Growing Christmas Trees

On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions
on December 4, 2005

Craig Lee prepares for Christmas year-round, devoting 12 months–and up to 12 years–planting, fertilizing and shearing the beautiful, conical-shaped symbols of the Dec. 25 holiday.

Lee grows and sells Christmas trees, and each year his crews cut, shake and bale more than 2,500 evergreens on his family's farm in Tualatin, Ore. (pop. 22,791).

"We do about 70 percent of our business for the year on the first two weekends in December," says Lee, 47, standing alongside the tractor he uses to haul trees off his 25-acre plantation. Behind him, heads bob among the branches as tree-seekers wander along the rows of Fraser and Noble fir and the 10 other varieties of Christmas trees grown at Lee Farms.

Like many tree buyers, Barbara Monaghan takes her time selecting the perfect tree. "It's got to have a good smell, and I look for trees with good balance and symmetry," says Monaghan, who lives nearby in Lake Oswego, Ore. (pop. 35,278). "I prefer the Grand fir. I think it's got the nicest aroma."

Each year about 25 million fresh-cut Christmas trees are purchased in the United States, and about a third of those trees come from Oregon. The Beaver State is the nation's largest Christmas tree producer, followed by North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, respectively.

The rich soil, moist, temperate climate and available land make Oregon prime evergreen-growing territory, says Bryan Ostlund, executive secretary of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association. But come Christmastime, 90 percent of the trees grown on Oregon's 775 farms are hauled to-and sold in-other states.

"Most of our trees end up in places like California, Texas, Arizona and the other dry and arid states," says Mark Wonser, 52, a tree wholesaler who grows Noble, Douglas and Grand fir on 120 acres in Estacada, Ore. (pop. 2,371). He sells an average of 20,000 trees a year, most of them before Thanksgiving, to large retail clients such as Home Depot and urban tree lot owners.

The first Christmas trees
Today's distribution channels are sophisticated compared with the ox sleds used by farmer Mark Carr to haul the first Christmas conifers into New York City for sale in 1851. The first Christmas trees actually appeared around 1510, in Eastern Europe. By the 18th century, German soldiers had introduced American families to the tradition of decorating der Tannenbaum, or fir tree.

Commercially cultivated trees gained in popularity during the Great Depression when nurserymen, unable to sell their stock of landscape evergreens, harvested the trees for Christmas. Customers preferred the refined shape of the trees to the straggly, wild ones, and the Christmas tree business boomed.

Annually, about 25 percent of American households purchase a fresh-cut evergreen, either from a tree lot or one of the 5,000 select-and-cut farms across the United States. That means holidays are hectic for growers who begin harvesting evergreens in the first part of November. But the work starts long before harvest time.

Growers usually plant seedlings after the last hard freeze, typically in February. Wonser uses a planting machine-a plow-like device pulled behind a tractor-to make a furrow for a worker to drop in a seedling. But many farmers do the job manually, often planting thousands of trees in multiple fields.

During harvest season, helicopters are sometimes used to lift loads of conifers out of the field. "But most everything else is done by hand," says Barbara Hupp, 68, who, along with her husband and son, owns Drakes Crossing Nursery, a 400-acre wholesale farm in Silverton, Ore. (pop. 7,414).

Conical shape
The average Christmas tree grows to a height of 6 feet in seven to nine years. During that time, the trees are regularly fertilized and sprayed to deter pests. The backbreaking chore of cutting the lower branches off the tree to create a bare trunk begins two years after the seedling is in the ground. Annual shearings begin in the third year. Using clippers or knives, growers cut the budding branches so that limbs become fuller and the tree takes on a conical shape.

The dense Douglas fir is the most popular Christmas tree nationwide, Ostlund says. They grow faster, require less stringent care and are more affordable. They also are available from farms across the United States.

But the Noble fir, which grows only in the Pacific Northwest, and the Fraser fir are gaining in popularity.

"Everybody wants Nobles now," says George Diamond, 54, who owns the 20-acre St. Nick's Christmas Tree Farm in Oregon City, Ore. (pop. 25,754), with his wife Paula. "I think they are more special, but these aren't the old-fashioned Nobles. It's not a Charlie Brown tree where you can see through its branches anymore. These are rich in color and full-bodied."

The Diamonds sell about 700 trees annually from their select and harvest farm and market another 1,000 wholesale. They plan to expand their you-cut business, because, they say, it's more fun come Christmastime.

"It's a real family thing," Diamond says. "Families have a good time out here. That's fun for us too, to have a product that people love. People get so happy with the trees. It's just fun hanging out with them."

"You-cut" doesn't necessarily mean you do the work, though. Many choose-and-harvest sites in Oregon, including St. Nick's and Lee Farms, cater to customers by providing saws, and even staff members, to cut down trees. Some places offer refreshments while workers bale the tree and tie it on top of your car.

But most growers stay out of the selection process. "The tree thing is always so personal," says Paula Diamond, 53, laughing. "Even with our family-we still argue-and we have 30,000 trees to choose from."

When a family finally does choose a tree from the farm, that's the reward for years of labor, Craig Lee says. "It's so gratifying when you have a perfect 8-foot tree that somebody really loves. It just makes the work worth it."

He leans down to touch the silvery-blue needles of a Fraser fir and smiles as he talks. "I think these are the most fragrant," he says, putting his fingers to his nose.

"And I think that smell is part of our fixation with Christmas trees. When you open the door of your home and you smell that tree-that's Christmas."