BY PETE SPRINGER
Mollala, OR November 21, 2008 5:56 a.m.
Thanksgiving is still nearly a week away but some Oregon tree farmers have been preparing for Christmas for some time.
More Christmas trees are grown in Oregon than in any other state in the country. Oregon growers will harvest about eight million Christmas trees this year.
Most of those trees will go to California where they can sell for $80 to $100 a tree in places like San Diego.
Pete Springer visited a Christmas tree farm in Mollala.
Audio: Dogs barking/panting in the field
Gayla Hansen: “Knock it off!”
Pete Springer: “So will they do that all day?”
Gayla Hansen: “You know, they’ll get pretty tired here in a little bit.”
For Buddy and Jake--two very happy Jack Russell Terriers-- harvest time is all about fun.
For the tree harvesting crew though, it’s a living.
Gayla Hansen oversees a crew cutting down trees on her 40-acre farm outside Mollala.
Gayla Hansen: “Yeah, these will get put into slings, which they’re doing up here and then a helicopter will come and fly them out of the field for bailing and loading.”
Hansen and her husband started growing Christmas trees in the early 90’s. This year, they’ll harvest about three thousand trees.
It’s a year round job-- it's not just planting trees and waiting for them to grow.
Gayla Hansen: “Every year you have to go through and kind of trim them up—we side shear them and the top sometimes it has pretty amazing growth, and obviously you have to do something with that long leader at the top of the tree to hold growth back and make the tree fill in a little bit.”
There’s also weed and pest control to deal with, and the occasional deer or elk that decides to eat the tops off trees.
But it’s harvest time when everything comes together and crews put in the most hours. Cut trees are hauled by helicopter to a landing. That's where they get a good shaking by a device mounted on the back of a tractor.
Gayla Hansen: “It shakes out any loose needles, yellow jackets, spiders—you know, anything that had been living in the tree out in the field.”
The next step is to wrap the tree limbs up with a mechanical baler before loading them onto a truck.
Gayla Hansen: “When we get done loading it, we’ll take it down to the ice plant in Molalla and make sure they stay fresh and cold and hydrated.”
These trees are headed for Mexico, where about 13-percent of Oregon Christmas trees will be shipped this year. But most Oregon trees end up in California. They’re shipped in refrigerated trucks to keep them fresh.
Bryan Ostlund is with the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association.
He says during the peak of tree harvesting, there will be more than 10,000 people working in Oregon to get the trees to market.
Ostlund says the Christmas tree industry actually benefits from the soft economy.
Bryan Ostlund “Christmas trees, when the economy is down, generally sell very well because people are staying home, they’re not traveling as much, kind of an importance of family and friends in holiday celebrations.”
Despite popular belief, the idea of Christmas trees did not come from Pagan rituals. In fact, the first Christmas trees are believed to have originated in 17th century Germany.
It took two centuries for the idea to catch on in the U.S.
The first White House Christmas tree was put up in the 1850’s, but the nation’s first Christmas tree farm wasn’t started until 1901 -- in New Jersey.
Now close to 30 million Christmas tress are sold each year in the U.S.
Bryan Ostlund with Tree Association says Oregon even sells trees to Canada.
Bryan Ostlund “I think it’s part of that process that we go through in the holiday season, getting ready for Christmas. And there’s kind of almost a ritual for how things happen and it’s different with each family but Christmas trees have played a very central role in all of that and that’s just something that survived time.”
Back on Gayla Hansen’s tree farm, it’s no surprise she agrees with that statement.
Gayla Hansen: “It’s a family activity I think is precious, it’s priceless.”
In fact, Hansen usually has three Christmas trees in her house for the holidays.
Gayla Hansen “I’ve been known to keep up my Christmas tree sometimes even until the first of February. I just hate to get rid of it!”
© 2008 OPB