'A little secret hideaway': Sunset Christmas Tree Farm a place to make holiday memories

MANSFIELD — Sunset Christmas Tree Farm is easily Mansfield's best-kept holiday secret. It all began 14 years ago when owners Justin Lamb and Kevin Dyer of Mahomet were looking for a place to start a landscaping business.

They opened Sunset Landscaping and Trees after deciding to branch out on their own. They had previously worked together for a different landscaper.

"We just kind of stumbled upon the property," Lamb said. "It was an existing Christmas tree farm."

The 1417 E. 2950 North Road site was the "perfect" base to build the landscaping business and an already-established Christmas tree farm was a win-win for the duo as its business started up at just the perfect time when the landscapers' season wound down.

"As we slow down in the fall, it's a great time to sell Christmas trees and end our season strong," Lamb said.

The two sell Christmas trees, ranging in height from 5 to 12 feet, from the Friday following Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve. They are open each Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

"Usually we don't make it to the last weekend before Christmas because we're out of trees and there's not too many people," Lamb joked.

The Christmas tree farm holds both Fraser and Concolor Firs from North Carolina with a few trees in the field for those families who make the tree-hunting business an annual tradition.

"We try to keep a handful of trees out in our field for people who love to come and choose and cut their own tree," he said. "We're trying to keep it going, but for us it's easier just to buy 'em in and people love these trees more than the field trees anyway because the Fraser Firs don't grow very well around here in our soil."

Over the years, the landscapers have had their fair share of funny moments. But perhaps the funniest was while cutting down a "monster" Christmas tree for a family, all too similar to the scene right out of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

"We had trouble (cutting it down)," Lamb said while laughing. "We shake 'em and wrap 'em and get all of that stuff taken care of for 'em and then we tie 'em to their car. Well, we get out to their car and it's this little compact car, and I swear the tree weighed more than the car did and we ended up tying it to the top of the car; it was hilarious."

Christmas trees aside, the best part of running such an operation are the memories made on the farm.

"We both come from big families, close families and it's a family experience to come out here," Lamb said. "People pick out their Christmas tree and it's not like going to a big box store where you just go and grab something. We like to make it like a family outing."

His favorite part?

Watching area community members make memories of their own.

"People come out and they have their cameras and their video cameras and they pick out a tree, whether it's inside from our pre-cut trees or outside in the field — they can even go cut their own tree down," Lamb said. "It's a fun family experience.

"We have cookies and hot chocolate for everybody, and everybody is always in a good mood coming to pick out their Christmas tree," he added.

Not only do Lamb and Dyer enjoy making a place where families create memories, but now the two have children of their own to fill the farm.

"We both have big families. Kevin has four boys and I have two boys and a girl and they're to the ages now where they're becoming heavily involved out here and helping people pick out their trees and carrying trees around, so that's a lot of fun," Lamb said.

"It's pretty wild," he added. "In years that they were growing up, we'd have 'em all out here and they'd be hanging out in the office and eatin' cookies and we're trying to contain them, but now they're starting to be a big help; it's awesome."

Preparations always begin the week before Thanksgiving. The families make wreaths, swags, table-toppers and even roping and grave pillows.

Lamb and Dyer purchased 500 trees this year, a far cry from Year One's 35.

"We brought in like 35 or something to try them out and they were gone real quick," Lamb joked.

But the two aren't the only ones purchasing hundreds of Fraser Firs. Due to their rapid growth in popularity, Lamb said it's caused a nationwide shortage.

"They got so popular so fast that all of the suppliers, like North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin — the main three states that grow 'em — they ran into a period where they were running out of 'em," Lamb said. "They've got more growing and it takes years to grow like a 6- to 7-foot tree, so there's like a three- or four-year period where there's going to be a shortage, but we were able to scrounge up enough trees to get us through our season again this year."

Nothing beats the feeling when visitors greet the barn and farm each December.

"We have Christmas music playing on the speakers and we usually have a Christmas movie playing. We try to create the atmosphere," Lamb said. "I think it's pretty special."

But surprisingly, Lamb still says many simply don't know about the Christmas tree farm.

"It's a little secret hideaway not too far from Mahomet or even Champaign for that matter," he said. "I think it's a neat little retreat for people to come out and spend a couple of hours."

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