A Family Tree-dition

Local Christmas tree farms tap into the family experience for annual success

It‘s not often that the Christmas season completely consumes an adult, but for Glen Thornton and Bruce Wiseman it’s hard not to think about Christmas all year long. Not only are the origins and traditions of the holiday personally important to them, but both own and operate choose-and-cut tree farms in Clark County.

Wiseman, located in Ridgefield, planted his first trees in 1980 while raising his five daughters. His farm, The Tree Wisemans, now comprises of roughly 26 acres of various fir trees.

“We try to key in on family tradition and the real meaning of Christmas, which real trees are a part of,” Wiseman said.

Thornton has been operating his investment, Thorntons’ Treeland, since 1970. Located in southwest of Brush Prairie, Treeland includes five acres of trees. Thornton prescribes to the communal experience of picking and cutting a tree, and his farm represents that ethos through its old barn full of crafts, complementary beverages, hay rides and petting zoo.

Both farmers said choose-and-cut farms are dependent on family traditions, and they’ve used that fact as a marketing tool. The simple act of picking a tree, cutting it down and carting it home, is as equally symbolic of the Christmas season as the tree itself – and making that experience memorable is their business.

That’s right, business. Beneath the pretty wrapping and mysticism of Christmas, rests the same market forces that preside over the rest of the farming industry. For that reason, Thornton and Wiseman are members of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, routinely gauging supply and demand.

For Wiseman, who sells a portion of trees wholesale, supply is more critical. That’s because he’s currently being affected by an increase in Christmas tree plantings that occurred nearly a decade ago when nurseries began overproducing seedlings and local extension services were promoting the financial benefits of small tree farms. Now, matured and harvestable, these trees are flooding the market and driving prices down.

“If you’re just offering a tree in a field, the best thing you can do is adjust the price,” Thornton said. “For the last three or four years, we’ve been contending in a grossly oversupplied market, which has had the impact of driving the wholesale tree price down.”

Keeping a Christmas tree farm growing requires a lot more than just planting, watering, pruning and pricing. Other factors, like the increasing popularity of fake trees, can have a huge impact on demand.

“The number of real trees purchased nationwide has declined substantially,” Thornton said, “but there’s still a strong market and strong companies invested in it.”

Thornton said his sales tend to run consistent regardless of the forces at work. Even fresh into the recession he only noticed a small decline in sales. This year, he said business has inched back up to normal. And while it’s hard to pinpoint the cause of shifting sales, Thornton is convinced that pre-cut tree lots aren’t detracting from his business.

“We have two types of customers out there – the lot customer and the choose-and-cut customer,” he said. “We set our business up for a family outing. It’s an experience, not just grabbing a Christmas tree.”

At the same time, Thornton does offer some pre-cut trees at his farm, and Wiseman sells to a couple local tree lots, including a Boy Scout-run operation. To each of them, it’s a matter of selling real Christmas trees in ways that fit individual consumer preferences. This approach has not only allowed them to stay in business over the years, but it has kept both farmers optimistic about the future.

“We’re always going to have Christmas, and there’s always going to be real Christmas trees,” Wiseman said. “So, as far as the farm, we build clientele annually.”

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