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Hilmar Forest, Oregon farms grow holiday tradition
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Sam Minturn of Hilmar Forest indicates to a Nordmann Fir, a variety new to the United States which is known as the European Christmas tree.


Selection and Purchase

At many farms, attendants shake the dead needles from the tree. This is especially important for species like Scotch pine.  With short-needled trees, such as firs, most of the needles drop to the ground. However, with long-needled trees, such as Scotch pines, the needles become lodged in the branches and, if not removed, continue to fall out during transportation, set up, and subsequent disposal. Shaking the tree eliminates any messiness at set-up


A tree that has been cut for more than six to eight hours needs to have ½ inch or so cut off of the butt end before you place it in a tree stand and water it. When a tree is cut and the cut left exposed to air, the exposed cells become blocked to water uptake. When recut, the tree is then able to take up water (use cool water).

Tree Stands

The main characteristics to look for in a tree stand are:

• stability (to hold the tree upright)

• adequate water capacity (about one quart for each inch of stem diameter)

• ease of set-up (Thumb screws have been used for years, but can be hard to manage when you are on your hands and knees under the tree tightening the thumb screws and keeping the tree straight all at the same time.)

Tree Care

If you buy a tree, but don’t plan to set it up for a few days or longer, store it in a cool location out of the wind and sun. Trees dry out rapidly on warm, windy days with direct sunlight on them. Cut ½ inch from the end of the trunk and place the tree in a container of cool water to help it stay fresh. Tree trunks cut for more than six to eight hours and left out in the air are not able to absorb water, because the exposed cells become blocked. If a fresh, ½-long cross cut is made at the butt of the tree, water will again be able to move upwards.

When setting up the tree, keep it away from direct sources of heat such as warm-air floor vents, operating wood stoves, fireplaces, hot lights, etc. Lowering the room temperature extends the service life of the tree. Heat makes a tree dry faster than normal. Use only approved ornamental lights that produce low heat.

After you have selected a stand that can hold an ample supply of water—at least one quart for each inch of stem diameter—be sure to keep filling it. Be sure to use cool water. Additives probably do not add to the tree’s life once it is cut. Larger trees obviously require more water (and a larger, heavy-duty stand). A seven-foot tree may easily use two quarts of water a day for the first week. Trees typically take a lot of water the first week or two, then slow down. If the tree runs out of water, it loses its ability to take up water and starts to dry out. At that point, you must take the tree down and make a fresh cut on the base of the stem. To avoid this, be sure to check and water the tree every day.

— Courtesy of the Purdue University Department of Forestry and Natural Resources

Ready or not the holiday season has officially arrived — and so have the Christmas trees.

It’s a tradition for many families to go to the Christmas tree lot and pick out the perfect evergreen to decorate, that is unless you’re going to Hilmar Forest.

“We hand you the saw,” laughed owner Sam Minturn.

Sam and his wife Jan Minturn of Hilmar have owned and operated Hilmar Forest since 1970, offering locals a more involved Christmas experience through their choose-and-cut tree farm. The Minturns first became interested in the industry when, during their first Christmas together, the couple went to their first choose-and-cut Christmas tree lot in Pismo Beach. Inspired to start their own venture, the Minturns moved to Hilmar and have grown trees ever since with Sam presently serving as the executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association.

Four acres of the Minturns' land is sprawling with several varieties of Christmas trees including Monterey Pines, Incense Cedars, and the newest tree to the United States, the Nordmann Fir.

“It’s a tree of Europe that has kind of taken off in the States in the last few years,” explained Minturn. “It’s the latest and greatest so to speak.”

While locals can achieve an authentic Christmas experience at Hilmar Forest, statistically speaking the trees in homes across Turlock are probably from out of state. In 2012, roughly 110,000 Christmas trees were harvested in California compared to the over 6 million in Oregon, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

One of the many Christmas tree growers in Oregon, the state that grows the most trees, is Oakdale cattleman Kirk Tracy. For nearly 40 years Tracy has made a dozen trips a year to the “beautiful, little old-fashioned town” of Crawfordsville.  It is here that 60 acres of Tracy’s trees are grown before being transferred to Turlock at the longstanding Tracy’s Trees lot at the intersection of Monte Vista Avenue and Geer Road.

“I’ve probably been on this corner 20 years,” said Kelly Tracy, Kirk’s son and manager of the lot.

Growing the trees himself, Tracy is not only able to cut out the middleman, but also offer a diverse range of trees, quality, and price ranges. Tracy pays 67 cents per tree for seedlings, 30 cents to plant, 26 cents to shear and 30 cents to fertilize. Compound these prices with water, electric needs, transportation costs, and labor and what is simply an annual tradition for many families is actually a year-long production for growers like Tracy.

“I love the business though,” said Tracy with a smile. “It’s so fun.”

This year each row of trees at Tracy’s Trees will feature a brief informational panel on what it takes to grow each variety of tree, which on average grow one foot a year.

“People should know what it takes to get these trees here,” said Kirk Tracy.

Tracy’s decision to impart more knowledge to the public about the process of the industry comes on the heels of a nationwide movement of customers wanting to know more about the food they consume, evident through recent propositions to require companies to label genetically modified organisms in their products. This curiosity has spread into other areas of the agriculture industry, including the Christmas tree market.

Local farmer and owner of RAM Farms, Ron Macedo, is well versed in the demands of customers and has also chosen to promote the unique qualities of his Christmas tree varieties on his websites and at the lot Fields of Ice, which includes an ice skating rink. While RAM Farms is known for growing perfect pumpkins, Macedo imports premium Christmas trees from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Although Macedo may not be tilling the soil himself in Oregon, he is first and foremost concerned with offering customers the finest trees available.

“I’ve toured the forest in Oregon and it’s a great family operation,” said Macedo. “They are really proud of what they do and are environmentally sensitive.”

Promoting the importance of supporting the American economy, Macedo offers a range of Noble Firs, Grand Firs, and Nordmann Firs.  Only premier, known in the industry as “number one” trees, are offered at RAM Farms' Christmas tree lot, all of which are hand selected. Having had a desire to sell Christmas trees for some time, Macedo feels that RAM Farms selection “really fit hand-in-hand” with the Fields of Ice skating rink.

“It’s a first class facility with first class Christmas trees,” said Macedo. “I’ve wanted to bring Christmas trees to this side of town for some time. It brings a little bit of winter wonderland to Turlock.”

When Macedo was just beginning his Christmas tree operation two years ago, Tracy was simultaneously downsizing his, having reduced his Christmas tree lot offerings from 12 to the present four.    

“It’s nothing like it used to be,” said Kelly Tracy. “They used to run over us 10 years ago.”

So what has changed in the past decade to decrease the demand? Most obviously, the 2008 downturn in the economy.

“There used to be thousands of tree farmers in Oregon and now there’s probably hundreds,” said Kirk Tracy. “The tree business was like the housing market.”

Minturn echoed this sentiment noting that when the economy is down customers are tempted by the convenience of “the big enemy” – the artificial tree.

So why should locals continue to purchase their Christmas tree from a local Christmas tree lot owner?

“A lot more goes on behind the scene than people realize,” said Kirk Tracy’s assistant Mike Stocks. “It’s the smiles on the kids and the adults faces though, that what makes it all worth it.”