POLK COUNTY — Families visit Suzanne Miller at Christmas Knoll Tree Farm in Rickreall year after year.
They come for their Christmas trees, but Miller offers so much more.
Little ones climb aboard the Noel Express, the make-believe train their parents use as the backdrop for holiday photos that chart the children’s growth. Miller provides a lodge with multiple decorated trees where people can warm up with hot chocolate and cookies.
Tractors pull wagons full of visitors armed with hand saws to thick groves of Douglas, Grand and Nordmann firs to select just the right Christmas tree.
Not this year.
This year, marking the second year in a row, the Noel Express stands silent and waits for its squealing little passengers to return. So does Suzanne Miller.
“It’s a really sad thing for me personally, and I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it,” she said.
Miller may be lonely, but she isn’t alone. Many Christmas tree growers in the area face a unnervingly quiet holiday season. For some, it’s yet another consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, discouraging both growers and customers from getting too close.
For others, including Miller, the reasons are purely agricultural.
Miller sold every tree of any size on the farm two years ago. Now her trees are too skimpy, she said. Without enough stock to open, she must close her farm for another year.
“Every tree that was taller than four feet sold,” Miller said. “We just don’t have the inventory of trees. The trees are just way too little. It’s really sad. I’ve been open for 22 years, and I now I have no trees for sale.”
The outlook for next year is uncertain, she added.
“I know we have to give our trees another year to fill out so we can open with a somewhat decent selection of trees in 2021,” she said. “Even so, we won’t have any really big trees next year.”
Beal Christmas Tree Farm on Oak Villa Road outside Dallas closed this year for similar reasons.
“We had our farm’s soil tested earlier this year,” owner Don Beal posted on social media. “We learned the soil needs amendments and fertilizers, otherwise the trees currently in the ground will begin to suffer, and any new trees we plant won’t do well.”
Beal said he and his wife Jo Ann will be clearing trees from several sections of their farm and selling them to a wholesale buyer.
“Any trees that remain will be in areas of our farm that are too dangerous to allow the public,” he said.
“We will be replanting a new crop of Christmas trees,” he added. “This is not a closure of our farm. It’s simply a pause while we plant a fresh crop of new trees.”
Meanwhile, Buddy Hagedorn reported business as usual at his Bigfoot Tree Farm off Clow Corner Road.
“We’re doing fine,” said Hagedorn. “We’re way busy because some of the other places aren’t selling this year, but we’re doing fine.”
Bigfoot Tree Farm, like many area operations, leans heavily toward the U-cut market. COVID-19 presents a challenge for people cutting their own Christmas trees, but Hagedorn said he isn’t too worried.
“We’ve got hand sanitizer and wipes and are just trying to keep everyone as safe as possible,” he said. “We’re trying to do all the right protocols.”
Chal Landgren, a Christmas tree specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service, said the experience of Polk County’s Christmas tree growers this year is typical.
“Some U-cut farms are closed this year with COVID,” Landgren said. “Others are open by ticketed entry only. Others are open as usual but with COVID distancing rules.”
One of the Christmas farms closed because COVID this year is Landgren’s own in Warren between Scappoose and St. Helens.
“We don’t want to be exposed to several hundred people over the course of a weekend, and we can’t really provide safety for others,” said his wife, Sue Landgren. “So if we can sell our trees wholesale, that’s what we need to do.”
Despite the experience of Miller and the Beals, Chal Landgren said Oregon’s supply of Christmas trees should be even better that last few years.
“The market overall is strong,” said Landgren, who is also a professor of forestry at OSU. “With folks staying home, they seem to want trees and decorations.”
Oregon usually leads the nation in Christmas tree production. However, in recent years, Landgren said drought and a shortage of seedlings resulted in demand outstripping supply — causing problems for growers like Miller.
Because of the pandemic, he said, Christmas tree growers have had to change the way they work.
Although it’s a seasonal item, Christmas tree production is a year-round operation. As late as March, tree farms had multiple workers traveling together in a single vehicle, Landgren said. That ended with pandemic restrictions and protocols that slowed down the work.
Buddy Hagedorn said he sympathizes with his fellow growers.
“It’s hard for small tree farms anymore,” he said.
Even though it’s business as usual at his place, Hagedorn added, most of the business comes from familiar faces who have made Bigfoot Tree Farm a tradition.
“We’re just not selling to a lot of other people,” he said.
Christmas Tree Tips
Chal Landgren, a professor of forestry as well as Christmas tree specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service, offers some Christmas tree tips.
To tell if a tree is fresh, look at the base to see if the needles are firmly attached.
Run your hand over a branch to see if needles are dry and break off easily.
Shake a branch to see if it moves easily. Branches should be flexible. Check the smallest branches, which dry out first.
Cut a little slice off the base if it’s been more than a few hours since the tree was cut.
Slice off the base and keep it in a bucket of water if it’s been a few days since you brought the tree home,
Use a tree stand that’s appropriate for the size of the tree.
Keep your tree watered. Don’t let it dry out, or it will start to lose needles. Don’t add anything to the water.
Don’t put the tree near any heat source.
Some trees last longer than others, Landgren said.
“Nordmann, Turkish and Noble can last all of December if kept watered,” he said. “Douglas fir, which are less expensive and have a distinctive Christmas scent, don’t last as long.”