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At work on the world’s largest fir-tree farm

Nov 09, 2012

With the possible exception of making toys or herding reindeer, it's hard to imagine Mark Arkills doing anything but farming Christmas trees. He has a full white beard, ruddy cheeks, blue eyes, and an ample belly. He's surveying a vast field of six- and seven-foot-tall Douglas firs growing in neat rows in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Two machete-wielding farmhands are quietly shaping each tree into something appropriate for the living room. "It's nice and quiet here now," Arkills says. "But trust me, it won't be this way for long."

Arkills is the production manager for Holiday Tree Farms, the world's largest Christmas-tree producer. Beginning in late October, Holiday's staff will swell from about 250 employees to 700 working 16-hour shifts. They will fan out across the company's 8,500 acres, while about a half-dozen helicopters crisscross the sky, each hauling 15 trees per load to processing centers. The trees are then transported to markets as far away as Puerto Rico and Pago Pago, Samoa. By mid-December the company will have cut and transported 1 million trees. "We've got a small window of opportunity to get it right," Arkills says. "We're one of the few agricultural products where after a certain date, the product is completely worthless."

Americans bought nearly 31 million Christmas trees last year, spending an average of $34.85 and generating more than $1 billion. Holiday's noncontiguous farmland extends 100 miles, from Salem to Eugene, covering five counties and 70 locations. The company (which is private) grossed $25 million in 2011, mostly from Douglas and noble firs.

It was Holiday's founder, Hal Schudel, who in 1955 pioneered growing Christmas trees in rows. "We really are no different than any other crop," says Hal's son John, who owns the company with his two brothers and two of his nephews. Each year Holiday plants more than 1 million two-year-old seedlings. After two years, workers prune the trees once a year, shaping them into that perfect cone. Holiday harvests its Douglas and noble firs after six to eight years. The company is now growing more of what Arkills calls "table-top trees." "There's been a bigger demand for two- to four-footers," he says. "They say it's the bad economy. I say it's a baby boomer thing. That generation is getting too old to deal with a big tree."

These trees will travel all the way to Japan. The trip takes about three weeks.

Workers pile up cut trees, which are packed in a truck, shuttled to a nearby shipping yard, and placed in an air-conditioned shipping container.

A helicopter lifts a bundle of trees -- about a dozen per bundle -- and carries them south of Corvalis, Ore., to be readied for shipment.

At Detering Field, just outside Monroe, Ore., a tree "shaker" rids the fir of loose needles before it is fed into a baler, which compresses the tree for shipping.

Bins (or "totes") of Christmas wreaths at the Holiday Nursery outside Philomath, Ore. Workers pile fully assembled wreaths into the totes to ready them for shipping.

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