One of Oregon’s oldest Christmas tree farms embodies the holiday spirit.
When Lea and Bill Helmig started farming in Clackamas County in 1935, harvesting Christmas trees was not part of their plan. Until 1956, the Helmigs farmed corn, wheat, cattle and sheep on 320 acres, where they built their home.
In 1956, the federal government initiated the Soil Bank Act Conservation Reserve Program, dubbed the “Soil Bank program,” which paid farmers across the nation to plant timber as part of a soil conservation effort. The Helmigs decided to take advantage of the government funds and expanded their operation that year, planting 175 acres of timber.
The first timber crop was plagued by weeds and mice, causing high mortality among the trees. Despite an entire summer of tilling, the survival areas were scattered and the Helmigs had to decide how to best maximize the crop. While the areas with the best survival went to timber, the sparse areas became the Helmigs’ first Christmas trees.
When buying Christmas trees today, consumers are accustomed to perfectly sheared, cone-shaped trees. However, in the 1960s, the first generation of Oregon Christmas tree growers were harvesting their trees much like the Helmigs – topping sparse timber and grazing cattle to provide natural pruning – producing spindly, natural looking trees for people to put in their homes. In 1968, the Helmigs sold their first Christmas trees to a California wholesaler for retailers in California.
Since their humble beginnings, Helmig Tree Farms has become one of Oregon’s largest Christmas tree growers, shipping 120,000 trees annually to California, Hawaii and Mexico. The family’s timber operation also grew and thrived. The Helmigs’ son, Lester, has been an integral part of the family business since he was old enough to help on the farm. Today, Lester has full ownership of Helmig Tree Farms.
Lester has worked to build his parents’ dream and make it his own. As a graduate of Oregon State University’s Master Woodland Manager’s program, Lester is always looking for new ways to improve the family business, as well as the timber and Christmas tree industry in Oregon.
Implementing sustainable agricultural practices is one way the farm has improved productivity and promoted stewardship of the land. “As farmers, we are environmentally conscience and always looking to promote biodiversity in our fields,” says Gayla Hansen, manager of Helmig Tree Farms.
An integrated pest management program has helped eliminate the weed problem Lester’s parents faced when first starting the tree farm. They also encourage Christmas tree recycling programs and educate retailers on how trees can best be disposed of and utilized after the season.
The timberland also adheres to a Stewardship Management Plan, funded by the federal government and administered by the Oregon Department of Forestry. This certification is granted after providing proof of replanting, healthy watershed and other environmental practices.
Taking care of their employees is just as important to Helmig Tree Farms as caring for the land. A formal safety program is in place to train employees in safe practices on the farm. “We like to make this a great place for employees to work,” says Hansen. “We work to keep them safe and we pay family wage jobs.”
For each tree cut on Helmig Tree Farms, at least one is planted in its place. And how the trees are planted, both on this farm and on land across the state, is directly related to Lea and Bill, who revolutionized the tree planting process in the 1950s.
When they first started planting timber, the Helmigs needed an efficient way to get the seedlings in the ground. A mechanical tree planter had not yet been invented so the industrious Helmigs modified a strawberry planter and went to work planting rows of trees. It was so successful they started planting custom jobs on other farms as well. Today, any timber planted in rows throughout the Willamette Valley was most likely put there by the Helmigs.
This savvy for tools saw its way into the next generation. Lester’s development of tools used within the trade is well-known throughout the industry. In 1993, Lester partnered with another grower to purchase Evergreen Christmas Tree Equipment with the goal of perfecting the balers, conveyors and stump grinders that tree farmers use. Before selling the business a decade later, Lester’s equipment was sold to Christmas tree farmers throughout the United States, Ireland and Germany.
Helmig Tree Farms works year round to make their operation the best it can be. At Christmastime, however, is when they really shine. The farm has sponsored Boy Scout troops, charity organizations and high school clubs and teams, donating time, money and Christmas trees.
In past years, Helmig Tree Farms also took a leadership role, as part of the Oregon Association of Nurseries Christmas Tree chapter, in donating trees to families of US troops at Fort Hood, Texas. This year, the group of growers hopes to send trees to a local base.
Helmig Tree Farms represents Christmas in so many more ways than the business of producing the trees people enjoy in their homes this time of the year. Since the beginning with Lea and Bill, and today through Lester, the farm has used an innovative spirit, stewardship of the land, care for the people and generosity in the community to embody the holiday spirit throughout the year.