Nurturing hardy trees

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Allison Bruns hadn’t planned on operating a Christmas tree farm, but she’s now in her sixth season and is already seeing repeat customers. Photo courtesy of Misty Ridge Tree Farm

by Sally Colby

When Allison Bruns purchased property in Oregon City, OR, her intention was to use it for her horses. But much of the acreage was covered with cultivated Christmas trees, and the seller suggested that Bruns might want to continue the Christmas tree business.

Although the previous owners were retiring from the business, they were interested in seeing Bruns succeed with Christmas trees and offered to provide connections in the industry and resources to help her get started.

“They marketed trees through tree lots in California and also wholesale,” said Bruns. “I had no experience farming whatsoever, but they introduced me to buyers and people to learn from. I also joined the Oregon Christmas Tree Association and started learning even more.” Bruns attended industry meetings and farm tours with an open mind and learned a lot from other growers.

A trip to a Christmas tree trade show with the former owners of the property also helped Bruns make connections with other growers. “They told me the average age of a Christmas tree grower is around 65,” said Bruns. “I was the only one under 50 – they were excited to have some new blood.”

As she learned more about growing Christmas trees, Bruns met Chal Landgren, a Christmas tree specialist with Oregon State University Extension well-known for his work in testing new varieties from seed he collected in Turkey. “I went to as many workshops with him as I could,” said Bruns. “Turkish firs are a tough tree to shape. All the studies on leader growth were really helpful.”

Although many of the trees on the property were Noble firs, the previous owners had started planting Turkish firs. “They recommended I discontinue Nobles and continue with Turkish,” said Bruns. “They had been growing Noble firs for so long that there were issues with the tree health. I was happy to switch to Nordmann and Turkish – they’re super hardy, drought-resistant, I don’t have to spray them and they do well in wet areas.” Bruns said the Nordmann fir has an exceptionally long taproot that grows straight down, which makes the tree more tolerant of extreme weather conditions.

To ensure sufficient trees to meet the demand already in place, Bruns and her partner Laird McCabe continue to plant more trees. “I didn’t plant any this year because I got a late start and it was so hot,” she said. “I’m glad I didn’t plant because we had a hot spell in June. Trees were still growing, and a lot of Noble firs, Grand firs and new plantings were damaged.”

When possible, Bruns harvests entire blocks so she can remove stumps, revitalize the soil and replant in rows. She has the soil tested to determine lime and fertilizer needs, and where appropriate, she establishes a legume cover crop prior to planting new trees.

For the first several seasons, Bruns left the job of shearing and shaping to others with more experience. As she observed and learned how to shear, she found the skill requires a unique kind of strength. “The first time I did it, my arm was so sore,” she said. “It’s a different group of muscles. Now we do all the shearing ourselves, and I enjoy it.” Each year, Bruns designates the sections that will be harvested in the coming season and shears them first, then works on other sections after the season.

Bruns has developed a U-cut procedure that works well for the farm. The process begins when people check in at the farm and write their name on a tree tag. “We ask them if they want their tree baled and wrapped,” said Bruns. “They go out to specified fields and we have employees out there to help with cutting trees. We hire local kids who help bring trees out of the fields. Then we wrap and bale the trees, and people can pay for and pick up their tree.” With a fairly small parking area, she has fine-tuned the process to make it as smooth as possible for customers.

Bruns found that when people come to the farm for a tree, many have an idea of what they want but often change their mind as they walk through the fields. “Some people have a very specific idea in mind, like a natural Noble,” she said, adding that such trees have large gaps between branches compared to a sheared tree. “I have some trees like that, so I can send them in that direction. I also have some older natural Nobles I can offer as pre-cut.”

Visitors to Misty Ridge Tree Farm enjoy visiting the farm’s animals, including a pig, a miniature donkey, cattle and horses. A friend’s miniature horse will be on the farm to do tricks and pull a cart. Since some Christmas tree farms were closed last year, those who visited Misty Ridge were glad to enjoy a day on the farm. Now in her sixth year in the Christmas tree business, Bruns is already seeing repeat customers. “A lot of others who operate tree farms are retiring,” she said, “so people are looking for a new choose-and-cut farm.”

Bruns creates Western-style rope wreaths and brings in other wreaths to sell. The on-farm gift shop also features local artists’ work, and this year’s “Cowboy Christmas” will feature Western art and ornaments.

In an effort to expand and promote the option of pre-season tree selection, Bruns allows guests to visit the farm in October to choose a tree early. “I might have a pumpkin patch so they can visit that and choose a Christmas tree,” she said. “Then at Christmas time, all they have to do is cut the tree and go without worrying about the weather or looking for a tree when the field is muddy.”

The pre-cut event takes place at the end of October, and then Bruns will start harvesting and shipping trees for wholesale accounts in early November. After wholesale trees are shipped, they’ll open for U-cut the day after Thanksgiving. Bruns said being a member of the Christmas Tree Growers Association has helped make her make wholesale connections.

The previous owners come back to visit the farm occasionally, and Bruns said they enjoy seeing the farm thriving as well as the changes she has made over the years. As Bruns continues to add new trees and learn more about the business, she plans to add to the U-cut aspect and incorporate new tree varieties to offer more choices. “I planted some Douglas firs so we’ll have those,” she said. “I’ll also add more to the gift shop to create more of an experience.”

Visit Misty Ridge Tree Farm online at MistyRidgeTreeFarm.com.

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