By Thanksgiving, Casey Grogan had completed the hard work of preparing for Christmas.
But the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, and especially the week before it, are the busiest of the year.
Grogan grows Christmas trees. He owns or leases about 500 acres of land in the Willamette Valley and grows hundreds of thousands of trees. In mid-November, he and other Oregon farmers stay up from dawn to dusk, picking, packing and shipping trees to vendors around the world.
Oregon is the largest producer of Christmas trees in the United States. Growers and farmers harvested 4.7 million trees in 2017, according to the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association. Most of these trees were noble firs, although Oregon is also the largest producer of Douglas firs in the country.
Some farms in Oregon offer customers the opportunity to visit their own trees and cut them down. Not Grogan. His trees are sent across state and country lines, to places like Seattle and even Mexico.
Sellers want trees on their lot by Thanksgiving. So the past week has been full of work.
The day starts at 7 am. The temperature is just starting to rise above zero. The gravel site is covered with trees, already wrapped and marked with colorful ribbons depending on the species and height.
Each tree will climb onto a conveyor belt. A team of 4-5 people rotates in a semi-trailer, lifting trees from a conveyor belt into a truck. The process is mechanical: lift, drop, wait, repeat.
Griselda Castillo counts each tree on a piece of paper to ensure each seller gets exactly what they ordered.
Noble spruces are the most popular both in the state and on the Grogan farm. They even gave the farm their name: Silver Bells, named after the silvery blue hue of Grogan’s signature Silver Bells Blue Noble fir.
The wider species are native to the Pacific Northwest, Grogan says, but the Silver Bells Blue he grows are the result of the tree’s migration to Denmark over 100 years ago. Danish gardeners grew trees from seeds brought from the Pacific Northwest and selectively kept the “best” of them: blue needles, good needle resistance, multi-layered branches.
According to Grogan, nobles are a “high class” Christmas tree. They smell good, look good, and hold needles well.
Douglas fir, on the other hand, is “every man’s” Christmas tree. They grow faster and are cheaper to produce. Unlike their noble cousins, Douglas firs can grow at lower altitudes and warmer temperatures.
New on the scene are Nordmann firs. This is Goldilocks’ choice for Christmas trees. They hold needles well, like Nobles, but not as fragrant. They are green rather than silvery blue, but have the distinct, full shape of a Nobles Christmas tree. They are more “friendly to grow” than noble firs because they are more hardy but more beautiful than Douglas firs.
In 2017, Nordmann fir trees made up just 4% of Christmas trees in Oregon; but their popularity is growing, Grogan said.
Tree life cycle and tree farm
Joel Amaral remembers his first day on the job when he first planted trees in a field.
It was 1991. He was 26 years old.
More than 30 years later, Grogan considers him his “right hand”. Since then, he has planted countless trees. And Amaral loved them all.
“Caring for the trees year after year,” said Amaral, standing in a field with freshly cut trees waiting to be packed. “These are our children.
Amaral and his colleagues – three others work year-round, more – during the harvest season – meet trees in the form of seedlings. Tree seeds spend about two years, sometimes three, in the ground at a nearby nursery. The small seedlings are then planted in the freshly prepared field, side by side, but not too close. Trees need good airflow to grow well, Grogan said.
According to Grogan, they grow slowly at first. Then, at the age of five or six, they start to “really stretch.”
Amaral and his team have been instrumental in transforming these trees into the perfect conical Christmas trees that people have come to love.
“These guys are artists,” Grogan said. Trees are their canvas.
Branches of evergreen trees grow in clusters or whorls. Each branch on the top whorl, called a “leader”, carries buds that will eventually become separate branches.
Christmas tree farmers know how to trim the 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, packaged and shipped. But not all trees grown in the same field are ready at the same time. The ones that aren’t there are left for another year or two, shaped, sheared, and given more time to grow. Then, in 10 or 11, Grogan and his team will clear the entire field and prepare it for the next game.
This is a long process. It also makes growing Christmas trees a difficult and “high-risk” industry, Grogan says, as you won’t make any money until you sell the trees. And it could take a decade.
Grogan bought his farm from his parents, who still occasionally help out with the business and logistics.
“Now he’s the boss,” his mom Sally said at the farm office, which also serves as Grogan’s brother’s home. At least he thinks so.
But even with the help of his family and an agricultural business degree from Oregon State University, Grogan said he still needed a new farm loan to get started.
