In 1978, Dan Cassens purchased a 10-acre plot of land close to the Purdue campus on which he planted a few Christmas trees as a side project. That plot of land developed into a family Christmas tree farm that Cassens and his wife Vicki have run for more than 40 years.
As the years passed, Dan, now a professor emeritus in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources after retiring in 2017 following a more than 40-year career at Purdue, enlisted the help of students within the department for both seasonal work and longer-term work on the farm and within his small lumber business.
What started as a few extra hands around the tree farm has turned into a hands-on learning opportunity for more than 20 FNR students each year, teaching workers skills from cutting and handling trees to customer service.
“I don’t remember how it got started; I guess I needed somebody to help me and I probably knew a couple of students that were anxious to work,” Cassens said. “I don’t know how many years it has been going on now, but it keeps getting bigger. Last year at Christmas time we had 20 some students helping us part time with the trees. It’s a good group because they have hard, physical work to do, but then they’ve also got time to sit and talk too.”
The work begins in October to prepare the tree farm for its opening on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a date determined by customer demand over the years. Cassens Tree Farm has both choose-and-cut and pre-cut trees in species ranging from Canaan fir, Fraser fir and Concolor (White) fir to Scotch pine and white pine and Norway spruce. Once cut, trees have to be shook to remove dead needles, have a fresh cut on the butt of the tree to ensure they stand straight on a tree stand, and many get baled or wrapped, which condenses a tree, making it easier to handle and preventing damage to limbs that may occur in transit.
Cassens does not have prerequisite skills for students who work on the farm, save a willingness to work hard, although there are plenty of jobs on the tree farm that require specialized skills.
“We can use anybody that wants to work hard and has time available,” Cassens said. “We try to find out what their abilities are, because we do need people that can drive trucks and use chainsaws. Chainsaw experience is absolutely critical in part of the operation, but other than that, anybody can work in the barn. It doesn’t require much skill, just hard work. It’s hard to get it all sorted out with 20 students with different hours that they can work and different abilities, but we try to find out their abilities and schedules and try to get them placed. Once we get it going, it’s good.”
Daniel Warner, a 2011 alumnus in wood products manufacturing technology, said Cassens was very understanding when it came to lack of knowledge and miscues.
“My first day helping with the tree farm, I didn’t even know why we were planting these little pine trees (I was thinking lumber not Christmas),” Warner recalled. “I was also recruited for the mortar removal on several tons of vintage bricks. On one hatchet wielding, mortar removing day, I managed to get my truck stuck in Dan’s yard in the mud. Needless to say, the fact that we are still good friends shows that there was a great deal of forgiveness.”
Many of the students who work at Cassens farm are juniors or seniors, but some come back two or three years in a row once a part of the workforce, and often bring friends along to join the crew.
2018 forestry alumnus Ed Oehlman helped at Cassens Trees for five years, beginning the spring of his freshman year.
“I met Dan my freshman year at Purdue and that spring he invited me out to the farm to help him plant Christmas trees and that started my adventure,” Oehlman said. “I got the pleasure of seeing the whole process, from helping him plant trees, spending many hours mowing, sheering trees, spraying and treating trees, and lasting helping sell trees. Selling Christmas Trees is to this day one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. You couldn’t work for better people than Dan and Vicki. The days could be long and active, especially Thanksgiving weekend, but they always made sure you were taken care with little snacks or pizza, sometimes even home made soup. It made the time go by so quick, you’d just get started and before you knew it we were shutting up shop. The best was the fun little gamble we did at the end of the day to guess how many trees we had sold that day, which always made work fun! Working with and for Dan was a great learning experience, and not just about wood/lumber or Christmas trees. I learned so many great life and business skills!”
Charlie Warner, 2021 forestry alumnus and current master’s degree student, worked at Cassens Farm for three and a half years as an undergraduate student and has helped out five seasons overall after being introduced to Cassens and the job his freshman year thanks to Damon McGuckin (sustainable biomaterials 2018) and Oehlman.
“Both Ed and Damon worked for Dan at the tree farm throughout their time at Purdue and told me about him and how he was as both a boss and a professor,” Warner said. “Unfortunately, Dan retired from teaching before I had a chance to take his classes but I made up for it when I started working for him. I started working on the tree farm helping Dan with various jobs, whether it was sawing lumber with his Wood-Mizer, loading and unloading his dry kilns where he dried lumber, cutting down trees and bucking the logs to get them ready for the sawmill and many other jobs and mechanical work around the farm. I learned so much from my few years working for Dan. In fact, he was one of the strongest voices urging me to continue my studies and work towards a master’s degree. Not only did Dan teach me everything there is to know about the wood products industry and more, but he also taught me how to communicate with industry employers. He gave me the skills to make myself extremely marketable to a few of my internship opportunities. Furthermore, he taught me many life lessons.”
Root Rot in Landscape Plants, The Education Store
Ask The Expert: Tree Inspection, Purdue Extension- FNR YouTube Channel
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Surface Root Syndrome, The Education Store, Purdue Extension resource center
The Nature of Teaching: Trees of the Midwest, The Education Store
Tree Appraisal and the Value of Trees, The Education Store
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ID That Tree: Northern Red Oak
ID That Tree: Red Oak Group
Hardwood Lumber and Veneer Series: Red Oak Group
Morton Arboretum: Northern Red Oak
Red Oak, Native Trees of Indiana River Walk, Fort Wayne Purdue
Fifty Trees of the Midwest app for the iPhone, The Education Store
Native Trees of the Midwest, The Education Store
Shrubs and Woody Vines of Indiana and the Midwest, The Education Store
Investing in Indiana Woodlands, The Education Store
Forest Improvement Handbook, The Education Store
ID That Tree, Purdue Extension-Forestry & Natural Resources (FNR) YouTube playlist
Woodland Management Moment, Purdue Extension-FNR YouTube playlist
Wendy Mayer, FNR Communications Coordinator
Purdue University Department of Forestry and Natural Resources