by Sally Colby
Lynette Myhre said when her husband John was in college, he helped someone with Christmas trees and thought it would be a good idea for retirement. In 1985, John purchased their first piece of land, still thinking he’d start an enterprise for the future.
When the Myhres purchased their farm in Harrison, Idaho, the crops were barley and wheat. Today, the 65-acre property is Rusty Gate Tree Farm. At first, John was planting conifers for eventual sale as Christmas trees, then realized there was also a market for landscape trees. “We grow only conifers,” said Lynette. “We’ve been selling landscape trees and Christmas trees since the early 1990s, and expanded species for landscape trees.”
Their species selection is largely due to work by the Inland Empire Christmas Tree Association (IECA), who conducted a study of true firs. “They got seed from all over the world and did three test plantations to figure out which fir trees would be best for Christmas trees for this area,” said Lynette. “The Inland Empire is eastern Washington, northern Idaho and a little of western Montana. The Nordmann fir turned out to be one of the best trees for us to grow. They are originally from southern Russia and northern Turkey and do well here. It’s resistant to disease and drought, holds needles well inside and it’s a beautiful dark green with sturdy branches. It’s the favorite tree in Europe.”
The IECA started a grand fir plantation years ago; today, the Myhres are growing seedlings from that plantation. The Myhres also offer some area-specific species, including the limber pine that’s suitable for high elevations. “It has a distinct needle formation and is slow-growing,” Lynette explained. “Bristlecone pines are the trees grown in high elevations of the Southwest. They’re the oldest trees – they grow to be 4,000 years old. They’re slow growing, so they can be planted somewhere and won’t take over an area too quickly. Black Hills spruce is a hardy tree, and it’s greener and denser than the Colorado blue spruce.”
Several years of drought led to the loss of grand fir and Fraser fir that were ready to sell as Christmas trees. Lynette said the drought conditions combined with root diseases such as annosus root rot and phytophthora result in trees that are more susceptible to root issues.
The Myhres maintain 10 acres of trees surrounded by deer fencing for U-cut customers. Pre-cut trees for both on-farm and tree lot sales are grown on a different section of the farm. When feasible, the Myhres clear fields and start new plantings from scratch, but also interplant to maintain the U-cut section. “The challenge is keeping enough trees there,” said Lynette. “After the severe drought, we lost about 90% of our seedlings, so we have a gap in production.” The Myhres have since installed drip irrigation in the fenced area. A pond supplies water, and a solar pump sends water from the pond to the drip irrigation system.
During the Christmas season, customers can select a tree from among the pre-cut trees displayed on a rack or select one from the field. “Some people like to go out to the other field for a walk, then come back and get their tree from the rack,” said Lynette. “They can cut a tree themselves and haul it in, or we will cut it for them and bring it in. We restock our pre-cut trees every week so the trees are always fresh.”
Just prior to the season, John selects trees that aren’t suitable for the fresh-cut market and designates them as wreath material. Lynette said the Nordmann fir is ideal for wreaths because it’s dark green and holds up well. “We use a variety of other greens too,” she said. “Some wreaths are just Nordmann fir and are solid dark green; others are made with mixed greens. We’ll have three different sizes, and add cones and bows for a more natural look.”
As John and Lynette move toward retirement, they’re helping the next generation transition to the farm. Their son Graydon received a degree in business management, and after traveling, he married Tessa and returned to the farm. Their other son Marshall and his wife Jordan also work on the farm during the season. This season, Lynette, Graydon and Tessa will be making wreaths, which Lynette said results in a nice selection for customers. Lynette added that while they can’t compete with the big box stores on price, customers appreciate wreaths made from locally gathered materials.
A traditional customer favorite during the holiday season is an eight-foot wreath that’s perfect for family photos. In the past, Lynette has used customers’ phones to take photos, but she hasn’t decided how to handle photographs this year. “People want the picture to include their whole family,” she said. “One idea is taking pictures with my phone then emailing them, but that will take some time when we’re already busy, and I’m also using the same phone for credit card sales.” Another change this year will be no hot chocolate or food during tree sales, but Rusty Gate Tree Farm will invite guests to bring their own hot drinks and snacks. For guests’ well-being, hand saws and all other common, high-touch surfaces will be sanitized frequently.
As Graydon and Tessa transition to the farm, they’ve initiated some new ideas. This year, they’ll debut their tree maze. “We had a field of older Colorado blue spruce that grew up and we were just at the point of thinking of pulling them all out and starting over,” said Lynette. “Graydon and Tessa came up with the idea of cutting a maze through the trees. They created the maze by cutting branches throughout the summer and it turned out well.” They’ll add some pictures of Santa and the reindeer throughout the maze to create a hunt. In addition to their work on the farm, Graydon and Tessa plan to set up a tree stand in Coeur d’Alene, which will feature extra tall specialty trees from another farm.
The farm also includes a small orchard of heritage cider apples, so Graydon and Tessa are looking into pressing apples in autumn. “We’ve always done that as a party for friends and family,” Lynette explained. “We’re trying to think of a way to invite the public here more often for additional income. We’re also growing some blueberries and might grow some pumpkins.”
Another idea Graydon and Tessa would like to pursue is using sheep to graze among the Christmas trees. “Graydon started planting cover crops between the tree rows,” said Lynette. “Maybe in the next year or so, we’ll get a small flock of sheep and see how that works.”
Visit Rusty Gate Tree Farm at rustygatetreefarm.com.