Walking into The Wreath Works gift shop in Port Orchard, the fragrant smell of freshly cut fir boughs is overwhelming.
“I bet it smells nice,” said longtime owner Phil Hunter. “I haven’t been able to smell it for years.”
A Christmas tree farmer who tends to 16,000 trees on a 20-acre property and makes nearly 1,500 wreaths every year is probably immune to the smell. The farm, located on the Kitsap side of the Kitsap-Pierce county line, has been in his family since the 1930s when it was a turkey farm.
Hunter and his wife Fran planted their first Christmas trees in 1986, but it takes anywhere between 6 to 12 years, depending on the species, for a tree to be Christmas-ready, so they didn’t start selling them until 1993. His sister Judy Austin and her husband Kenny have been helping ever since. They sell upwards of 3,000 trees each holiday season, including the cost-friendly Douglas firs and grand firs, but Hunter is quick to point out they have multiple true firs.
Looking for that Christmassy smell? Go with a balsam or grand fir.
The Wreath Works name started as an homage to Hunter’s sister, Ruth, who was battling a brain tumor. The family made a bunch of wreaths to sell as a fundraiser. They shipped a good amount of them to his sister Kerry down in California, who was able to quickly sell them. Kerry sent the money back to Hunter with a note letting him know “the wreaths work.” That encouraged Hunter and his wife to start increasing their crop from 2,000 trees to what it is today. Ruth eventually passed away from her disease, but her memory lives on in the business name.
Christmas tree farms need to be a little versatile, especially after the last two summers of record heat. Hunter said it’s not necessarily the temperature that’s destructive as much as it is the timing. The late June 2021 heatwave sent soil temperatures soaring to 154 degrees, according to Hunter, right during bud-break. He said they had to remove 1,000 trees that were severely damaged, and go through the remaining trees with hand clippers to clean up those that could be saved.
For a farm with 16,000 trees, losing 6% of the crop isn’t entirely catastrophic, but a smaller operation like Bayview Christmas Tree Farm, located just northwest of Vaughn, had to start their crop all over.
Owners Nick and Liz Johnson took over the family farm in 2018 and lost about 90% of their new plantings since then due to the heat. That’s so much that they will temporarily have to adjust their business model from a “u-cut” tree farm to bringing in pre-cut trees from a farm in Tahuya until they can grow enough mature trees.
Even with the hardship, Bayview is still in the Christmas spirit. Nick’s mom, Karen, is still hand-tying bows to put on their noble fir wreaths, and Bayview is still selling trees and other gifts from inside the converted 1930s barn built by Nick’s grandpa and great-grandpa. The family is working on the farm every weekend to get the trees ready for future holiday celebrations.
David McDonald, owner of the Longbranch Tree Farm on Rouse Road, thinks less about the long-term effect on his business and more on how it will impact his customers’ holiday season.
For the 80-year-old McDonald, his tree farm is a “hobby that gets me out of the house.” He lost 500 trees to heat the past two summers, and on a 7-acre property, that’s a good chunk of his inventory. He also generally loses 50 trees a year during rutting season when the deer rub their antlers against them. It only causes aesthetic issues, but that means McDonald can’t sell those trees until they bounce back in a year or two.
“When you’re in this business, you take the risk of what Mother Nature gives you,” he said.
The smallest of the u-cut farms around the Key Peninsula, McDonald just appreciates the 80 or so customers who come visit him every season. He invests way more into the trees each year than he earns selling them. And for McDonald, there’s a bright side to having fewer customers compared to The Wreath Works and Bayview Christmas Tree Farm.
“If no one buys the trees, then I guess they will just grow to be beautiful trees.”
The Wreath Works is going through another significant adjustment this year. Fran Hunter passed away last February, and this will be the first Christmas season without her familiar face in the gift shop.
“She was 50% of the business,” said Austin. “It will be a hard year for all of us.”
But all three tree farms want to make it very clear, whether it’s u-cut or precut, the trees available are ready to be decorated. In fact, even with the long stretch of heat this year, it was a good growing season. But that’s not to say a few trees won’t come with some imperfections.
“There’s no such thing as a bad tree,” said Hunter. “There’s always someone who’ll fall in love with it. Somebody will think it’s perfect.”
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