by Catie Joyce-Bulay
Del Klicker comes from a family of farmers. His grandmother moved from her father’s corn farm in Kentucky to homestead in the Blue Mountains, near Walla Walla, WA in 1894. Klicker’s father and his brothers continued farming a variety of crops and raised cattle, and Del’s generation and their children carry on the farming tradition. He and his two sons grow Christmas trees and blueberries on the site of his family’s homestead.
He and his brother started harvesting Christmas trees on the family property at an early age. “We didn’t even know we wanted to get into the business,” he said. When they were both in high school, a downtown department store asked them to cut trees for the store’s balcony Christmas display, which led to cutting trees to sell retail.
“We didn’t sell very many through high school,” he said. That was 67 years ago, when they sold only natural trees grown on their family’s property. “We just kind of developed that as the years went by and have grown into what we are now,” says Klicker, whose brother and partner has since passed away.
Now Klicker sells around 2,300 to 2,400 trees a year retail, in addition to a small wholesale amount. The trees are planted on about 20 to 25 acres in four different locations. Three of the growing sites are in the mountains near his home, while the other is located on property closer to town in the valley’s lower elevation. The valley property neighbors another brother and his son’s strawberry and produce fields. It is near Klicker’s Berry Stand and Antiques, owned by his brother Ron and is where the trees are sold. They offer customers a you-pick-we-cut option from the two-acre site.
The higher elevation sites are better suited to growing, requiring less water and pest control. They have to water the trees at the lower elevation regularly, but only a few areas on the mountain need to be watered. Many of the trees at the mountain location are on a slope, which makes watering impossible.
He also credits good soil. “I feel very blessed to have as good a soil for growing Christmas trees as there probably is,” Klicker says.
They fertilize once a year after the trees have reached three or four years of age. “My uncle told me you just can’t keep taking from the ground — from nature. You’ve got to put back,” Klicker says. “We weren’t too good about fertilizing for quite a while. Off-color would be our biggest problem.” Some of the fields have gone through five or six rotations.
Aphids are a problem at the lower growing site. They spray two to three times a year. On the mountain, where conifers are found naturally in abundance, they may go six years without seeing any aphids. When they do have aphids at that site, however, they no longer spray because of its close proximity to the blueberries. They discovered spraying the aphids was killing a large portion of the bees needed to pollinate the crop, which are brought in by a local beekeeper.
Klicker says not spraying hasn’t greatly affect sales because the infection doesn’t carry over from year to year. “If it was a pretty bad infection the year before they might lose some needles, but it wouldn’t affect the buds or new growth,” he says. “The limbs that had been affected won’t grow needles back but [the tree] is still very marketable.”
White-tailed deer are another concern, which enjoy some of the exotic varieties they grow, but not the native trees. They have some fences to keep them out of both the trees and blueberries, but are often not successful.
Klicker grows grand fir and Douglas fir, which are native to the region. Nordmann fir, concolor fir, spruce, and noble fir are the nonnative varieties he grows. He also buys some noble fir from a friend and grower in Oregon to sell.
Grand fir is their most popular. “That’s what we first started with, so we may have trained families,” he said. Many local residents have been buying Klicker trees for generations. The berry stand, which sells a variety of produce throughout the fall and summer, is a festive destination for families during the holidays. They sell holiday decorations and gifts, including wreaths and garland, made mostly from trimmings from the tree farm.
For several years they also had reindeer, but had to get rid of them due to tightening regulations around keeping the domesticated animal. “They were a joy to have too. [They were] very nice animals,” said Klicker.
In addition to offering you-pick-we cut, they flock trees for customers, giving the branches the appearance of a fresh snow dusting, which Klicker said is also a fire retardant. During the season, starting the day after Thanksgiving and ending on Christmas Eve, they employ about 12 workers. Many return year after year. “We have a second-generation Santa Claus,” he said. “His dad did it for 25 years.”
During the rest of the year, Klicker and his two sons maintain the farm. In the early 1980s, after his family transitioned out of raising cattle, he found himself out of his job of tending cows. He researched blueberries and decided they were a good crop to complement tree sales. He now makes his living between the two crops and some occasional timber sales. The four-acre blueberry crop is mainly sold fresh at his brother’s berry stand, with a small portion sold as U-Pick.
Bachtold Christmas Trees is another local grower, but the two businesses work well together. “We’re competitors, but we’re best friends, which doesn’t always go together,” Klicker said. In fact, Klicker trades some of the trees he grows to Bachtold for hunting privileges on his land, and they set their prices in relation to each other.
Klicker enjoys raising Christmas trees and being part of customers’ holiday traditions. “It’s a happy time of the year,” he said. “You’ll get people that come out that are grouchy or having a bad day, but for the most part it’s ‘Merry Christmas’ and everybody’s happy. It’s an uplifting way to make a living I think.”