The hard work of preparing for Christmas is over by Thanksgiving for Casey Grogan.
But the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving — and especially the week before — are the busiest of the year.
Grogan is a Christmas tree farmer. He owns or leases some 500 acres in the Willamette Valley and grows hundreds of thousands of trees. In mid-November, he and other Oregon tree farmers are up from dawn to dusk harvesting, packing and shipping trees to vendors all over the world.
Oregon is the biggest Christmas tree producer in the United States. Growers and farmworkers harvested 4.7 million trees in 2017, according to the Pacific Northwest Association of Christmas Trees. Most of those trees were Noble firs, though Oregon also is the largest producer of Douglas firs in the country.
Some Oregon farms offer customers a chance to visit and chop down their own trees. Not Grogan. His trees are shipped across state and country lines, to places as close as Seattle and as far away as Mexico.
Vendors want trees in their lots by Thanksgiving. So the week before that is all-hands-on-deck.
The day starts at 7 a.m. Temperatures are only just beginning to climb above freezing. The gravel lot is blanketed with trees, already wrapped and tagged with different colored ribbon based on species and height.
Each tree will be lifted onto a conveyer belt. A team of 4-5 people rotate in the semi-trailer, hoisting the trees from the conveyer belt into the truck. The process is mechanical: lift, toss, wait, repeat.
Griselda Castillo tallies every tree on a piece of paper to ensure each retailer gets exactly what it ordered.
Noble firs are the most popular, both state-wide and at Grogan’s farm. They even give the farm its name: Silver Bells, named for the silvery-blue tint on Grogan’s signature Silver Bells Blue Noble fir.
The broader species are native to the Pacific Northwest, Grogan said, but the Silver Bells Blue he grows are a result of the tree’s migration to Denmark more than 100 years ago. Danish horticulturists grew trees from seeds they brought from the Pacific Northwest and selectively kept the “best” ones: blue needles, good needle retention, layered branches.
Nobles are the “high-end” Christmas tree, Grogan said. They smell good, look good and hold their needles well.
Douglas fir, on the other hand, is the “every-man” Christmas tree. They grow more quickly and cost less to produce. Unlike their Noble brethren, Douglas firs can grow at lower elevations and in warmer temperatures.
Newer to the scene are Nordmann firs. They are the Goldilocks choice of Christmas trees. They hold needles well, like Nobles, but they aren’t as fragrant. They’re more green than slivery-blue, but share Nobles’ distinct, full, Christmas tree shape. They're more “grower-friendly" than Nobles because they are more resilient but prettier than Douglas firs.
Nordmann firs were just 4% of Oregon’s Christmas tree stock in 2017; but their popularity is increasing, Grogan said.
The life cycle of a tree and a tree farm
Joel Amaral remembers his first day on the job, in the first field of trees he ever planted.
It was 1991. He was 26 years old.
More than 30 years later, Grogan considers him his “right-hand man.” He has planted countless trees since then. And Amaral’s grown rather fond of them all.
“Taking care of trees, year after year,” Amaral said, standing in a field of freshly-cut trees waiting to be wrapped. “They’re our babies.”
Amaral and his coworkers — three others year-round, more during harvest season — meet the trees as seedlings. Tree seeds spend around two years, sometimes three, in the ground at the next-door nursery. The small seedlings are then planted in a freshly-prepared field — side-by-side, but not too close. Trees need good air flow to grow well, Grogan said.
They grow slowly at first, Grogan said. Then, at year five or six, they start to “really stretch.”
Amaral and his team play a direct role in shaping these trees into the perfect, cone-shaped Christmas trees people have grown to love.
“These guys are artists,” Grogan said. "Trees are their canvas."
Evergreen trees’ branches grow in clusters, or whorls. Each branch on the top whorl, called a “leader,” carries buds that will eventually become their own branches.
Christmas tree farmers know how to clip buds depending on how they want the tree to grow. They literally shape each tree as it grows.
“You get into it,” Amaral said.
After eight years in the ground, the trees are harvested, packed, and shipped. But not all trees grown in the same field are ready at the same time. The ones that aren’t are left for another year or two, shaped, sheared, and given more time to grow. Then, in year 10 or 11, Grogan and his team will clear-cut the whole field and prepare it for the next batch.
It’s a long process. It also makes Christmas tree farming a hard and "high-risk" industry to get into since you don’t make money until you sell trees, Grogan said. And that can take a decade.
Grogan bought his farm from his parents, who still help with business and logistics sometimes.
“He’s the boss now,” his mom, Sally, said in the on-farm office that doubles as Grogan’s brother’s house. “At least, he thinks he is.”
