At 80 years old, Don Schiltz lumbers across an acre lot lugging a fresh-cut, 50-pound fir tree, the product of at least 10 years’ worth of constant attention and physical labor for the lone Christmas tree farmer.
Over the next month, Schiltz will cut, bale, haul and sell up to 3,000 trees as he enters his busy season.
Fraser firs, white pines and blue spruce speckle the 20-acre farm near Echo Lake for a total of 10 different species and more than 20,000 trees.
From seedling to harvest, each tree takes a minimum of 10 years to grow to full size. Even then, Schiltz said, they are usually only about 6 feet tall.
But a Christmas-ready tree takes more than time to grow.
Schiltz plants seedlings, or baby trees, when they are about 8 to 12 inches tall using a dribble, a two-handled tool with an arrowed head.
One by one he plants rows of 20 trees 6 feet apart, carrying the little trees in buckets of water to keep them from drying out.
Once planted, he turns most of his fields with an excavator pulled behind a small tractor, but the intensive work around the trees must be done by hand.
Weeds threaten the young trees, stealing moisture and nutrients needed for healthy growth.
Since the excavator would damage fragile branches and roots, Schiltz takes a hoe and turns the dirt around each tree year-round until the trees reach about 4 feet in height.
That takes around seven years.
Once the trees reach the 4-foot mark, Schiltz begins trimming and grooming them into the signature conical shape that will one day sparkle with twinkling lights and sentimental ornaments.
He keeps a close eye on the tips, making sure they never grow to more than a foot in height, which would create a gap in the tree’s foliage, ruining the manicured look.
Trees approaching their harvest year receive extra treatment, a final touch before they’re cut.
Pulling a 150-gallon tank, Schiltz takes his tractor up and down the rows of mature trees, spraying a special colorant that soaks into the needles, turning them the darker, richer green that “folks seems to like.”
Schiltz says the colorant is non-toxic and contains no harmful chemicals, a choice he made throughout the farm that also keeps him from using any pesticides or herbicides on his trees.
Come harvest time, the real work begins as Schiltz trims low-hanging branches, hoes dirt away from trunks, rubs down trunks with his gloved hands to remove dirt and sand and then uses a chain saw to cut thousands of individual trees.
Much of his day is spent re-sharpening his chain saw, and when the trees are finally cut, he must then carry each one across the lot to a shaker.
The shaker, a small machine connected to his tractor, removes dry needles when the trunk is inserted into a gyrating hole.
“If I just bought this tree and went and carried it into the house and put it in the living room, the wife would shoot me,” Schiltz said, standing in a pile of needles.
Schiltz has tended his farm single-handedly with the same degree of care for the last 34 years.
The property on which his farm sits has been in his wife’s family for generations, and her grandparents’ house still stands as the single structure on the 20 acres of land.
The couple bought the property in 1967 while Schiltz was still serving in the military.
They leased the land over the next 16 years until Schiltz retired from a 21-year career in the Army and the two moved back to Montana.
He planted his first trees in 1983 after helping on his father-in-law’s Christmas tree farm one summer while on leave and deciding that was the life for him.
“After 21 years in the Army I really didn’t want to work for anybody anymore, and I really didn’t want anyone working for me,” Schiltz said.
As an officer, Schiltz spent most of his career, including two tours in Vietnam, managing personnel.
Upon his retirement at age 45, he said he didn’t sit well with doing nothing and wanted a simple lifestyle that let him work outdoors.
It would be a decade before he saw the first fruits, or firs, of his labor.
Around that same time, many tree farmers in the area were cutting their losses in what had previously been a booming business in the Flathead Valley.
DATING BACK to the 1940s, Kalispell and Eureka were two of the biggest hubs for the nation’s supply of Christmas trees.
Back then, people would harvest wild, uncultivated trees from the mountains and local tribes would bring in trees from the reservations to be shipped and sold across the country.
As years passed, some people began growing and cultivating trees on farms, a trend that soon caught like wildfire.
“Mistakenly they thought that the tree business was a really good money-making business, and it isn’t,” Schiltz said.
By the 1990s, Montana farms began losing money as growers started planting trees in the millions in Oregon and Washington, outnumbering and outbidding growers in the Flathead Valley.
“In the ’90s, if you’d have been here, you’d have found that many Christmas tree farms were cutting the trees, piling them in big piles and burning them,” Schiltz recalled. As neighboring farms dwindled, so did competition, boosting business for Schiltz as he rode out the bust on his retirement check.
Today, the Schiltz operation is one of a handful of tree farms left in the region, and the majority of his trees are sold wholesale to buyers who ship hundreds at a time across the state.
Buyers arrive with their semi-tractor trailers, and Schiltz, with the help of a few of his grandsons, loads several hundred trees at a time.
Though the big business is in wholesale, Schiltz said, the real money comes from retail.
Wholesale trees sell for about half to a quarter of the cost of the trees he sells at Vessel, his retail shop off Montana 35 in Bigfork.
However, if he relied only on retail, Schiltz said his business would never survive.
SCHILTZ CONSIDERS his work on the farm interesting and challenging, and he takes pride in the way he runs his business.
“Other retailers in the area, they don’t grow their own trees, so all their trees are cut in late October and early November, and then they store them,” Schiltz said.
By Christmas, those cut in late October will often be dropping needles from the whole tree, according to Schiltz.
He, on the other hand, only cuts trees as needed to replace those as they’re sold.
“Every one of the trees on my retail lot was 24 to 48 hours old, maybe only a half-hour old,” he said.
Though he said he enjoys his work, Schiltz said he isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be able to continue.
He stopped planting new trees about three years ago.
“It struck me at 78 that in order to harvest that tree I’d be planting, I would be 88 years old and that’s kind of silly,” Schiltz said. “And at 80, they’re getting heavy.”
Though unsure what will become of his trees when he does officially retire, Schiltz plans to enjoy this season’s harvest and the season that comes with it.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.