by Sally Colby
In 1980, Bruce Wiseman’s good friend was growing Christmas trees, and was anxious to share his success with others. “He kept talking about all the money he was making and we got excited about it,” Bruce recalls. “My folks had some property and planted about five acres of trees. Several years later we moved up to the family farm and kept planting and growing more trees.”
The Wiseman family dubbed their Ridgefield, WA farm ‘The Tree Wisemans’, and while Bruce doesn’t recall exactly who came up with name, he says his daughters thought it was corny and couldn’t believe he was going to use it. “Once people hear it a time or two, they don’t forget it,” said Bruce. “You couldn’t pay someone in marketing to come up with it – it was a freebie.”
Today, the Wisemans are growing trees on 25 acres. At first, trees were sold mostly for wholesale and fundraising organizations, and as the business grew, trees were offered for retail and U-cut at the farm.
The primary species include Douglas fir, Noble fir, grand fir and several specialty trees including Nordmann fir, Fraser fir and Turkish fir. “We tried growing pines but not many people in this area like pines unless they’re from the Midwest,” said Bruce. “Noble firs are our bread and butter. They have stout branches and grow more ‘open’. People like that structure – they like to be able to hang ornaments instead of draping them.”
Bruce recalls that with the recession of 2008, Douglas firs were the lowest priced, Grand firs were a middle-of-the-road tree and Noble firs were the Cadillac of the industry. “It takes about two or three years longer to grow a Noble fir, so they cost more,” said Bruce. “During the recession, prices were reduced, and a lot of wholesale growers didn’t even order Noble firs. Douglas firs didn’t drop in price as much as Nobles did during the recession, so that middle price structure of the Grand fir dropped out. A lot of people quit growing Grands during that time, and now that we’re past the recession and prices are recovering, we have a little more call for Grands.” Bruce noted that some Christmas tree growers in his region lost a significant number of seedlings last summer due to heat, which could impact the market in five or six years.
In the past, The Tree Wisemans shipped as many as 10 semi loads of trees to California, but shipped only three loads last year and will probably send just one load this year. Some trees are still sold wholesale to local scout groups and grocery stores for tree lots. “Our you-cut business continues to grow, and we get a lot of repeat customers,” said Bruce. “Word-of-mouth has really helped. We’re right across the river from Portland, OR, so we get some Oregonians coming here for trees. We put up signage before Thanksgiving, and put our name in a local newspaper’s choose-and-cut guide.”
Bruce has found that customers who come to the farm for choose-and-cut don’t usually know the difference between Douglas and Grand firs. “They can’t tell them apart unless they really know what the trees are because they are cultured so similarly,” he said. “The smell and needle structure are different, but most people can’t tell the difference. Rather than confuse folks, I tell them that all the Dougs and Grands are the same price. Even though the Grand is a true fir, I consider it more in the Douglas fir realm. All of my other trees – Nobles, Nordmanns, Frasers – are in a different price range.”
The day after Thanksgiving brings many customers to The Tree Wisemans, and most of the trees are visible from the parking area. Customers can choose to walk or drive to the Christmas tree fields. “We have a good system of roads set up,” said Bruce. “Being in the Pacific Northwest, we have a lot of rain, so we have to maintain all of the roads with gravel.” The Wisemans provide a handsaw and assistance to those who need it. After selecting and cutting a tree, customers can have their tree shaken and baled. Additional services include flocking and fireproofing, although those require an extra day for drying.
Bruce believes it’s important to shake the wholesale trees that leave the farm. “With a thick tree, there will always be dead needles inside,” he said. “You can get rid of all those loose needles before the tree is shipped or goes in someone’s home. It’s also an educational deal – we tell them to get trees in water as soon as possible. If people at the other end give the tree a fresh cut and tell their customers to get it in water immediately, those trees will hold up well.”
While many customers purchase a tree that measures under 8’, quite a few come to select a super-sized tree. “We have a lot of large Nobles, Dougs and Grands,” said Bruce. “We’re known for our big trees, particularly our Nobles. We sell Nobles up to 15’ tall. Almost everything I have is cultured, but there are people who want a wild tree. Those are the ones that are left alone – not pruned or shaped – they’re open and layered.” The Tree Wisemans also have a selection of fresh precut trees for customers who aren’t interested in cutting their own.
In January, Bruce and his crew go to the fields and cut off any stumps that were cut high. He likes to keep the fields clean, and picks up limbs that have been cut off during the season. With limited acreage, Bruce’s motto has always been ‘I cut a tree, I plant a tree.’ “It’s important for people to understand that Christmas trees are an agricultural crop,” he said. “We plant a new tree as close to the old stump as possible. If I cut 3,000 or 4,000 trees in November and December, I plant that many trees in early March.”
Many customers who come to select a tree also purchase freshly made wreaths. “We have a wreath table set up and can make one in about 15 minutes,” said Bruce. “By the time people cut their tree and bring it back, their wreath is made. We take special orders and will decorate them. Early in the season, we purchase material from the high country that’s been hardened off – it keeps better. Closer to Christmas, we use material from our own Noble firs because it’s been through a freeze. I can cut down some trees that need to be cut down, and the girls make wreaths from the material.”
The Tree Wisemans maintain a small gift shop and offer espresso, cocoa and cider to bring people out of the weather and add to their holiday experience.
Visit The Tree Wisemans online at www.treewisemans.com.