Business is booming at California’s only certified organic Christmas tree farm

JJ Campos, 8, pulls his freshly cut Christmas tree out of a grove at Billy’s Farm in Wilton, the state’s only certified organic Christmas tree farm, on Saturday.
JJ Campos, 8, pulls his freshly cut Christmas tree out of a grove at Billy’s Farm in Wilton, the state’s only certified organic Christmas tree farm, on Saturday. lsterling@sacbee.com

Paul Weubbe’s Christmas tree farm, tucked off Dillard Road in Wilton, occupies just 17 acres, but it has a special distinction: It’s the only certified organic Christmas tree farm in California.

Weubbe’s business, called Billy’s Farm, obtained its organic certification from the California Certified Organic Farmers, or CCOF, in 2006. Since then, business has been brisk.

Weubbe opened his Christmas tree farm in 2003 with 30 trees he had been planted as Monterey pine seedlings three years prior. He sold all 30 trees in one weekend.

Last year, Weubbe sold just under 1,000 trees, and he expects to surpass that number this year. There are about 18,000 trees growing on his farm at any given time. He charges $6.50 a foot for his choose-and-cut trees, which include Monterey pines, Bishop firs and other varieties.

“We’ve seen phenomenal growth,” Weubbe said.

In the realm of organic farming, his farm is quite an anomaly. “It’s a niche kind of crop,” he said.

It’s such a niche crop that CCOF – which certifies organic farms in the state – had to make a detailed check of its database to make sure it had ever even certified a Christmas tree farm.

“Billy’s Farm is, indeed, our only client with certified organic Christmas trees in California,” said Robin Boyle, director of marketing for CCOF.

U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that as of last January, there were only five certified Christmas tree farms in the United States.

Weubbe’s farm occupies land where his family for years operated a sheep and cattle ranch. Once all six Weubbe siblings left for college and other pursuits, the Weubbe Ranch became a walnut farm.

In the 1990s, Weubbe worked as a sales representative for Coca-Cola in Southern California, traveling to Wilton on the weekends to help out on the farm. When his father died in 1999, the operation became too much for his mother to handle.

With his father gone, Weubbe took over the job of picking out a Christmas tree for his mother and his six siblings. He checked with the nearby Davis Ranch and discovered they were sold out of trees. He was forced to buy one from a big-box store. “It was a little dried out and not really the tree I wanted,” Weubbe said.

“That was when our family hatched the idea of a tree farm, because if a nearby farm is sold out the second week of December, there must be demand,” he said.

In 2000, he planted his first Christmas tree seedlings. Because the land on his farm had been fallow for several years, there had been no application of pesticides or herbicides. He took the opportunity to keep the soil organic.

“I went organic because I saw a need for it,” Weubbe said.

Chemicals are used on Christmas tree farms to control pest infestations. Monterey pine, in particular, is prone to bark-beetle infestations. Farmers use the pesticide Roundup to control weeds.

To keep his farm organic, Weubbe clusters his trees and piles cedar chips around their bases to control beetle infestations.

“With an organic tree, you don’t bring pesticides or herbicides into the home,” he said. “Because when you get a tree home and bring the temperature above 68 degrees, at that point you can off-gas pesticide into your home.”

Few studies have ever been done to determine whether off-gassing is possible from Christmas trees raised in soil treated with pesticides and herbicides.

And it is unclear whether a huge demand exists for organic vs. non-organic trees, said Sam Minturn, director of the California Christmas Tree Association.

But by opening a new Christmas tree farm, Weubbe bucked a trend of closures in California’s Christmas tree industry.

“The trend with Christmas tree farms is that there has been a slow decline,” Minturn said. “It’s because of land prices. It’s hard for a 30- or 40-year-old couple to buy 5 or 10 acres to start a tree farm in California.”

USDA data show that in 2002 there were 543 Christmas tree farms in the state, with 383,000 trees harvested that year.

By 2012, the number of farms had declined to 385, and only 109,000 trees were harvested. Most trees sold in the state are imported from Oregon and Washington. California is the Pacific Northwest’s largest market.

It takes between three and 15 years to grow a 6-foot tree, depending on the variety. The average growing time is seven years.

Most of the Christmas trees grown in the Sacramento region come from El Dorado County, which has 85 farms, according to the USDA.

Minturn farms 4 acres of Christmas trees in Hilmar, near Turlock. He finds growing organic trees admirable, but it is not a focus for most tree shoppers. “My customers are not clamoring for an organic tree,” Minturn said.

What they are pining for is a natural tree rather than a plastic tree, he said.

Unlike plastic trees, most of which are imported from China, a natural tree is easily recycled. Most cities have recycling programs. In Sacramento, for instance, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District opens its corporation yard on Jan. 4 so trees can be mulched for later use as landscaping or as soil nutrient.

“A plastic tree will take thousand of years to decompose in a landfill,” Minturn said.

Few growers are willing to go through the daunting process of getting organic certification from the CCOF. Although there are more than 80 bodies in the U.S. that certify organic farms, the CCOF is one of the oldest and largest.

Certification typically takes up to 10 weeks, with small farms paying between $600 and $1,000. After that, a farmer must pass inspections and must re-certify. At Billy’s Farm, re-certification costs $300.

One farmer who grows organic trees but has avoided certification is Pam Harris, co-owner of the Harris Tree Farm in Pollock Pines.

The 125-acre farm, opened in 1961, is one of the oldest in the region. Harris said she charges between $6 and $8 per foot for her organic trees, which include Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir varieties, among others.

“We don’t put pesticides on our trees, but we’re not going for certification,” Harris said. “Certification takes a year of logging everything that you do – it’s laborious.”

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.