Grogan and the farm are the same age – 46 years old. His parents bought him when he was six months old.
That it turned into a Christmas tree farm was almost an accident. Charlie and Sally Grogan bought the 20-acre house in 1976, along with a field of newly planted Christmas trees. The family decided to grow the trees to maturity and quickly fell in love. They soon became tree farmers.
Most of the “new” Christmas tree farmers these days are people who already grow something else and want to diversify their farm, Grogan says.
It’s also an industry that halved over a decade ago. Grogan said the 2008 recession hit Christmas tree farmers hard. Many farmers have quit. Those who remained had to curtail their activities.
Consumers did not feel the crunch until the next rotation cycle. Fewer trees planted in 2008 meant fewer trees for sale ten years later. Tree prices have gone up. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, a tree cost an average of $75 in 2017, up from $36 in 2008.
These days, “you’ll find a tree,” Grogan said. “It will just cost more.
The average price of a freshly cut tree last year was $69.50.
Connected:Christmas Tree Permits Now Available for Oregon National Forests
Climate and pests are the biggest threat
A couple of miles up the road from the main farm, another truck is loaded with freshly cut trees to be hauled back to the shipping yard. It’s a completely different scene compared to the main building. This land is relatively bare.
“This,” says Grogan, pointing to a field that has recently been completely cut down, “will turn into this,” another field just prepared for planting.
The recession was the biggest change Grogan had seen in the industry. But there is another, slower change that he and the industry will have to face: climate change.
Douglas fir is a more resilient tree. But beloved Oregon nobles do best in cooler temperatures. A deadly heat dome in 2021 wiped out an entire field of young Grogan trees.
“They held out for two or three days,” he said. But by the end of the last and hottest day they were dead.
Young trees are of the greatest concern, they are the most vulnerable. Grogan said he just bought more land on the farm at 1,700 feet to plant new trees.
“We are trying to move uphill, not downhill,” he said.
Nordmann varieties are also more heat tolerant and can handle the heavy rain that comes down in the valley, which could also help explain their rise in popularity with growers, Grogan says. They are also more resistant to pests, the second biggest threat to trees.
Grogan says growing methods are constantly changing, but a warming climate is making those changes more urgent. Oregon researchers are investigating growing methods that may be more heat tolerant, such as fertilizing during planting (rather than immediately after).
A few more acres from the cut field, Grogan passes a seedling field. Most stand proud and green; but at least one in each row turned reddish brown, which portends death.
“I look at this field — yes, there are a lot of dead trees,” Grogan said. “But I’m very happy with it. The way it is. You just keep plugging in, planting new ones.”
Trees make the house come alive
Joel Amaral hasn’t had his own Christmas tree since his wife died three years ago. Now he spends Christmas in Mexico.
But he used to get a tree every year. “They make the house come alive,” he said.
Every year Grogan plants a tree in his house. Of course he knows, he said.
Sometimes, like last year, he and his family get a good harvest. Other years they take a Charlie Brown tree, one that probably won’t sell.
“They’re all well-decorated anyway,” Grogan said.
What Grogan loves most about the holiday season is thinking about how many families will be sitting around his trees on Christmas morning.
One day, he recalls, he went to an Oregon football game. Above the field was a screen that displayed the number of people in attendance: somewhere around 40,000 people (OSU Reser Stadium can accommodate up to 43,000 people).
“It was almost equal to the number of trees we cut down that year,” Grogan said.
He looked at the sea of people and introduced each of them – plus their families – in front of one of his trees.
It was nice, he said.
Christmas Tree Care Tips
Christmas trees can last at least 40 days out of the ground, Grogan said, if properly cared for.
Evergreen trees form a “juice film” that prevents the absorption of water. The seal is formed on the soles of freshly cut trees.
“The main thing is to put [trees] in the water while the protective film is still broken,” Grogan said.
The easiest way to do this is to cut the bottom of the tree before putting it in the water. A few inches is enough.
According to Grogan, the tree will “chug” water for the first couple of days, so water it more often.
When the season is over, recycle your tree or find a local organization to take it from you in exchange for a suggested donation to a non-profit organization.
Shannon Sollit covers farm workers through Report for America, a program that aims to support local journalism and democracy by highlighting under-reported issues and communities. Send tips, questions, and comments to [email protected]