Posted 11/9/2021By Susan Thompson Lake Panorama Times
Larry and Heather Isom grew up in California, her on the coast and him near Death Valley. They met as employees at a local pizzeria in San Luis Obispo where he was attending Cal Poly University. They married in 1998 and moved to the Midwest two years later.
Sixteen years ago, they settled into a home on Lake Panorama’s Burchfield Cove. Larry is director of engineering at Power Lift in Jefferson. Heather is trained in interior design but “retired” in 2009 when their daughter was born. The couple now has two children. Danica is 12 years old, and Clint is 8.
Larry’s father’s retirement plan was to own and operate a tree farm. Roland and Laura Isom learned to love Iowa when they visited Larry and Heather from their home in California.
“His retirement plan was planting 1,200 sugar maple trees,” says Larry. “Dad worked civil service as a programmer for the Navy for most of his career. My mom was a school teacher. In 2010, they bought the ‘Glades old place’ and started the tree farm.”
The tree farm is on Highway 25 north of Guthrie Center near Springbrook State Park. Larry and his father planted 1,200 sugar maples in 2010.
“He wanted to grow sugar maples because they are a nice, fast-growing hardwood tree, and because he wanted to produce maple syrup,” Larry says.
The 13 acres of land where the trees were planted was a pasture surrounded by mature trees on the east and west. The Middle Raccoon River, which flows into Lake Panorama, borders the south side of the tree farm. A house and large metal shed are on the north.
Although they had a tree farm in Iowa, Roland and Laura continued to live in California. Within a couple of years, Laura retired from teaching and made the tree farm her semi-permanent location. Larry’s sister also moved to Iowa and lives in the Cedar Falls area.
Roland continued to work and make frequent trips to Iowa. He retired in 2017 and moved to the tree farm. But he didn’t get to enjoy his retirement plan for long; he passed away just short of one year after retirement.
“I helped Dad lay out and plant those first 1,200 trees,” Larry says. “We had been helping him on the farm since then and started doing all the work after he passed.” Last year, Larry and Heather purchased the farm from his mother, who still lives in the house there.
One part of Roland Isom’s retirement plan was to make maple syrup, and he was able to do that for about five years with his son’s help. Larry and Heather have continued the process.
“The sap flows in sugar maple trees when the temperature is above freezing in the days and below freezing at night,” Larry says. “We start in mid-February and go to mid-March. We stop when the trees start to flower, because the sap turns very dark and has a bitter taste.”
It takes between 40 and 60 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. The sap is reduced over a wood-burning firepit, then moved to a cooktop in the shed. When it reaches 66 percent sugar, it is maple syrup, ready to be bottled and labeled. The Isoms maintain a list of previous customers, plus friends and family.
“We sell what we have on a first-come, first-serve basis,” Heather says. “It doesn’t last long.”
In 2017, the Isoms started tree planting again.
“We had lost about 50 percent of the original trees, many to flooding from the Raccoon River that left half of the tree field under water,” Larry says. “Since we had to replant, we added red, amur flame and silver maples.”
Tree planting now is an annual event with 18” tall, bare root trees shipped to them in boxes each spring and fall. Conifers are planted in the spring, and deciduous trees in the fall. The family plants 400 to 600 trees per year and has about 2,000 trees in the field now.
Four years ago, the Isoms planted their first Christmas trees, adding Scotch pine, white pine and fir.
“It was always part of the plan to grow our own Christmas trees,” Heather says. “Christmas is an important holiday in our family.”
Eventually the family will offer a “choose and cut” Christmas tree operation. Customers will stop in the heated shop to check in before going to the field to choose their tree. They will be able to either take a saw to cut down the tree themselves, or find what they want and have it cut for them.
“We should be able to start selling pine trees in three years,” says Larry. “Our goal is to get to a place where we can sell about 200 Christmas trees each year.”
Also in the shop will be a variety of wreaths, something that was sold for the first time last year. Heather and Danica are the wreath-makers in the family. Larry created a special corner in the heated shop for them.
“Last year we sold 15. This year we are aiming for 50 wreaths,” Heather says. “We love doing it together. Danica has quite a talent for decorating them. For now we buy ‘Charlie Brown’ trees from other tree farms, but once we get going we will have enough greenery on our farm for wreaths.” The pair already has several preorders and will have a booth at the Holiday Craft Fair in Panora the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Another part of the Isom Tree Farm business is transplanting trees people want moved on their property, plus selling and planting trees from their farm.
“We have 100 sugar maples available for sale now to plant for landscaping,” Larry says. “We move these with a tree spade. The cost is $300 for the tree and planting it within a 30-mile radius of the farm. Eventually, some of our Christmas trees also will be sold as windbreak trees.”
Tree transplanting is only done in the fall or spring and is most successful when done in the fall, Isom says. Spring is usually wetter, and that makes the process more challenging. He is taking orders now and expects to move trees from mid-October into December.
In addition to the farm, work and keeping up with their two children, Heather and Larry are active in the Iowa Christmas Tree Association where Larry serves on the board of directors. The family has both a ski boat and a pontoon on Lake Panorama and enjoy time on both. Larry, Danica and Clint all are members of the Lake Panorama ski team.
While Larry and Heather say running a tree farm wasn’t in their long-term plans, they both enjoy it. Larry says he just likes to “do stuff, and there’s always plenty to do here.”
“It’s good family time for us,” Heather says. “Bringing the kids to the farm gets them away from their screens and outside to enjoy the fresh air. They’ve turned into good helpers when we’re working in the field.”
For more information about purchasing trees, or having current trees moved, the Isoms say phone calls or texts are best. Larry can be reached at 641-757-9817, with Heather at 641-757-7882. The Isom Tree Farm also is on Facebook, plus has a website at IsomTreeFarm.com. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org