Keeping a tree farm in the family

DFN: My family and I are going out to get our Christmas Tree today, at a tree farm in Alhambra Valley (border between Lafayette & Martinez).

Keeping a tree farm in the family

John Burgess/The Press Democrat

Adam Parks started working for his grandfather at the Victorian Tree Ranch in Sebastopol when he was just 4 years old. He earned tips carrying trees out to cars back then, but after taking over the 3 generation family business this year, he’s hauling his own trees.

By JULIE JOHNSON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Published: Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 6:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 6:31 p.m.

Bob and Sally Parks had been telling their customers for years that 2008 would be the final year they’d sell Christmas trees at their small Sebastopol farm, the Victorian Christmas Tree Ranch.

Bob Parks was battling lung cancer and the couple, in their mid-60s, were preparing to retire.

“It was sad, but we were ready,” Sally Parks said. Her parents had bought the Christmas tree farm on Gravenstein Highway near Mill Station Road 37 years ago.

But in one one of those Christmas-spirit oddities, the sagging economy brought the family business back to life.

Their eldest son, Adam Parks, and his wife, Laura, both 40, were struggling in Stockton to make ends meet running a day care center and his freelance sports marketing business. That, combined with his father’s illness, led to their decision to move to the farm with their two children in February.

As the seasons progressed without the normal year-round preparations for Christmas tree sales, Adam Parks said he couldn’t imagine life on the farm where he was raised without the business.

“My grandfather built this,” Adam Parks said. “I started working here with my grandfather when I was 4.”

So he put together a plan that expanded the family operation to include sending Christmas trees to U.S. troops abroad, offering sales through churches to fund charities, offering weddings and building a Facebook page.

“We accepted his business plan,” Bob Parks said. “Nothing would make us happier than to continue the family business.”

The Christmas tree industry seems to defy economic patterns. Despite rising unemployment rates and debt levels, 2008 was a bumper year for Christmas tree sales, to everyone’s surprise, said Rick Dongey, spokesman with the National Christmas Tree Association.

Americans bought 28.2 million trees in 2008, up from 22.2 million in 2002, according to the association. Dongey said industry experts predict higher sales this year.

Around Sonoma County, Christmas tree sellers agreed with the national assessment.

“We didn’t know what to expect, what with the economy and where people were at,” said Carol Mungle, who runs the Little Hills Christmas Tree Farm in Petaluma with her husband, Kriss.

But families have been pouring in to tromp the grounds, pick out that perfect tree and cut it down.

“I get the feeling that they really want this Christmas to be special,” Mungle said. “It’s not as much about the gifts as it is about family and tradition.”

Diane Davis and her husband, Gary, of Grandma Buddy’s Christmas Trees in Sebastopol, said they were surprised by the high turnout of customers on Thanksgiving weekend, their first open. They offered a wide range of price levels — from $3.99 to $200 — so anyone could afford a tree.

“This year we included more ‘Charlie Browns,’” Diane Davis said, referring to the scrawny Christmas tree loved by the cartoon character.

Davis said they also ordered fewer pre-cut trees and wreaths. But they may have to order more, she said.

“It’s like they aren’t skimping on Christmas,” she said of her customers.

Deep among the trees at Grandma Buddy’s orderly forest, Paula Read, 33, of Forestville and her boyfriend decided to cut down a Christmas tree so that when they do have children, it’ll be a family ritual, she said.

“Plus, we try to support the local community,” Read said. “If you just go pick up a pre-cut tree, it’s not the same. A tree has meaning here.”

Down another pine-scented aisle, Hyunsook Oh, 20, tried to saw through the base of a four-foot-tall Douglas fir. It was her first Christmas season in the United States since arriving from Korea, she said. She handed the saw to her boyfriend.

“It’s harder than I thought,” Oh said.

Her boyfriend, Emanuel House, 28, took on the project, but also found it tough going.

“I prefer to just buy it,” he said between huffs.

Not Oh. “I’m pretty sure I want to do it again next year,” she said.

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