By Misty Zakrzewski
While most of us have yet to take down the Halloween decorations, Yule Tree Farms is in full swing, hard at work harvesting half a million Christmas trees that will adorn families’ homes this holiday season.
Unfortunately, not everyone will buy a real Christmas tree this year. Yule Tree Farms has faced competition with artificial trees in recent years and strives to educate people about the negative impact of these fake trees. Nearly all artificial trees contain lead, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and insects and are harmful to the environment. “I could bury that ‘toilet bowl brush’, dig it up a few years later, wash it off and it’s still there years later. How is that benefitting your environment?” says Tom McNabb, member of the sales team, “People try to make you feel guilty for cutting half a million trees each year because they don’t realize it is part of a natural cycle.”
Established in 1964, Yule Tree Farms had its first harvest in 1970, producing about 500 trees. Today, Yule Tree Farms boasts more than 3,600 acres of tree farms in five Willamette Valley counties, producing four million trees and shipping half a million throughout the U.S. and internationally each year. More than 90 percent of the trees they grow are exported out of the state, bringing revenue back into Oregon and the state’s economy.
The company sells whole sale, shipping as far as Mexico, Canada, and the Pacific Rim. Yule Tree Farms is proud to be one of the five largest tree farms in Oregon and the nation. Yule Tree Farms grows three species of trees: Douglas Fir, Noble Fir and Grand Fir. The company also sells a limited number of potted living trees, for those who want to be able to enjoy the tree after the holidays. Trees are grown for six to eight years before harvested.
When each tree is harvested, another is planted in its place, dispelling myths that tree harvesting leads to deforestation. “It’s no different from harvesting corn,” says McNabb. Real trees biodegrade and give required nutrients back to the soil to begin the cycle again. While many people believe they are helping the environment and saving a tree by purchasing an artificial one, in reality, they are purchasing something that will survive hundreds of years in a landfill, and will likely expose their families to poisonous lead. “Christmas trees are sustainable; they are the proper environmental choice,” says McNabb.
Yule Tree Farms has a long-time dedicated staff that works year-round, helping fulfill their mission to ensure the highest quality trees. An employees’ average tenure is 20 years, the longest employee serving 32 years and counting. Employees are loyal because they are ‘empowered’ at Yule Tree Farms. “You give them the tools they need to get it done, and then they return a better product,” says McNabb, who has served 11 years at the company.
With 60 fulltime employees and up to 400 employees during peak season, each individual has a specific and important role. “Scouts” examine each tree for a population analysis of pests using magnifying glasses, and report problem areas. Field maintenance fertilizes trees and maintains plant health. A culturing team shapes, prunes and tops each tree by hand. The grading crew examines each tree and determines which ones meet the standard to be sold. There are cutters whose sole responsibility is to cut down the trees, packers who put the trees into piles, string-tying staff that wrap the trees, palletizers who put trees on palettes, helitac, a helicopter crew that moves trees, and a loading team, that loads trees onto trucks. Every single tree on the farm receives special attention and care during its growth, ensuring the highest quality trees to consumers.
In 2004, Joe Sharp, managing partner of Yule Tree Farms, created the first-ever real “designer” Christmas tree, Oregon’s Noble Vintage®. Just like there are designer jeans, now there is Oregon’s Noble Vintage, the first tree to be marketed under a designer brand name. The idea was to showcase the best of the best Noble Firs. These trees are hand-picked on the farm by professional graders, who search for the “perfect” tree. Each designer tree is tagged with a gold ribbon as a stamp of authenticity so customers can see the highest quality trees that Yule Tree Farms can produce. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What I might like, you might not like,” Sharp says. So what do graders look for in the search for a perfect tree? “A straight top, full figure, great color, healthy tree,” Sharp says.
Yule Tree Farms takes care in sustaining the land for future generations, and their efforts are recognized in the community. The Oregon Department of Agriculture acknowledged Yule Tree Farms for “Leadership in Conservation,” and the Oregon Water Resources Department awarded the company for “Environmental Stewardship of the Land and Water Quality.” Together with Holiday Tree Farms, Yule Tree Farms formed the Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers, a not-for-profit 501 (C)(6) organization dedicated to environmentally-sound farming practices and consumer education. The coalition’s main priority is to protect Oregon’s natural resources by taking special care in what they do.
One thing Yule Tree Farms does to protect the environment–that most tree farms do not–is prevent soil erosion by leaving grass strips in steep areas of the fields. “All of our harvest process takes place on rock landings to keep the trees clean, the equipment clean and the roads clean,” says McNabb. This is important because soil erosion reduces water quality and causes roadside hazards and flooding.
The coalition has recently developed hang tags to mark trees that have been certified as having been grown under stringent environmental criteria. The intent of the certification process is to ensure that growers are utilizing sustainable growing practices in the production of Christmas trees. More than 200,000 trees will bear the tag this year. Trees are certified based on elements of riparian/wetland management, soil and water conservation, nutrient management, site selection, pest management, worker safety and protection, biodiversity and consumer education.
Despite tough economic times, families are still making real Christmas trees a priority during the holidays. “People forgo Starbucks instead of a Christmas tree,” says McNabb, “They don’t want to have to tell their kids they can’t have a Christmas tree this year.”
As long as the Christmas tree remains a tradition, Yule Tree Farms will continue to grow high quality trees in an innovative and sustainable way. Just be sure to get rid of that artificial tree.