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Cassens Trees Provides Learning Ground for FNR Student Workers

Dan Cassens with 2021 Grand Champion tree at the Indiana State FairIn 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, 2011 wood products manufacturing technology alumnus, splitting a burl at Cassens Tree farm

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.Charlie Warner, 2021 forestry alumnus, helping with log cutting at Cassens Trees

“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.”

Wyatt Crowel, 2022 forestry alum, also said that he found more than a job working with Cassens.

“I first met Dan at the beginning of my senior year when he was looking for some extra help around the Christmas tree farm before the busy season started,” Crowel said. “A couple of my friends were already working for him and mentioned that he needed some more help if I was interested, so I gave him a call and Wyatt Crowel, 2022 forestry alumnus, cutting some trees at Cassens Treeshe was more than happy to have me out to the farm to talk about what all he needed help with. From there, I was just doing minor things like some chainsaw work and cleaning up around the place before we opened for business, but that was the best time because Dan was right there helping out and keeping up with me, all while telling me stories about things that had happened at the farm and throughout his life.

“I probably learned a lot more working for him that I would have in the classroom. My time spent at the tree farm was probably the best job I’ve ever had, not because of the work, but because of all the lessons and good times I had with Dan and the other workers. Dan is one of the most intelligent people I have met, but he’s not one to shove it in your face. He’s one that wants to share it and is blessed with the gift of sharing it with those around him, and that may be about Christmas trees, hardwoods, or just life in general. Dan left a lasting impact on me, and I couldn’t have asked for a better boss or better yet, a mentor, to guide me through my senior year before graduation.”

Cassidy Robinson, a 2020 forestry alumna, received an out of the blue call from a friend to work for Cassens and ended up working at the farm for three years.

“I, like most people, am a lover of Christmas, and as a forestry student, am also a lover of trees, so what a good match a Christmas tree farm would be for me,” Robinson explained. “I called Vicki Cassens and we chatted on the phone for a while and she told me to come out to the farm one evening so she could train me to work in the shop and if I did a good job, I was hired. I spent the next three Christmas seasons after that with the Cassens, finishing out my college career there. It is difficult for me to talk about Dan without Dan and Vicki Cassensalso talking about Vicki. That is due in part to the fact that a lot of my time was spent helping her in the shop, decorating wreaths, ringing up customers and refilling shelves, but mostly it is due to the fact that they are such a team, one that complements each other in every way and it is hard to separate one from the other.

“I don’t know if it was the magic of Christmas, the nearing end of a semester or all of the chilly fall air, but all of us working on the farm always seemed to be in harmony and unison. I don’t remember a time through the three seasons I worked there where there were any arguments or frustration. We were all having fun working and, looking back, I think a lot of that can be credited to Dan’s expectation of hard work and his leadership. Dan would train and instruct in a clear and helpful way, and then he would walk away to let us learn from experience with the expectation that we would get the job done right. Having a boss that guides you but then trusts you to do things on your own is very motivating.”

It is that personal touch of the Cassens and the lessons they have taught that have remained with those students who have worked for them.

“When you ask what do I think of Dan as a boss? I don’t think of him as that, I think of him as a grandpa figure that I never truly had,” Charlie Warner said. “Dan is someone who will always have an answer to a problem you might have, someone who you learn a little bit about everything from (especially wood products and forestry), but also someone who will not stop at anything to go out of his way to help you get off to the right start in life and point you towards a bright future. He is extremely fun to work with and for and he does way more than just provide you with a couple extra bucks in your pocket. The time I have spent with him, I would not trade for the world.”

The 2019 Cassens Trees crew with Dan and Vicki CassensCody Moore, a 2022 forestry alum, said Cassens was invested in his education both at and away from the tree farm in his three years as an employee.

“First off, Dan was a great influence on my career goals as a forester,” Moore said. “He opened my eyes up more to the wood products industry and wood ID of course. Secondly, it was nice to see how being self-employed can be made possible as a forester, through both his Wood-Mizer business and the Christmas tree farm. And lastly, he took education very seriously and would constantly ask me how school was going and what classes I may have been struggling with.”

Cassens trees have been recognized with awards and honors across the state and have even been featured on the statehouse rotunda. In 2021, the Cassens produced the Grand Champion tree for the fourth time at the Indiana State Fair contest. The Cassens’ Canaan fir and Spruce trees each won first place at the fair and their undecorated wreath took second. The blue-ribbon Canaan fir won Best of Show and qualified to take part in a national contest. 

