SANDSTONE, MINN. - Picking out a Christmas tree can occasionally draw out an oft-concealed judge-y-ness in Minnesotans.
"Is this one too chonky?" asked Sara Lee of Duluth, wandering with a hacksaw through a row of Canaan firs at Happy Land Tree Farms on the Saturday following Thanksgiving.
Patrons had aired other concerns. A balsam was a little basic. A Fraser was "pretty, but crooked."
"It looks quite floofy," one child said. "I want more of a stout branch," replied an adult.
One quality most visitors won't find in the trees they strap to the tops of SUVs and minivans is dry timber.
"We had rain when it was right on the edge," said Sandy Olson, working the popcorn stand in the gift shop at Happy Land, which she has owned with her husband, Ken, for more than 40 years. "Also, our farm is irrigated."
Those rains are welcomed by tree farmers. In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, moisture has been dispiritingly low the last two years. In Redwood Falls, the Department of Natural Resources moisture reader has recorded 16 inches of precipitation for 2022, neck-and-neck with 1894 for the driest year on record.
Unlike corn or soybean farmers, whose yields can drop with a dry growing season, the state's 100 or so tree farms have a little more leeway with a bad year or two. Christmas trees take a decade or more to grow.
"Three years ago, we had one of the wettest years on record, followed by two of the [driest]," said John Krueger, owner of Krueger's Christmas Tree Farm near Lake Elmo. "That's good growth, followed by not-so-good growth."
But two years in a row of low moisture might take its toll on tree sizes in the long run, which worries the farmers who make their living off growing conifers for families to prop up and decorate in living rooms.
At Guggisberg Tree Farm 10 miles south of New Ulm — which, in late November, was still considered under extreme drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor — farmer Tony Guggisberg estimated he put 100,000 gallons of water on his tannenbaums to keep them "looking good."
"We watered from June and we were still watering right up to the season. Our last day was October 30 with the tanks," Guggisberg said. "If you look, the grass [near the trees] is still green. Everything else is brown."
Guggisberg said he raised prices roughly $10 to $15 a tree — to more than $100 for the beloved Fraser Fir — to help pay for the extra water. He said customers are understanding, but he's worried the year's short growth might catch up with him.
In a normal year, a Christmas tree might grow a foot. This year, with lack of rainfall, he said his trees grew just 3 to 4 inches.
Still, holiday customers have lined up. At Guggisberg's farm, they're already running out of stock and anticipate closing after the first weekend in December.
At Krueger's Christmas Tree Farm, however, it is tradition to remain open until days before Christmas.
"It's tempting to shut her down December 15," Krueger said. "But you don't sell trees in January, so we'll gladly stay open."
A cut-your-own farm requires workers — to cash out customers, to pour the hot cider, to tether trees to rooftops of cars — that are increasingly hard to find. Guggisberg said he found himself trimming trees this summer.
"I remember when we would have 40, 50 applicants from schoolkids, just people wanting something part time, a little extra money," Sandy Olson said. "And now you can't pay enough to interest them."
Outside the gift shop at Happy Land, the May family from Golden Valley lingered on the porch, sipping cider before making the drive back home.
"He wanted a 10-foot tree," said Georgia May, pointing to her husband. "You can't find that in the Cities."
In the muddy parking lot, a Fraser fir was strapped atop their SUV.
"It's unassuming," said Trevor May. "It's a lot heavier than the 9-footers."
Owner Ken Olson roved a grove of balsam, Canaan and Fraser firs on an orange ATV, a bottle of Mountain Dew in his cup holder as personal fuel. He works long hours during the season, but after closing his wife said they'll "hibernate."
Jason Berninger, who'd driven down with his wife, Sara Lee, from Duluth, said they'd get long-needled trees when they lived in Missouri. "They look nice at first, but you take them home and lay them out, and it leaves the shadow of the tree on the ground" in needles.
Lee says they want a tree that'll "hold its leaves" a little longer.
Christmas, of course, is still nearly a month away. But with temperatures in the 40s and the north country forecasting snow, the time was now to track down a tree.