Growing Christmas at the Bear Canyon Tree Farm

olympia christmas tree


olympia christmas treeIt smells like Christmas in the Cowlitz Valley, surrounded by rolling hills of fir trees and home to our neighbors at the Bear Canyon Tree Farm. This time of year, it’s hard to find anyone busier than a Christmas tree farmer. I hopped in the SUV with Barb Burres for a tour of Bear Canyon Tree Farm and enjoyed the company of a second-generation farm owner with a contagious smile and light-hearted laugh.  This is a stressful time on the farm, with the harvest in full tilt, and yet Burres carries the weight with grace and confidence that must come from years of being in the business.

We drove past acres of trees, waiting for their harvest years, and piles of firs ready to be delivered to stores all over the world. Bear Canyon is known for their high quality trees, and some of our nation’s finest noble firs.

Freshly Harvested

olympia christmas treeMost of us only enjoy adorning the end product, but the work of fertilizing, pruning, weeding and shearing is a full time job.  During the harvest, workers descend on the fields to cut and haul the trees to staging areas where they are loaded on refrigerated trucks. To speed the process, Bear Canyon uses helicopters to pick up slings of freshly harvested trees and fly them off the hills.

We pass a group of workers finishing a truck load and Burres comments, “We just finished 11 loads going over seas, and we start shipping 5 loads a day to Texas and Georgia in refrigerated container trucks.  The trees are pretty protected.  When you load them into those refrigerated trucks, I don’t think the trees even know that they are cut.”  Normally Bear Canyon has 6 to 8 full time workers, but during the harvest they have an additional 55 people. “Even with the extra help it’s a challenge to stay ahead of the harvest,” says Burres.

A Family Business

The farm was established in 1949 by Charley Burton and is now being run jointly by Burres and her son and daughter-in-law. Through the years, the farm has grown to roughly 600 acres.

heritage bank“After the war my dad wanted to raise his kids on a farm. Mom and Dad both went to UC Davis, a big agricultural school. He had a lot of really good ideas about how to get into farming. They started with chicken farming for quite awhile. He had a couple of patches of Christmas trees and he was always trying to select the very best trees and figure out a way to propagate them.  He had an eye towards being high quality.  He used to dig up the best ones and bring them to a field, that’s still there, Field X,” Burres explains.

Burres’ father was a scientist at heart.  “He started experimenting with grafting – where you take a tip off of a growing plant and splice it onto an existing plant.  All of the genetic material comes from the bud, and can become that perfect Christmas tree. We still graft trees, and nobody else does that. We grow a lot of really big trees and we have a good market in Hong Kong.  They grow best from that grafted material because it’s more resistant to disease and it has that nice blue color and all those characteristics you would choose in your very favorite noble fir. We shipped some 20 footers this year.  We’ve even had a tree in the White House.” On three different occasions, an 18 ½ foot Bear Canyon tree was placed in the White House’s blue room.

Retirement Plans on Hold

olympia christmas treeBurres originally went to school and became a civil engineer.  “I used to work out in the coal mines in Centralia for 10 years doing mine planning, but then came back to tree farming. I do everything here that I did there, but without quite as much stress,” Burres says.

“I was trying to go out of business about 6 or 7 years ago, I was going to retire,” Burres laughs.  “But then my kids found out about it! My kids were working at Intel, but then decided to get into the tree business.  I somewhat reluctantly kept the business going, and now have even more trees than I did then,” Burres explains.

The next generation has become more involved in the operation.  “Jason, my son, and his wife came in, and are awesome.  They’re not disillusioned – they’re here for the long run. Jason and Sophia have really picked things up and are hugely helpful.”

The Tree Market

Donna Moir from Heritage Bank, who partners with the farm, joined us on the farm tour. It is evident that Donna and Barbara have an easy way with each other that comes from years of working with a friend.

Burres explains, “The market is interesting in that it’s really cyclical. When the market is good, people will start planting trees.  When they go to market seven years later, the price is really affected. We are just coming out of an oversupply, so sales are going up. I think we’ve sold almost every tree we have” to which Barb and Donna exchange knowing smiles.

olympia christmas tree“They are good people,” says Moir. “We provide the financing.  So, if they are looking to do something, we will talk about it together.  I’m really very open about how we look at things as a bank, there’s no mystery about it. We don’t get into management, but give them our perspective on things.”

Moir continues, “There are the 5 C’s of credit: capital, capacity, cash flow, collateral and one of the C’s is character – and that’s the hardest one to evaluate but it’s the most important one.  When things go bad, there are some customers that throw up there hands, but there are others, like Bear Canyon, that say ‘this is tough,’ but dig in and do what needs to be done to get through it.  It’s the tough times when your characters shows.”

Burres comments, “Because we are high quality and we are really picky, we’ve been able to weather the market pretty well. There’s something really nice about working at a place where you are aiming to produce something that is high quality – we have a reputation for having some pretty good trees.”

Bear Canyon Tree Farm

Barbara Burres & Jason Stajduhar

Wholesale Sales: (360) 985-0460


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