That cutthroat competition defines the Christmas tree industry, a market that swings widely between boom and bust. Up to 50% of growers in Oregon and Washington went out of business. Others didnt sell, but couldnt continue caring for the trees.
The span between that hen and your living room is filled with a decade-long process to plant, grow, harvest and ship one of 6.4 million Christmas trees reaped each year from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the Christmas tree capital of the world. The system involves hundreds of people, most of whom work for one very short and intense period of the year, every year.
Foraging for Douglas fir cones (not pine cones, as multiple growers reminded me) is pretty simple. People collect the cones in the fall after the first good rain, when squirrels chew the cones off the trees. Teams will scout cones on the ground near healthy trees with good color and shape. They also look for caches of seeds that squirrels have stored away for the winter. (It’s not totally unfair to the squirrels; Oregon State University Christmas tree specialist Chal Landgren says the animals forget the location of their stash 90% of the time.)
Come May, it’s time to plant those seeds. Over the course of the next 18 months, Jan and his crew will watch over the emerging plants as their green shoots poke through the dark-brown soil. They’ll cut the roots, encouraging them to grow outward rather than downward. They’ll water them once or twice per week through the summer, lest they dehydrate and get the Christmas tree equivalent of a sunburn.
Most Christmas trees don’t come from Oregon, and most aren’t grown as described in this article. There are dozens of species of Christmas trees that are nurtured in every state. Thirty-three million trees were sold last year in the United States, from tiny lots in Manhattan to big box stores that sell millions apiece.
It’s not just that Oregon has a the right climate to grow the trees (though it does) or that a state historically reliant on logging would continue to produce trees as products. Oregon is where the modern Christmas tree industry in America was born, thanks to a Nebraskan-born farmer named Hal Schudel.
In Hal Schudel’s 96 years on earth, he served as a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II, earned a doctorate in agricultural philosophy, raised three sons, bred champion quarter horses and Black Angus cattle. He also fundamentally changed our idea of what a Christmas tree should look like. Hal’s innovation took us from the hunter-gatherer age of Christmas trees into today’s massive Christmas tree agricultural complex.
Hal’s insight became Holiday Tree Farms, which started as 300 acres and now reaches 8,500 acres, is one of the two largest Christmas tree operations in the world, trading off with McKenzie Farms, also in Oregon. Holiday Tree Farms is still held by Hal’s family, and this year will ship over one million Christmas trees. Read more…