ROYAL OAKS — In a time when scores of Christmas trees are sold in the parking lots of big box stores, the idea of driving to a genuine tree farm and cutting down your own feels almost like stepping back in time.
But Glenn Church and his wife Kathy McKenzie of Church Christmas Tree Farms both believe there is something special about the experience, and say they are dedicated to keeping the tradition alive.
“It’s a different feeling, being at a real tree farm,” McKenzie said. “You’re hiking around under a forest canopy with all those fresh smells. You might spot a deer, or even a bobcat. It gives you a real experience.”
Church Christmas Tree Farms was first established in 1959, when Glenn Church’s father Warren Church bought some property in North Monterey County not far from Elkhorn Slough. They are now two separate farms located close to each other on the same stretch of Hidden Valley Road in Royal Oaks. At peak season, both locations may be open at once — giving visitors a chance to search high and low for their very own tree, or choose from a selection of pre-cut Firs from Oregon.
The farm is expected to sell most of its trees by mid-December, after being open since Nov. 23. Despite a handful of slow days due to rainy conditions, this season is going well.
“Last Sunday was probably the busiest day we’ve seen in almost 20 years,” Church said. “It was a continuous flow of people.”
The demand for Christmas trees is consistent every year, and the industry gives farmers flexibility throughout the other seasons. But once the holidays roll around, life can get plenty hectic, Church admitted.
“I don’t think I’ve had a full day off since Halloween,” he laughed. “But it’s great. We’re getting people who’ve never cut their own tree, to families who’ve been coming for generations.”
What has been a challenge is the changing climate in California, Church said, which has been affecting how well certain tree varieties grow. Douglas Firs, for example, were for years one of the most popular trees — but due to the recent years of drought, have become more susceptible to burning and certain diseases.
“When you do this for a living, there is no denying climate change,” he said. “It affects everything we do here. You notice it because it’s happening right in front of you.”
The farm has done its best to adapt, experimenting with different species — many of which are drought-resistant. The Leyland Cypress, a hybrid of the Monterey Cypress and Alaskan Cedar, is one that has seen a surge in popularity. The farm also uses the method of stump culture; leaving branches attached to a stump after harvesting. This allows a new tree to grow from the stump without needing to create a new root system.
“We do our best to be as sustainable as possible,” Church said.
Next year, Church Christmas Tree Farms will celebrate its 60th anniversary. McKenzie hinted that they are brainstorming about ways to celebrate the occasion.
“We’re trying to plan for something a bit different,” she said. “It’s a big occasion.”
On Wednesday afternoon, a light rain began to fall as Gregg McKee of Carmel worked to cut a tree and load it into his car for the trip home.
“It was a longer drive than we expected, but there aren’t many places you can cut your own,” he said. “So we’re really glad to be here — rain and all.”
Church Christmas Tree Farms is located at 385 and 470 Hidden Valley Road in Royal Oaks and will remain open until Sunday, Dec. 16. For information, visit churchchristmastreefarms.com.