Dawnelle Pagel brought home a little piece of Christmas. She cut away at a Monterey Pine more than seven feet tall, sawing the trunk back and forth until it fell.
“I did it!” Pagel cheered, exhilarated that she had cut down her very first Christmas tree at Peltzer Pines Christmas Tree Farms in Brea.
Such experiences are becoming rare in Orange County, as more apartments and homes are built to satisfy the area’s growing population. The development has made it tough on Christmas tree farmers, who need large plots of land to plant rows of trees that won’t get harvested until they’re four years old.
Charles Peltzer, 77, started his Christmas tree business nearly 50 years ago in East Anaheim. At its peak, Peltzer Pines Christmas Tree Farms had eight locations in Orange County, but that’s been whittled down to just three farms in Irvine, Brea and Silverado.
Increased competition and less open land have hurt his business, Peltzer said. This year, Peltzer will close his Irvine farm because he said his landlord, The Irvine Co., has plans to one day build housing there. Peltzer estimates he might have five or ten more years left on the Brea farm, depending on the economy.
“Land is very, very hard to find for what we do,” Peltzer said. “This farm here in Brea is owned by an oil company and when the economy returns, it will be developed into single family residences.”
Farming is in Peltzer’s blood. His grandparents came to Anaheim as farmers in 1913 and his parents later sold their farm to Walt Disney. The land is part of Disneyland, just about where the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is now.
Peltzer said he doesn’t have plans to leave Orange County and when he retires, his family will continue the business.
But his farm is up against significant challenges.
The cost of growing and maintaining the Christmas trees in Orange County isn't cheap. The farm starts with seeds of Monterey Pines and Leyland Cypress and lets them grow a few inches tall at their nursery, said staffer Andrew Miles. Then, Peltzer Pines clears the land at its farms in the spring and plants the saplings, Miles said. Four years later, the trees are ready to be cut down. The trees are trimmed four times a year, to make sure they have their Christmas tree shape.
Peltzer came up with the idea in 1963, when he visited a Christmas tree farm.
“People were standing in a line with a $10 bill in their hand and I (thought), ‘I can do that,’” Peltzer said.
But since then, the marketplace has changed, with big box retailers like Home Depot now selling freshly cut Christmas trees at a discount. Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes said the retailer expects to sell about 2.5 million trees this year.
A five to six foot tree at Home Depot can sell for $29, Holmes said. A six or seven-foot tree at Peltzer’s farm can cost customers at least double that price.
“Once the big box stores came in town, then people’s shopping habits changed accordingly, and then, here comes the artificial tree and the quality of the artificial tree is such that their popularity is without question,” Peltzer said.
Increased housing hasn’t helped either. Orange County has a long history of development driving away agriculture, said Chris Jepsen, president of the Orange County Historical Society.
Orange County once had a lot of citrus trees. But those groves faced a disease called “quick decline,” and one solution for farmers was to sell the land to developers, Jepsen said.
“I always joke that eventually Phoenix and Los Angeles are going to meet,” Jepsen said. “It’s all going to be paved between here and there.”
It’s no surprise that the number of farms designated for Christmas trees and other short-rotation woody crops have been in decline. In 2007, there were only 322 such farms in the state, a 20 percent decline from five years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The number of members in the National Christmas Tree Association has also fallen. There were 841 members last year, down 10 percent from 2010, the Chesterfield, Mo.-based association said. Spokesman Rick Dungey said there were a number of factors that could have caused the decline. Dungey said some members dropped out because the association no longer provided a liability insurance policy or they received services from other groups, but other reasons included farmers retiring or choosing to grow a different crop.
But Peltzer believes Orange County can support his business. He feels confident that he will be able to keep farming Christmas trees at his Silverado location, which is owned by OC Parks. His Irvine landlord, the Irvine Co., said it is also helping Peltzer look for another plot of land.
Peltzer expects sales will be equal to what he made last year, but he declined to give more detailed information. After the Irvine farm closes, he doesn’t have any plans to open a third location.
“Under the current (economic) situation, it would be a great risk,” Peltzer said.