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Published June 29, 2010, 01:16 PM

Evergreens on the prairie

TOLNA, N.D. — North Dakota prairie is known for many things, but evergreen trees aren’t among them.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

TOLNA, N.D. — North Dakota prairie is known for many things, but evergreen trees aren’t among them.

Lundeby Evergreens & Manufacturing in Tolna, N.D., has been working to change that for nearly half a century.

“People usually don’t associate evergreens with North Dakota, I suppose, but we’ve had success with them,” says Fred Lundeby, who heads the family company.

His wife, Leah, and son, Brandon, also are active in the business.

The North Dakota location might even be a plus because it makes Lundeby trees hardier.

The company grows nine varieties of evergreens that it sells to retail nurseries around the the region. Some of the evergreens in residential yards across the northern Great Plains came from Tolna.

Lundeby Evergreens also provided some of the evergreens along interstate highways in the region.

The company’s manufacturing arm produces a plant lifting machine, the Lundeby Plant Lifter, that’s sold to nurseries internationally. The device, developed in 1990, safely removes from the soil small plants and shrub that are replanted elsewhere.

The plant lifter accounts for about 35 to 40 percent of overall sales.

The business dates to 1962, when Fred Lundeby’s father, Iver, began growing evergreens in Cando, N.D., in the north-central part of the state, where he sold insurance.

In the 1970s, the Lundebys began planting trees in Tolna, where Iver had family roots, and the business eventually moved there.

Lundeby Evergreens & Manufacturing’s buildings and storage sites are in the valley along the Sheyenne River. More than 100,000 trees are planted on about 100 acres in the valley and the prairie above.

Surrounding the entire operation is a sturdy, 8-foot-high, nearly 4-mile-long fence built in 2005 to keep out deer.

Planning ahead

Trees, planted as seedlings, are removed from the ground for resale when their height reaches anywhere from 18 inches to 9 feet. Growing trees that don’t measure up genetically are culled.

Deciding when to remove and sell the remaining trees can be tricky.

Bigger trees generally fetch a higher price. But trees need more room as they grow, so fields must be thinned annually.

Lundeby is balancing what customers want now and what he thinks they’ll want in the future.

If he sells a lot of trees of a particular height and variety one year, he’ll have fewer trees of that variety to sell in subsequent years when they’re bigger.

But the present takes precedence.

“If somebody wants to buy trees now, I’m not going to turn him down,” Lundeby says.

Even trickier is deciding how many trees of each variety to plant.

A new planting of evergreens stays in the ground four to 10 years, so planting decisions are critical.

Springs are busy

Trying to anticipate customer demand years in the future is a challenge, Lundeby says.

“That’s the real balancing act,” he says.

On a recent afternoon, Lundeby and his crews are removing trees from the soil and preparing them for transport to customers.

There’s a special urgency to the work. The first half of May was wet, limiting the time available to remove trees. Just like a grain farmer during a rain-delayed harvest, Lundeby wants to make good progress while the weather allows.

Some of the work is mechanized. Specialized digging equipment attached to tractors — some modified so that they can travel safely over the tops of growing evergreens — lifts trees from fields.

There’s also a great deal of manual labor, including carefully bundling each tree’s roots and surrounding dirt in burlap. If the job isn’t done properly, the trees have less chance of surviving the wait until they’re replanted.

Dan Cashman of Cashman Nursery and Landscaping in Bismarck, N.D., says he’s been buying trees from Fred and Iver, who died 10 years ago, for decades.

“They’re honest, they work hard, their prices are competitive, and the quality of their trees is good,” he says.

Only rarely does a tree from the Tolna operation die after it’s replanted by a customer, he says.

“That’s the thing. Their trees grow,” Cashman says.