A scene from Northern Lights Christmas Tree Farm in Pleasant Hill. CHRONICLE ARCHIVES

It’s the end of December -- the time of reckoning for local tree farmers.

Years’ worth of labor has culminated, but not without immense work and planning. And while no one could have planned for a pandemic, “you’ve got to work with the conditions that you’ve got,” said Bob Schutte, who owns Northern Lights Christmas Tree Farm with his wife, Lynn, in Pleasant Hill. 

Aside from the cancellation of events and activities, the tree farm biz has not wavered through the pandemic. According to local farmers, it’s the type of activity that scratches an itch for people after having been cooped up at home, or in what feels like a marathon of endless virtual meetings.

“Everybody was wanting to get out and do something,” said Gerri Turner, part-owner of Kessler’s Christmas Tree Farm in Pleasant Hill. 

A loyal customer base, in combination with fresh air and the alluring prospect of cutting down your own tree, has allowed tree farms to weather the worst effects of the pandemic better than most. 

When the 162-acre farm had its first harvest in 1994, Schutte said he started by selling trees wholesale to lots in Los Angeles, Dallas and “places all over the country,” but eventually, “choose-and-cut business totally consumed all of the production of our farms.”

Choose-and-cut farms have customer bases that tend to return year-after-year, which is good because, “the farm will only last as long as the bank account lasts,” Schutte said. 

“People are very loyal with their tree farms,” said Shannon Watne, general manager of Twin Timbers in Creswell. “I have good friends that don’t even come to see me when I’m going to give them a tree (for free). They’ll go to another farm just because that’s where they go.”

While most customers come from nearby Springfield and Eugene, some travel all the way from Oakridge or Klamath Falls. Schutte recalled one family from Chico, Calif. — a six-hour drive from Pleasant Hill — who made a weekend out of getting a tree.

While tree farms avoided the worst of Covid effects, they did face consequences from the intense heat wave over the summer, which is threatening the survival of seedlings. 

In a normal year, Turner said she doesn’t want to lose more than 20% of her seedlings. “This summer we lost almost 90% of our seedlings, so that puts us a year behind now.” 

Because of the time required for trees to mature, Turner said the effects of the past summer will not be felt until several years in the future. For small choose-and-cut farms like Kessler’s Christmas Trees, this might mean they have to take a year off from selling several years in the future to allow trees to grow to make up for the losses.

Northern Lights and Twin Timbers were able to mitigate losses through amped up irrigation, limiting losses to less than 10%. Irrigation is possible for those farms because both have water rights from the Middle Fork Willamette River and Hill Creek, respectively, which allows the farms to divert water from the streams for beneficial use.  

During the heatwave, Schutte said that the farm increased the amount they were irrigating their seedlings, from once every four weeks to once every two weeks, utilizing their “big guns”— an irrigation wheel. 

Farms are also adjusting to the heat by shifting which trees they are choosing to plant, as heat has differing effects on different tree species. 

Several years ago, “we lost a lot of nobles. We switched from nobles over to Nordmanns, just because they’re a little more hardy, and nobles are a higher elevation, colder weather tree, Watne said.

Schutte said that Northern Lights is also planting more Nordmann firs and fewer noble firs, “but it’s like anything else, you don’t want to go to all one species because you’re working with people that have a wide variety of interests.”

Not sure what to do with your Christmas tree? On Saturday, Jan 8, Creswell Cub Scouts Pack 28 will be picking up Christmas trees at homes within one mile of city limits. $10 suggested donation. Send address via text to 541-623-0152 or on messenger at facebook.com/cubpack28.