by Sally Colby
It’s late autumn, and Reg and Cher Tollefson are finishing up the second year of a new enterprise on their Historic Kirchem Farm in Oregon City, OR.On October weekends, the Tollefsons host thousands of visitors who select pumpkins, gourds and squash from the fields.
“We bought this farm in 1992,” said Cher, adding that Reg grew up on a farm in North Dakota and has always had a love of farming. “We bought it for the land, for the old farmhouse that’s here and it’s in the river valley.” Kirchem Farm’s historic claim is that the property fronts the Oregon Trail.
When the Tollefsons purchased the farm, the entire 150 acres was planted in Christmas trees. “We knew nothing about Christmas trees,” said Cher, “but the former owner had grown trees for years. We planted and sold trees every year since we moved here, but we can’t seem to grow trees fast enough for the market.”
Cher said a shortage of seedlings about eight years ago combined with several hot, dry summers was especially hard on young trees. “We had three years of seedling mortality,” she said. “About 80% of the seedlings died after we planted them.”
The Tollefsons aren’t sure whether they’ll continue to plant more Christmas trees, but there are currently plenty of trees in various stages of maturity. Cher said she and Reg are enjoying a new activity on the farm, one that diversifies the operation and provides more options.
“We just love the pumpkin business,” said Cher, explaining Kirchem Farm’s new venture. “We bought a lot of fancy seeds, and have a huge variety of pumpkins. We have common orange pumpkins and a lot of white, green, blue, Frankenstein, Porcelain Doll, spaghetti squash, Japanese squash and Delicata.”
From the very first weekend in October, Cher noticed customers were purchasing unique items they can’t find elsewhere. “They can buy an ordinary pumpkin anywhere,” said Cher. “We have a lot of big pumpkins, and people come in from the fields with wagonloads of large, colorful pumpkins.”
When they first started growing pumpkins and squash, the Tollefsons mixed seeds in the hopper and planted varieties together. This year, they polled customers to find out if they enjoy seeing a mix of pumpkins in the field. “I think they like it because it’s like a treasure hunt,” said Cher. “We have one field of larger pumpkins, heirlooms and unusual varieties. In the other field are smaller orange pumpkins, all mixed together.”
The Tollefsons also plant hulless pumpkins that Cher said performed well this year. “It’s the pepitas hybrid pumpkin,” she said. “It’s attractive for fall decorations. The interior contains hulless seeds that are delicious when roasted and yellow flesh that is tasty.” The vines only grow five to six feet so the variety doesn’t take up a lot of space in the field.
Since it’s only the second year the Tollefsons have offered a large pumpkin and squash patch, they planted seeds in the same field. “We cleaned it up well,” said Cher. “We took all the vegetation out and tilled it and fertilized it. We may put a different crop there next year, like corn, then put in a new pumpkin field.”
Guests explore the five acres of pumpkins and squash on their own as part of the farm experience. Rather than going to the patch and finding pumpkins already cut from the vines, visitors are provided with a knife and cutting instructions prior to heading out. The farm also has a sweet corn patch, and the Tollefsons are considering adding a corn maze next year. Kirchem Farm hosts a handcrafted cider maker and food trucks that encourage guests to spend the day. Friends on horseback ride around the farm to greet visitors and keep an eye on activities.
Kirchem Farm is open only on October weekends. “Last year we completely sold out,” said Cher. “We’ve been doing farm sales for many years, so a lot of people come because they know our name.” Cher said many customers who come in October return for Christmas trees, and many who have traditionally come for Christmas trees have started to come to the farm for autumn activities.
For the upcoming Christmas season, Cher said the farm will likely be open for a short time before they’re sold out. “We’re so close to town,” she said. “If we overcut, then we’re out of business for another year. We did a little too much overcutting for a few years and trees didn’t grow fast enough, so we’re trying to regulate the cutting.”
Although most customers come to the farm for U-cut trees, some prefer a pre-cut tree. In the past, they’ve offered precut trees, but Cher said bringing in precut trees is expensive and labor-intensive, so they haven’t decided if they’ll offer them this year.
Customers can take a wagon ride to the Christmas tree fields, and saws are provided. “We always have one or two wagons going to the fields,” said Cher. “Customers can cut their tree, take it to the farm lane, then we’ll bring it in.”
Tree varieties include Nordmann, which Cher said is popular but slow to start growing. “It takes two to three years to show any growth after we put them in the ground,” she said. “Noble fir are also popular. Douglas fir are the old standard, and Grand fir are the most fragrant.” Many customers also love Norway spruce, and they have a field of those ready to cut this year.
New trees are planted primarily in February and March, depending on weather. “Fall planting is trickier,” said Cher. “If we get a hard freeze, it’s hard on the young trees.” Prior to establishing a new field of trees, all of the old stumps are removed, the ground is tilled and any necessary soil amendments are added.
As is the case with every farm offering on-farm activities this season, Kirchem Farm has implemented measures for COVID-19, including handwashing stations, a pumpkin washing area and a separate line for cash transactions.
“We love the land and we love the big trees,” said Cher. “But it’s also great to have a four-month crop.”
Visit Historic Kirchem Farm online at HistoricXmasTreeFarm.wordpress.com.