Despite the success of the tree farm and any accolades that may come, it is Dan Cassens’ selfless natureCassidy Robinson with Ed and Amy Oehlman delivering a Cassens tree to the state capitol. and interest in others that shine bright.

“One of my favorite memories each year was Dan’s birthday,” Robinson said. “It is right in the middle of the Christmas season and every year Vicki would want to do something special for him and every year he would not want to make a big deal about it.  His birthday was just another day to him, if it wasn’t for Vicki, none of us would have known that it was his special day. Those memories always bring a smile to my face and I am reminded of how humble Dan is. He was always working in the background, never wanting the attention or recognition. The first year I worked there, three of us got to take one of the Cassens trees to the state capitol. It was a big deal and you would think Dan would want to be there for the photo shoot, but he just let us kids have all the fun while he stayed home to run the farm.

“Dan is an entrepreneur, a businessman, running his farm to make a living. But he runs his operation generously. Dan invests his time in the students that work on his farm and he values every one of us. I value Dan’s wisdom, humility, work ethic, leadership, and generosity. He has been a reference on my resume ever since I graduated, but not only is he a reference on my resume, but unbeknownst to him, he is also a reference that I look to when I think of the kind of person I want to be.”

The impact of the Cassens and time students spend at the tree farm extends well beyond their college years, 2020 forestry alumna Amy (Hanners) Oehlman said. 

"Dan and Vicki were both great bosses to have, but what's even better is having them as friends now," said Oehlman, who began working at Cassens Trees at the suggestion of now husband Ed Oehlman in 2018. "It was definitely like a family. They created a work environment that didn't feel much like work at all. Edward and I started dating while working at Cassens and still have very tight friendships with the people we worked with there. I remember my first Christmas season not working there and not smelling a barn full of pre-cut Christmas trees, it just felt like something was missing.

"And even after the Christmas season ended, those of us that didn't work year round were included in things. For example, in the spring they would always have everyone over for a celebration for the graduating seniors, which was not complete without Dan's great jambalaya cooking over the fire. Dan and Vicki have both been references for me on jobs after college and they were invited to our wedding. We currently live in southern Indiana and made the 2-plus hour drive to pick out a Christmas tree for our first Christmas married last year. I think it's safe to say that our time working there really left an impression on us."

A collage of photos from Cassens Trees, a family tree farm run by Dr. Dan and Vicki Cassens. Top row (Left to right):  Cassens Trees shop with FNR students Amy Hanners, Cassidy Robinson, and Phoebe Habeck showing off their handiwork; Ed Oehlman, Dan Cassens, Logan Wells, and Damon McGuckin taking a tree from Cassens Trees to the Statehouse; Ed Oehlman, Logan Wells, Damon McGuckin, and Dan Cassens at a jambalaya cookout at Cassens Trees farm; Ed Oehlman, Damon McGuckin, Dan Cassens, and Logan Wells taking a sleigh ride in Cassens Trees barn; Dan and Vicki Cassens taking one of their big trees to the Statehouse Rotunda. Second row (L to R): 2019 Cassens Trees crew; Damon McGuckin with a large Concolor fir tree; Cassidy Robinson standing by two large wreaths; the 2022 Cassens Trees crew; Third row (L to R): Cassens Trees has large Fraser fir trees up to 20 feet tall; Alumni Jim Bradtmueller and Michael Triche vising Dan Cassens at Cassens Trees in the summer of 2022; Wyatt Crowel cutting some trees from Cassens Trees. A collage of photos from Cassens Trees, a family tree farm run by Dr. Dan and Vicki Cassens. Top row (Left to right): Cassens Trees shop with FNR students Amy Hanners, Cassidy Robinson, and Phoebe Habeck showing off their handiwork; Ed Oehlman, Dan Cassens, Logan Wells, and Damon McGuckin taking a tree from Cassens Trees to the Statehouse; Ed Oehlman, Logan Wells, Damon McGuckin, and Dan Cassens at a jambalaya cookout at Cassens Trees farm; Ed Oehlman, Damon McGuckin, Dan Cassens, and Logan Wells taking a sleigh ride in Cassens Trees barn; Dan and Vicki Cassens taking one of their big trees to the Statehouse Rotunda. Second row (L to R): 2019 Cassens Trees crew; Damon McGuckin with a large Concolor fir tree; Cassidy Robinson standing by two large wreaths; the 2022 Cassens Trees crew; Third row (L to R): Cassens Trees has large Fraser fir trees up to 20 feet tall; Alumni Jim Bradtmueller and Michael Triche vising Dan Cassens at Cassens Trees in the summer of 2022; Wyatt Crowel cutting some trees from Cassens Trees.

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