Christmas tree farmers are hardy, but aging bunch

TUTTLE — Bob Martin looks a bit like Santa with his white beard and jaunty red hat. But to the families that visit his farm each December, he's the Christmas tree man — a real, live embodiment of the holiday spirit.

 Martin has been growing and selling Christmas trees for three decades and says he never tires of being part of a tradition that brings joy to so many families.

At age 71, he's still spry and more than able to keep up with the seasonal workers at Martinbird Tree Farm in Tuttle.

“I plan on doing this until I'm 105,” he said. “It's a fun thing. You get to share Christmas with a thousand families.”

Martin is typical of most Oklahoma Christmas tree farmers. They are an aging bunch, and there are fewer young operators starting tree farms or taking over existing businesses.

There are about two dozen Christmas tree farms in Oklahoma. That's less than half the number a decade ago, according to the Oklahoma Christmas Tree Association.

“People are getting old,” said John Knight, president of the association. “When you get to be above 70 or 75 years of age, this is pretty brutal on you.”

Knight, 67, operates Sorghum Mill Christmas Tree and Blackberry Farm in Edmond.  He's not sure who will take over his operation when he eventually retires. He might sell his land for housing development.

Drought woes

This year has been particularly tough for Christmas tree farmers. The record heat and drought wiped out many trees and stunted the growth of those that survived.

“Christmas trees take five or six years to grow,” said state forester George Geissler. “If you lose a year of growth, it's a major setback.”

Knight said irrigation saved most of his trees this year, but Martin lost thousands. He depends on well water and isn't able to irrigate most of his crop.

It's hardly his first setback. He planted his first trees in 1979 and lost every one in a drought two years later.
He still has plenty of Virginia pine, Scotch pine and Austrian compact pine this year. The latter is popular because of the full, dense branches and deep green color.

James and Lorie Marler found the perfect 6-foot Austrian pine, much to the glee of their sons, Cole, 8 and Chase, 4.

“I want a big tree so I can get big presents,” Chase exclaimed, while his little brother yelled, “Timber!”
The Blanchard family said choosing and cutting their own tree is a tradition they hope to continue for many years. They know their children will cherish these memories always.

Starting out

Scott Dallas wants to be part of the making-memories business. He also hopes to make a profit someday.
The Oklahoma City firefighter planted his first Christmas trees four years ago.

They aren't ready for cutting, so he's brought in hundreds of pre-cut Noble, Fraser and Douglas firs to sell this year at Frontier Christmas Tree and Pumpkin Farm in Kingfisher.

Like many Christmas tree farmers, he's not putting all his eggs in one basket. In addition to the pumpkin patch, Frontier Farm also operates a gift shop, petting zoo and playground, and Dallas wants to put in a zip line.
Dallas is selling a visit to his farm as a family experience, a Norman Rockwell-like trip to a simpler, less hectic time.

It would help if Mother Nature were on his side.

Of the first 2,000 saplings he planted, all but 100 perished from drought and soil more suitable for wheat farming.  He hopes to harvest his first trees next year.

And in a few years, Dallas, 48, hopes to retire from his firefighter job and focus solely on Frontier Farm.
“This was never intended as something to get rich from. This is just a supplement to my retirement,” he said.
He said Knight and other members of the Christmas Tree Association serve as his mentors. The state Agritourism Department also helps growers with marketing.

“Everyone welcomed me with open arms,” Dallas said. “They said it was a lot of hard work. I'm not afraid of hard work. But if this doesn't work out, well, this is where we live, too, so we'll just look out and enjoy the pretty trees.”

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