Pine Lake Farm, a Christmas tree farm near Derby, has survived many a challenge in the almost four decades since Glen and Celia Goering planted their first 1,000 Scotch pine trees in 1978.
First is the challenge of keeping seedlings alive through the hot, dry Kansas summers. Adding drip irrigation helped with that, but the summers of 2012 and 2013 were devastating even with irrigation. The summers of 2015 and 2016 have been wetter and cooler than normal, which has been a boon to tree farms.
Pine Lake Farm has recovered from a disastrous fire in the summer of 1991 that killed 400 trees and a devastating hail storm in June of 1992 that stripped almost every tree.
Having grown up on a farm near Moundridge, Glen was no stranger to the tests of persistence and faith that come with agriculture. He was also no stranger to the satisfaction that comes with successfully planting, growing and harvesting a quality product to offer to his customers.
He had pursued his education in music and in 1968 accepted a position as director of the Derby High School band program. Celia had two college degrees in music, taught at the college level, was a university administrator and maintains a private piano studio. They were living in town in a home near their children's elementary school.
By 1975, the family included four young children, and Glen was longing to move out of town and raise his family on a small hobby farm.
"On a cold, January afternoon I took off in my little VW Beetle to drive the country roads around Derby and see if I could spot a farm that might be right for us," he recalls. "That was the day that I first saw the acreage that is now Pine Lake Farm."
He remembers that he thought it looked perfect, but there was no "for sale" sign, and he had no idea who owned it. A few weeks later, while looking at a different property with a realtor, he described the property and asked about it.
The realtor did know the owners and even thought they might be willing to sell a few acres.
They were able to make a deal for 6 acres that included several mature trees and a small pond. During the following summer, Glen planted pine trees all around the pond, and that fall, they staked out a foundation for where they wanted to build a new house the following year.
They were able to add to the property when the owners decided to sell the rest of the farm and retire to Florida. Included in that acreage was another field, a small house, another pond and a couple of outbuildings.
They sold their home in Derby, and in June of 1976 they moved to the small house on their now 20-acre farm while the new house was being built.
Both continued their teaching careers, and Glen began exploring what they could grow that might be more profitable than renting out their two fields to a wheat farmer.
"We wanted to make a little extra money to help pay for college for the kids," Glen says.
It was at the 1977 Kansas State Fair that he found an answer.
He had taken his Derby High School marching band to the fair, and after their performance, he gave them some time to play on the Midway and went looking at the farm machinery and agricultural exhibits.
One of the exhibitors was Delp Tree Farm in St. John.
He talked to Cecil Delp, father of current Delp Tree Farm operator Tony Delp, and learned about the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association.
The following spring, he planted 1,000 Scotch pine trees.
Over the next several years, he added trees annually, at the rate of about 1,500 a year. He mastered the art of keeping seedlings alive and learned how to shear trees to achieve the Christmas-tree shape.
Finally, in 1984 with many trees at about 5 feet tall, Pine Lake Farm had its first sales season, operating out of a pop-up camper with a fishing tackle box for handling money. They sold about 50 trees.
In the second season, they sold 90 trees and in the third, 180.
In 1991, sales hit a record — 750 Christmas trees.
"We thought we had mastered the art of running a Christmas tree operation," he says.
Just as in most of agriculture, having a great year means trouble is sure to follow. In the summer of 1991, a devastating fire burned about 400 waist-high trees. And the following year, June 19, 1992, a monster hail storm hit, damaging almost every tree on the farm.
Those back-to-back disasters reduced their inventory and cost them customers. The arrival of a Wal-Mart and a Lowe's home store in Derby added competition.
Gradually, Pine Lake Farm has added customers, and by 2008, the Goerings had gained back to close to their record year.
Their trees are still mostly Scotch pine, but they also have Austrian pine, eastern white pine, southwestern white pine, Virginia pine, and some Meyer spruce and Douglas fir.
The equipment inventory has expanded to include a good-quality shaker, a sales bar, a cash register, two sprayers, two flatbed trailers, a John Deere riding mower and six farm tractors, all antiques.
They have also added some fruit trees and vines, and Celia makes homemade pies and jams that are sold during the holiday season.
They also make wreaths and bring back ornaments that catch their eye while traveling.
Customers at Pine Lake Farm get a ride to the fields on a flatbed wagon, free hot chocolate, cappuccino or coffee and help cutting their tree and hauling it back.
Glen and Celia are now retired from full-time teaching, although she still gives piano lessons from their home — the same "new" house they built in 1976.
All four of their children and all of their grandchildren have been helpers on the farm through the years, and most of them return during the season to help with sales.
"We also hire some local high school or college students to help. I guess you could say that's our way of staying true to our original intent. We're still helping kids pay for college," says Celia.