But even with his family’s help and a degree in Agricultural Business from Oregon State University, Grogan said he still needed a new farmer loan to get started.
Grogan and the farm are the same age — 46. His parents bought it when he was six months old.
That it turned into a Christmas tree farm was almost an accident. Charlie and Sally Grogan bought a home on 20 acres in 1976, complete with a field of newly-planted Christmas trees. The family decided to grow the trees to maturity and quickly became enamored. Before long, they were full-time tree farmers.
Most “new” Christmas tree farmers these days are people who already farm something else and want to diversify, Grogan said.
It’s also an industry that was cut in half more than a decade ago. The 2008 recession hit Christmas tree farmers hard, Grogan said. Many farmers quit. The ones that remained had to scale back their operations.
Consumers didn’t feel the crunch until the next rotation cycle. Fewer trees planted in 2008 meant fewer trees for sale a decade later. Christmas tree prices soared. A tree in 2017 cost an average of $75, compared to $36 in 2008, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
These days, “you’re going to find a tree,” Grogan said. “It’s just going to cost more.”
The median price of a fresh cut tree last year was $69.50.
Climate and pests biggest threat
A couple of miles up the road from the main farm, another truck is brimming with freshly-cut trees to be taken back to the shipping lot. It’s an entirely different scene from the main property. This ground, comparatively, is bare.
“That,” Grogan says, pointing to a field that has been recently clear-cut, “will turn into that,” another field, freshly readied to plant.
The recession was the biggest change to the industry Grogan has seen. But there is another, slower change he and the industry must now confront: that of the climate.
Douglas fir is a more resistant tree. But Oregon’s beloved Nobles do best in cooler temperatures. The deadly heat dome in 2021 killed a whole field of Grogan's young trees.
“They held on for two or three days,” he said. But the were dead by the end of the last, and hottest, day.
Young trees are the biggest concern, the most vulnerable. Grogan said he just bought more land on a farm at an elevation of 1,700 feet to plant new trees.
“We’re trying to move uphill instead of down,” he said.
Nordmanns also are more resistant to heat and can handle the heavy rain that falls lower in the valley, Grogan said, which also may help explain their rise in popularity with growers. They also are more resistant to pests — trees' second-biggest threat.
Growing practices are always changing, Grogan said, but a warming climate is making those changes more urgent. Oregon State researchers are studying the growing practices that might be more resistant to heat, like applying fertilizer at the time of planting (instead of shortly after).
A few more acres away from the clear-cut field, Grogan drives by a field of seedlings. Most stand proud and green; but at least one in every row has turned that reddish-brown that signals death.
“I look at this field – yeah, there are a lot of dead trees,” Grogan said. “But I’m pretty happy with it. That’s just how it is. You just keep plugging, planting new ones.”
Trees 'make a house look alive'
Joel Amaral hasn’t had his own Christmas tree since his wife died three years ago. He spends Christmases in Mexico now.
But he used to get a tree every year. “They make a house look alive,” he said.
Grogan puts a tree in his house every year. Of course he does, he said.
Sometimes, like last year, he and his family pick and harvest a good one. Other years, they take the “Charlie Brown” tree — one that probably wouldn’t sell.
“They all look good decorated, anyway,” Grogan said.
What Grogan likes most about the holiday season, though, is to think about how many families will sit around his trees on Christmas morning.
Once, he remembers, he went to an Oregon State football game. There was a screen above the field that displayed the number of people in attendance: somewhere in the ballpark of 40,000 (OSU’s Reser Stadium can hold up to 43,000 people).
“It was almost equal to the number of trees we had cut that year,” Grogan said.
He looked out at the sea of people and imagined each and every one of them — plus their families — in front of one of his tree.
That felt good, he said.
Tips to care for your Christmas tree
Christmas trees can survive at least 40 days out of the ground, Grogan said — if you care for them properly.
Evergreen trees produce a “sap seal” that prevents water from being absorbed. The seal forms on the bottom of freshly-cut trees.
“They key is to put [trees] in water while the sap seal is still broken,” Grogan said.
The easiest way to do that is to re-cut the bottom of your tree before you put it in water. Just a few inches will do.
In the first couple of days, the tree will “chug” water, so water often, Grogan said.
When the season is over, recycle your tree or find a local organization who will take it off your hands in exchange for a suggested donation to a nonprofit.
Shannon Sollitt covers agricultural workers through Report for America, a program that aims to support local journalism and democracy by reporting on under-covered issues and communities. Send tips, questions and comments to email@example.com
This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: See a day in the life at an Oregon Christmas tree farm