Oh Christmas tree!
Nov./Dec. 2009 California Country magazine
Story by Pat Rubin
Photos by Matt Salvo
Couple finds year-round joy raising seasonal specialty.
Ginger and Jim Armstrong, who own a 55-acre Christmas tree farm in Placer County, say they are living a dream. “Growing a product that someone loves and treasures is the most magnificent thing,” Ginger says.
The road to Snowy Peaks Christmas Tree Farm heads east from Auburn on Foresthill Road, officially exit 121 on Interstate 80. In just a few hundred feet the landscape changes dramatically: no more busy streets or shopping centers and no stoplights—just miles of forest, hills and mountains.
The 23-mile drive gradually climbs to the 4,000-foot level. It snakes through thick stands of black oaks and manzanita before giving way to towering Ponderosa pines and incense cedar. The air is crisp. Huge clouds hang dramatically, sometimes ominously, over the mountains. Pine trees make a pincushion pattern along the ridge tops and snowcaps sparkle in the distance. The names of the towns and roads sound exotic: Mammoth Bar, Michigan Bluff, Drivers Flat and Mosquito Ridge. Lake Tahoe is a scant 30 miles over the hill as the crow flies.
Snowy Peaks, one of about 200 Christmas tree farms in California, is famous for great Christmas trees, horse-drawn wagon rides, a cozy yet roaring bonfire, plenty of hot chocolate and a relaxed, picnic-like atmosphere. The farm sells as many as 200 trees each weekend during the Christmas season and 20 or so weekdays. The larger trees, often as tall as 35 feet, grace many office buildings in Sacramento and San Francisco. The farm’s trees have won California state “grand champion tree” honors several times.
A breeze blows gently as owners Jim and Ginger Armstrong look out over the 55-acre farm dotted with nearly 40,000 Christmas trees and admit proudly and reverently that they are living a dream.
“I was a teacher for 25 years, so I’m not a farmer by training,” Ginger said. “If you think about what dreams and schemes you have for your life, planting and raising Christmas trees wasn’t on my list, but it’s wonderful. Growing a product that someone loves and treasures is the most magnificent thing.”
Buying the farm was serendipity, she explained. Jim, a logger by trade, was working thinning trees in the adjacent Tahoe National Forest when he stumbled upon the tree farm. He looked inside the gate at all the trees and it reminded him of his childhood when his parents cut and sold Christmas trees. He eventually met the owners and told them how much he loved the trees.
“They were getting up in years and ready to retire and they told me the farm was for sale,” he said. “I called Ginger and told her I had a surprise for her.”
She made the 3½-hour drive from their home in Sonora to Foresthill. At the Snowy Peaks gate, he announced, “This is the surprise. We’re buying a Christmas tree farm.”
In 1998 they became the owners of one of the larger Christmas tree farms in the state. Most farms are on 5-acre parcels; the smallest are a scant half acre, according to Sam Minturn of the California Christmas Tree Association.
“For the next five years we worked Monday through Friday at our jobs, left at noon on Friday to come to the farm, worked all day Saturday, part of Sunday, went home, did laundry and got ready to go to work on Monday,” Ginger said.
At first they turned their efforts to increasing sales and building up the farm’s name. They soon realized they needed to devise an aggressive tree-replanting program to keep up with increased demand.
“It takes seven to 12 years to get a Christmas tree to 6 or 7 feet,” Jim explained. “The previous owners weren’t physically able the last few years they owned the place to be out planting trees on the sides of a hill. Our goal is to replant 5,000 to 8,000 new trees at least every other year. Tree-planting time is generally February because that’s when the ground holds the most moisture to get the trees off to a good start.”
“Even then, the mortality rate among seedlings is about 50 percent, which is pretty normal industry wide,” Ginger added. “Still, it’s frustrating to lose so many trees. That’s one reason we stick to trees that are native to this region, trees that can take the heat and the drought.
“The white and red firs we grow have that traditional layered look many people like in a Christmas tree. But then some like that full look that you just sort of lay the ornaments on, so we also have an area of Douglas firs,” she said.
The Armstrongs eventually quit their day jobs and moved to the farm full time. They quickly settled into a routine. That means four or five hours a day late summer through fall pruning trees. Christmas tree season starts the day after Thanksgiving and ends the week before Christmas. By then it’s time to get areas ready for replanting. They decided the farm ought to be a year-round producing farm, so three years ago devised a hydroponic setup for growing strawberries, blueberries and chilies without soil. They sell much of their produce at local farmers markets.
“We have folks who have been coming to cut Christmas trees for 20, 25 years,” Jim said. “A few have been coming since the farm opened in 1977. They came with their children, and now their kids have kids and they come together. One large group of families lines up with their trees every year and I take a photo for them.”
Although the Armstrongs have nearly 40,000 trees, they have adopted a few they can’t bear to see cut and taken away.
“It’s silly, but we do have favorite trees and we even talk about all the trees as ‘him’ and ‘her.’ We visit every tree every year, so we really get to know every one of them,” Ginger said.
No matter how busy or how hectic things get during tree-cutting season, both agree it gives them a warm, happy feeling to see folks take a tree home to decorate and celebrate the holiday season.
But don’t forget to sit down and have a cup of steaming hot chocolate before you leave.
To cut your own Christmas tree...
- To find a Christmas tree farm in your area, visit www.cachristmas.com.
- Tree farms are more plentiful in Northern California than in Southern California because land is more expensive in Southern California.
- You’re most likely to find a tree farm if you live in the Santa Cruz area, the Highway 50/Highway 80 corridor or in the Santa Rosa/Petaluma area.
- Tree farms in the state sell 250,000 to 300,000 trees each year, according to the California Christmas Tree Association.
- With nearly 40,000 trees on 55 acres, Snowy Peaks Christmas Tree Farm in Placer County is one of the larger Christmas tree farms in the state. They specialize in silver tips (red firs), white firs and Douglas firs. For more information, visit www.snowypeaksfarm.com or call 530-367-3766.
Pat Rubin is a long-time gardener and garden writer. Send questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.