Christmas tree farm in Greencastle brings holiday cheer

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John Zeller has the opportunity to be a part of many different family Christmases.

His business, Snowy Pines Nursery and Christmas Tree Farm, can be found about two and a half miles north of downtown Greencastle. Twenty acres of carefully charted land contain copious amounts of various trees.

Originally from Greencastle, Zeller had planned to become a park or forest ranger out west. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Forestry at Purdue University. There weren't many jobs available once he graduated, however, so he decided to pursue his first job at a tree farm in 1976, where he remained for about eight years.

"It belonged to my now ex-wife's family. When the marriage didn't work out, I started growing Christmas trees," Zeller explained. "I found out this property was available, so in the early spring of '86, I signed a 20-year contract to buy it. That's how it started."

A decorative banner printed in red reads "Real Christmas Trees," with live evergreens grown on either side. Holiday songs such as "Last Christmas" can be heard from the small radio and advertisements for Christmas wreaths and "Charlie Brown trees" can be spotted on a short walk down the paved pathway between the trees. The centerpiece of Snowy Pines is the small log cabin, utilized as their office.

The sharp contrast between the bitter cold outside on the farm and the comfortable warmth of the cabin makes it all the more welcoming. Within the little house, complete with a replica of a rustic Christmas village and multiple welcome signs, Zeller offers his customers complimentary coffee, hot chocolate and homemade Christmas cookies.

Zeller's favorite part about Christmas is the appreciative reactions of his customers. To accomplish quality service, he does a lot of the same small gestures every year. He still bakes the same Christmas cookies he has for 35 years, sets up a fire pit for customers to warm themselves by, passes out coloring books to young children and never fails to have Christmas music playing in the background of it all.

"I've tried to be a people pleaser," Zeller said. "And it seems like what we do does make people happy."

Zeller believes that anyone who likes to purchase real Christmas trees would enjoy the farm. He also believes that it's definitely better to buy a real tree as opposed to a fake tree. He thinks it's a great way to help support the local economy.

"Trees absorb carbon dioxide and put out oxygen, so that's one way to help the environment. With artificial [trees], there's oil used," Zeller said. "And almost every artificial tree is made in China — all imported. It's nice to support [our] local economy."

Zeller says that real Christmas trees also carry a lot of cultural history. He believes a lot of traditions have fallen to the wayside in the current computer age, and this is one way to continue with one custom that is special to him.

"It goes back a lot of years. I hear a lot of people tell stories about trees and things in the past," Zeller said. "All good memories."

Since the farm has opened, Zeller and staff have received several compliments from their customers about how they enjoy the quality of the trees and the atmosphere, particularly with the new landscaping, filled with other plants and plastic decorative candy canes. Zeller finds his farm much different than a cornfield or a row of houses by the highways, mostly because of the nature aspect and the addition of aesthetic to the town.

"You can see the Christmas trees from the highway, so I think that's a nice favorable impression coming into Greencastle that's a little bit different," he said.

Zeller notes that several DePauw students have come to visit the farm over the years. In fact, the first tree sold this year went to three DePauw students on their way home.

"With our nursery, we do a little more with DePauw fraternities and sororities," Zeller said. "We offer plants and mulch [to them], so the nursery is more related to the DePauw students [in particular]."

Some of the youth that visit come from bigger cities and get a taste of a rural setting upon arriving at the farm. Although Zeller says that Indiana has a lot of rural land — and Greencastle is no different — the majority of the Indiana state farms produce corn or beans.

"So it's something a little different," Zeller said. "They seem to enjoy the atmosphere out here."

DePauw senior Katie Aldrich agrees that a Christmas tree farm in Greencastle is a great idea, as there needs to be a producer for local families who purchase real trees. She also believes it's important to support the local economy as opposed to buying a tree from Wal-Mart or another corporate store.

However, sophomore Ashley Conard believes that it's better to buy an artificial tree as opposed to a real tree, as chopping down trees can hurt the environment.

"There aren't enough DePauw students that would buy one, and I am against devoting more land to a tree farm," Conard said.

However, she does believe that Greencastle residents would respond to information about environmental concerns since it pertains more heavily to families.

"Because this is a farming community, I think they would be interested in learning more about the environmental impact," Conard said.

Aldrich, an environmental major, agrees that real trees might be more expensive for families, but that they are ultimately better for the environment.

"In my opinion, it's better to buy a real Christmas tree. It looks and smells better, and it's essentially compostable," Aldrich said.  "It can be made into fertilizer, whereas plastic is going to be in a landfill for a long time."

The trees are marked as either "live," or still rooted, or "cut." Among the live trees are Norway Spruces and White Spruces. The cut trees include Fraser Firs and Scotch Pines.

Zeller thinks the best part about his job is being outdoors. "I've always enjoyed being able to work outside, growing plants and being a part of the Christmas spirit," he said.