He and other growers have been talking with Kansas Forestry officials to navigate the problem. 

David Wilderson said the drought is affecting Kansas Christmas trees. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
David Wilderson said that drought is affecting Kansas Christmas trees. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

Wilderson has operated his 4,000 tree farm, Wilderson Tree Farm in Basehor, since 1976 and said he believes the drought is going to continue to be a problem. He said growers are going to need to adapt to the new reality.

The governor’s tree this year is a Virginia pine, which can tolerate lower soil moisture than some other pine trees. 

“We have to react and try different kinds of trees and assume we have to irrigate more,” Wilderson said. 

At the Christmas tree event, Wilderson wasn’t the only one trying new things. 

Santa, of St. Nick Services, said he’s been offering different sweet treats, alongside the traditional candy cane. Soft-chew candy is better for people’s teeth, he said. 

“We’re trying to be a little healthier,” Santa said. 

Santa, who has been part of the Kansas Santa scene for the last 12 or so years, claims to have gotten into the business when elves “grabbed him.”

Kansas Reflector could not verify this.

He assured the Reflector that Kansans had been especially good this year and could look forward to more cookies, toys and candies than coal come Christmas morning. 

Santa cheers up children in attendance at Monday’s tree welcoming ceremony. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

Outside the governor’s mansion, Bess and Betty, the 2,000-pound draft horses who pull the tree wagon every other year, stood calmly.

Robert Carter, who runs 3C Carriage Service with his father, Cecil, said the horses were often better behaved than people. 

“They know how to act more than the people know how to act,” he said. 

Carter said his family moved to Kansas and started the business after his father retired from the military. The two have always been around horses and cattle and enjoy sharing their experiences with the public, doing the annual tree welcoming for about 10 years. 

One courtesy they employ are what Carter call “diaper bags” for the horses, which collect droppings. Carter said they’ve used this method for years for the sake of decorum at the governor’s mansions and other events, such as weddings. 

“It’s something we do as a courtesy so we’re not leaving a mess in front of the governor’s mansion,” Carter said. 

Lt. Gov. David Toland, who welcomed the tree in place of Gov. Laura Kelly, said all he wanted for Christmas was another year of economic growth. 

“I want another year of economic growth in 2023 like we had in 2022,” Toland said. 

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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