When Bob Palmer’s father purchased acreage just outside of Salem, OR in the early 1960s, the property was approved for houses. The elder Palmer developed several acres, then in 1972, land use laws tightened up and the property was rezoned for exclusive farm use.
“He became interested in growing Christmas trees, which was in its infancy around here at the time,” said Palmer, describing his father’s start in the business. “Part of the property bordered a major highway and there was a lot of traffic. He started to sell some choose-and-cut trees, and that worked out well so he planted the balance of the land in Christmas trees.”
Palmer also started purchasing Christmas trees for retail lots in California. “The choose-and-cut was getting busier and my wife Renee ran it for a few years,” he said. “When it got to be too much, I quit going to California for retail and focused my attention on choose-and-cut.”
Palmer’s Christmas Trees grows several customer favorites, but the most popular is the Noble fir. “We also sell Grand fir, Douglas fir, Turkish fir, Nordmann fir and three types of spruce,” he said. “The Fraser and Corkbark fir haven’t done as well on our sites so we’re phasing those out.”
Palmer says that when it comes to appearance, fragrance and needle retention through the season, the Noble fir is the Cadillac of the industry. “The Turkish fir is gaining in popularity,” he said. “The Turkish fir doesn’t have a scent, but they look nice and they’re tough, and have excellent needle retention. They can be cut at Thanksgiving, and if they’re displayed in a water stand, I don’t think you could tell the difference as far as keepability.”
In addition to the family’s home farm, Palmer has lease agreements with several nearby property owners to harvest fields of trees. “Some I’ve started and some I’ve taken over,” he said. “People plant Christmas trees then realize there’s more care and work than they want to deal with.”
Palmer says that on one leased property, Turkish firs ranging from 2 to 14 feet tall were growing wild without any management. After Palmer started culturing those trees, they began to change in appearance. “Some were pretty open the first year, but after a couple years of filling in, they were semi-natural looking,” he said, adding that open trees with more space between branches are becoming more popular. “I tell people those trees keep a long time, and they come back the next year and want another.” Palmer says that Turkish firs do well in an interplanting system and are relatively bullet proof when it comes to resisting insects and disease.
Palmer’s Christmas Trees opens for the season the day after Thanksgiving. “If Thanksgiving is early and people want a Grand fir, I tell them it’s probably going to dry out,” said Palmer. “If they’re going to cut a tree early, a Turkish fir or something else that can hold up longer is better.”
Palmer enjoys greeting customers during the season, and directs employees to help as needed. “I meet a lot of people that way,” he said, “and I can find out how they found us. It’s usually word-of-mouth or internet based.”
Palmer admits he didn’t have a good initial master plan for handling parking for the number of customers. He has widened the gravel lane leading to the farm and uses that for parking. “We try to move the process along without rushing people,” he said. “We bale most of the trees and get people out quickly once they decide on a purchase. That opens more parking for others.” Palmer is thankful for cooperative neighbors who tolerate traffic congestion during the season.
In the field, customers have a clean walking surface that Palmer works hard to maintain. “I try to keep a grass cover that’s relatively weed-free to avoid mud during the choose-and-cut season,” he said.
Customers are supplied with handsaws and tree carts, and employees are on hand to assist with a chainsaw if necessary. Palmer’s full service includes electric shaking and baling. “We encourage customers to have their tree shaken,” said Palmer. “We also suggest to customers that they place the tree in a stand while it’s still in the netting to make it easier to maneuver into place.”
In addition to choose-and-cut, Palmer’s offer pre-cut trees. “We cut them early in the day,” he said. “It’s more effort to go to the field every day with a crew, but it ensures that we can offer a fresher product. Grand fir is less hardy, so they’re strictly on the stump. The Noble, Turkish and Nordmann are tougher varieties that will keep longer than others.”
After learning that flocked trees are popular among customers, Palmer prepares about 350 flocked trees each season. Palmer says that it took a while to get the desired results with flocking. “I have to do them in one shop, dry them overnight, then move them to a display barn that’s cool,” he explained, adding that he flocks about 15 trees a day. “Flocking is very popular in California where I had my tree lots.”
In addition to trees, customers can purchase wreaths, garlands and candy cane swags. Palmer says that they tried making these items on site, but found that it was too labor intensive and easier to purchase such items wholesale.
Customers who visit the farm enjoy a ride on Palmer’s “train.” “It’s always been a dream of mine to make an old tractor look like an old-fashioned train engine,” said Palmer. “We’ve now done that, and one of my retired neighbors runs it. We can take about 15 to 20 people at a time on a ride around the farm. People who have never seen it get a real kick out of it.”
The family has been involved in the Christmas tree business for a long time, and Palmer admits that although some of his ideas haven’t worked out, many have. “I’ve learned a lot from other growers and retailers,” he said. “We have third and fourth generation customers coming out.”
Visit Palmer’s Christmas Trees online at www.palmerschristmastrees.com .