Rod Blalock jokes that running a Christmas tree farm is more a labor of love than a moneymaker.
Blalock, owner of Red Hawk Ranch in Auberry, is one of the few remaining Christmas tree growers in Fresno County. Although the local industry is relatively small compared to the powerhouse producers in the Pacific Northwest, it is surviving thanks to consumers who still are eager to cut down their own trees.
Blalock planted his first crop of trees 14 years ago, when there still were several growers in the region. Now, his and Hillcrest Tree Farm in Reedley may be the only tree farms left. Both operators also sell pre-cut trees from Oregon and Washington to help satisfy demand.
Over the years, competition for land, higher-value crops and high costs have made it difficult for local Christmas tree farms to compete against the avalanche of trees coming from up north.
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Add an ongoing drought to the mix, and you will know why Blalock occasionally waffles about his decision to stay in the tree business.
“People tell me that I should be planting almonds or stone fruit,” said the 63-year-old Blalock. “But the truth is, this is something that I have always wanted to do. And as long as I can, I’m going to keep doing it.”
This year, Blalock planted 600 seedlings for future harvests and has installed drip irrigation to make the most of his water. The drought caused his Monterey pine trees to grow slowly. Some of those trees are not as full as they normally would be, he said.
People tell me that I should be planting almonds or stone fruit. But the truth is, this is something that I have always wanted to do. And as long as I can, I’m going to keep doing it.
Rod Blalock, owner of Red Hawk Ranch in Auberry
Still, Blalock said his customers have not been disappointed. Red Hawk Ranch is open on Saturdays and Sundays and has several varieties of trees available, including Douglas fir, blue spruce and Leyland cypress. Blalock, who works during the week as an interventional radiologic technologist in Fresno, is assisted on the farm by his sister, Rita Haddix.
“When you see families coming from all over wanting to cut their own tree, it really makes things worthwhile,” he said.
Christmas tree industry officials say that despite the continued popularity of artificial trees, real trees still are in demand. According to a 2014 consumer survey by the National Christmas Tree Association, real-tree sales were $1.04 billion, compared to $1.19 billion for fake trees.
Sam Minturn, spokesman for the California Christmas Tree Association, said the number of Christmas tree operators in the state remains steady at about 200 to 300. The association represents Christmas tree growers, retailers, wholesalers and suppliers.
200-300Number of Christmas tree operators in the state
Minturn said tree sales have been steady this year, with some operators seeing a demand for trees even before Thanksgiving.
“We aren’t going to complain about that,” Minturn said. “If they want trees early, we will have them available.”
Local operators also report that sales have been brisk this year.
“Sales have been very steady,” said Ally Kay of Kay Kringle’s Christmas Tree Ranch at 8805 Highway 41, just north of the San Joaquin River. “On weekends, we are packed.”
Kringle’s Christmas Tree Ranch has been leasing the land that was formerly home to Cobb’s Christmas Tree Farm. The property was sold several years ago, and most of the land is now growing walnuts. The cut-your-own Christmas trees are gone.
Kringle’s offers several varieties of pre-cut trees along with flocking, food vendors, pony rides and photos with Santa Claus. Prices for pre-cut trees have risen only slightly at Kringle’s, with most trees within the $55 to $95 range.
Melissa Bautista, co-owner of Hillcrest Tree Farm in Reedley, said she has seen an increasing number of younger families visiting the Christmas tree farm. Hillcrest grows Monterey pine and has pre-cut trees available. The farm also includes a train you can ride.
“People really want an experience when they go out and get a tree, and we give them that,” Bautista said. “Demand has been very good, and we are selling more trees this year than last year.”
Also good news for the industry is that the state’s Christmas tree operators have become part of a marketing organization that will collect an assessment from each seller to pay for marketing and promotion. The assessment applies to growers who sell more than 500 trees.
“This will really help us do some promotion and research for the industry,” said Minturn, who has a Christmas tree farm near Turlock. “I am all for it. I am surrounded by almond trees and cows, and it would be great to see some marketing support.”