By Glenda Winders
It’s too bad the Disney parks have laid claim to the phrase “happiest place on Earth” because I would make the argument that the title rightfully belongs to Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Neb.
This is where the Arbor Day commemoration took root, and it’s also where those tiny trees in plastic tubes come from when people make donations to the cause of reforestation — the Arbor Day Foundation’s No. 1 goal. There’s a cheerful, wholesome feeling around the farm that seems to begin with the employees. From the engineer who runs the heating system at the lodge to the tractor driver in the orchards and the guides who teach visitors about the trees, there is a sense that people really do — to borrow from Disney again — whistle while they work.
“Our vision is to be a leader in recognizing how trees are a solution to climate change,” said Doug Farrar, vice president of the farm. “It’s beautiful and peaceful here. I love my job.”
Today the 260-acre farm in the hills of the Missouri River Valley is a bustling hive of agricultural research and visitors coming to explore the forest. But it began more simply when J. Sterling Morton, who would eventually become President Grover Cleveland’s secretary of agriculture, staked a claim in the essentially treeless Nebraska Territory in the mid 1800s. He and his wife, Carrie, built a modest home that would grow as their success did. Then they began populating the prairie with trees. While Morton worked as editor of the local newspaper, his passion was to teach people about agriculture and forestry. Eventually he founded Arbor Day, which was first celebrated on April 10, 1872, and continues to the present on the last Friday of April — this year the 25th.
While the 52-room mansion, modeled after the White House and called Arbor Lodge, is a separate property, it is easily accessible from the farm. Tours are available on summer and fall weekends.
The two hubs of activity on the actual farm are Lied Lodge (more about that later) and the Tree Adventure attraction, which is where the fun happens. It begins at the Woodland Pavilion, where visitors of all ages can watch an entertaining movie about the role trees have played in major motion pictures and learn more at interactive educational kiosks.
From there they can hike deep into the woods on a series of connected trails, play in the 50-feet-high Canopy Tree House or examine a bee hive, animal bones, and leaf and seed collections at the Nature Explore Club Cabin. During Arbor Day weekend and Nebraska City’s Applejack Festival in September (this year the 19th and 20th) they can also climb trees in the safety of a harness. And guests are always welcome to visit the greenhouse where a quarter of a million seedlings are grown and prepared for shipping each year.
At the Discovery Ride Depot, they climb aboard a tractor-drawn wagon to ride through the orchards and fields and learn about a variety of conservation practices. A stop at the Preservation Orchard yields samples of heirloom apples, wine-tasting, apple-tasting and caramel apples, and the farm’s signature apple cider slushies wait at the Apple House Market and Pie Garden Cafe.
“It’s edu-tainment for ages 4 to 84,” Farrar said. “We want people to take action, to think and act differently.”
Groups of visitors who come for meetings, retreats or reunions can prearrange vineyard tours, wine-tasting, a tree-identification tour, apple- or cherry-picking (in season), a hayride or private bonfire complete with s’mores. They can also plan commemorative tree plantings for special occasions. The original Morton Barns have been restored to accommodate weddings and other special events.
Guests are also welcome to observe the experimental areas of the farm. Currently there is a 16-acre hazelnut field, where researchers are working to combine the best characteristics of several species to produce a strain suitable to many environments. The nuts are nutritious for both humans and animals, and the goal is to grow them in less-than-ideal climates, thus making them an alternative to traditional row crops.
Promoting the growth of shade-grown coffee in Central and South America is another project in which farm researchers are involved. In this way they can help save rainforests that would otherwise be cut down to make way for sunshine. The achievement of this goal would maintain the habitats of rainforest wildlife and the source of many medicinal plants.
But back to Lied Lodge. Staying right on the property is part of the fun, and being at this “hotel” has a camplike feel despite creature comforts such as a spa, Olympic-size indoor swimming pool and nearby 18-hole Arborlinks golf course. The types of wood in the different rooms are identified — the Timber Dining Room, for example, is built from butternut and the Upper Lobby of pecan. Guests are invited to curl up by a fireplace in the Library Lounge, perhaps with a glass of wine and a book they’ve chosen from the nature-related library.
The lodge was built of timbers from forests that utilize Forest Stewardship management plans, and the windows, lighting and plumbing systems are all designed to be energy- and water-efficient. In the dining room, the chef cooks with locally grown produce and serves wines from the property. At the conference center office supplies are all environment-friendly. Every guest room has a set of recycling bins, and even the room keys are made from recycled PVC. The whole place is kept cool in the summer and warm in the winter by a biomass heating and cooling plant that utilizes wood chips sourced from old wooden shipping pallets. Visitors are encouraged to take a self-guided tour of the plant, which is open until 7 p.m. every day.
The learning and fun that go on here are worth the trip, but it’s also nice to know that every dime travelers spend goes toward the foundation’s mission of planting, nurturing and celebrating trees. Not all the trees they grow are here, of course. The foundation funds forests across the nation from which trees are transported to reforest areas devastated by natural disasters such as fires and tornadoes.
As an added bonus, every person who visits goes home with a tree to plant. Not bad to go on vacation and come home with a way to help save the world!
WHEN YOU GO
Visitors to Arbor Day Farm fly into Omaha and then make a 45-minute drive south. The farm is an easy addition to an Omaha trip or a visit to Lincoln, the state capital. Nebraska City is small but has a surprising number of museums and art galleries that are worth a look.
The farm is located at 2611 Arbor Ave., Nebraska City, Neb. The lodge is open all the time, and summer hours for the Tree Adventure are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for children 3-12. The Discovery Ride has an additional charge of $4 for adults and $3 for children.
For more information about joining the foundation or visiting the farm: www.arbordayfarm.org.
Travel and Adventure: Good times, good deed at Arbor Day Farm
By Glenda Winders