RIDGEFIELD — At 11 on a Tuesday morning, the mist was only just rising from the woody, rustic landscape surrounding The Tree Wisemans Christmas tree farm.
A few customers wandered through the foggy maze of trees as a loud mechanical rumble broke the chill air. It was Bruce Wiseman, founder of the farm, running a tree through a gadget that shakes off loose needles and then wraps the branches down with wire for transport.
In the background, as the fog continued to clear, the snow-covered stump of Mount St. Helens glistened from the distance.
“We have a lot of people come out that are repeat customers,” Wiseman said, appreciating a ray of sunshine that further dispersed the haze. “We make a lot of friends. We produce a quality tree, and people appreciate that.”
The farm grows noble, Douglas, grand, Fraser and Nordmann fir trees, and has about 35,000 of them in rotation. It began mostly as a wholesale operation, but is moving more and more toward the more lucrative U-cut business, Wiseman said.
“We started out as a wholesale operation, and we did not have people at the farm cutting their own trees,” Bruce said. “Then we had friends come and ask if they could cut one for Christmas. And that just grew.”
A family business
The farm has lots of repeat customers — some joke they’ve put the Wisemans’ daughters through college and are now working on the grandkids — but the 25-acre tree farm is also a gathering point for Bruce and Nicki Wiseman, their five daughters, 15 grandchildren and all their assorted in-laws.
Asked what the family does for fun, Wiseman’s response is “this” with a grand gesture across the fields.
That drew both a wince and a knowing laugh from Lauren Ramey, Wiseman’s oldest granddaughter, who works as an RN and also helps out on the farm in her spare time.
“In summer, we’re here every day anyway because there’s a pool out here,” she said with a little smile.
Two of Wiseman’s daughters also built homes on the property last year, so if anything, the family is getting closer and more involved in the business.
“The 5 year old is just getting her first work,” said Angie Wiseman, Wiseman’s second-oldest daughter, of her parents’ youngest granddaughter. “She gets $5 a day to work here, so long as she can prove to her parents she did five useful things to help Grandpa.”
Fortunately for Wiseman, all of his children and grandchildren come by frequently to help out. Asked about the jobs they grew up doing, Ramey squinted in pain as she recalled trimming the branches from the bases of trees in a process they call “doing handles.”
“That’s critical, and it’s also a backbreaking, slow job,” Ramey said. “And you have to do it in summer when it’s 90 degrees out.”
Angie also remembers growing up “doing handles.”
“My older sister and I, we were the first real employees to do handles,” Angie said. “It’s not a very fun job.”
When they were little, they were paid by the tree, so the competition between the two girls became a race to see who could work faster, she said.
“I think that taught us a good work ethic,” Angie said, then paused.
“How to get all my friends out here to help me work — that was another life skill I learned,” she added with a laugh.
Fertilization is another grueling job that must be done by hand, carrying buckets to each of the 35,000 trees on the property.
Wendi Decker, Wiseman’s oldest daughter, said that was always her least favorite job. She enjoys making wreaths, which have become a popular part of the business, she said.
“We moved here when I was 13,” Decker said. “I’ve been doing all sorts of stuff on the farm since then.”
Another horror job for a tree farm kid is something called “sticks” — which is where workers put twist ties on the top of each tree to make sure they grow straight.
“We put three twisty ties on the top of each tree, and you have to take them all off again before December,” Ramey said. “We had to go out on stilts to reach some of them.”
Decker said the farm has really taught the entire family about work ethic and just sticking together as a group.
“It was a blessing,” Decker said. “It was a lot of work, but I think it served me well as an adult growing up on a small family farm. Things have to get done before you go play. It’s been even more of a benefit for our children. Some like it more than others, but for the most part this has been a lot of fun for my family.”
Ramey feels the same way.
“I don’t know what I’d do with my December without this,” Ramey said.
Roots and trees
Bruce Wiseman and his parents first moved to Ridgefield when he was a junior in high school in 1963. He met his future wife, Nicki, there, and they became high school sweethearts before both graduated from Ridgefield High School in the mid 1960s.
They got married in 1967, and Wiseman got a wildlife management degree and Nicki got a teaching degree from Washington State University in Pullman.
Wiseman then spent three years in the Army from 1968 to 1971, mostly inspecting food for the Army before it shipped out of Seattle.
“I inspected fish, beef, shellfish, apples — everything was frozen,” Wiseman said.
After that, he started managing wildlife refuges in Nebraska and Oregon, while the couple worked hard raising five daughters.
Then, in 1982, Wiseman was hired to manage the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, which moved everybody back home to Washington. The family moved to what is now the tree farm that year, which was also the home Wiseman’s parents bought when they first moved to the area.
“This homestead was actually the farm my folks bought in 1963,” Wiseman said. “My dad died young, in 1979. Once I got transferred up here, we were able to move in.”
Wiseman planted the first trees on the farm in 1980, a few years before the couple and their five daughters moved to the property. But it took a while for it to turn into a full-blown tree farm.
“I think we made the conscious decision that with a government salary, we couldn’t afford five kids in college,” Wiseman said. “We had a mentor come out and say ‘this would be a fantastic place to plant trees.’ So we planted 5 acres, and then another 5 acres, and now we have 25 acres of trees.”
Tree farming takes patience, though. It takes six years on average before the first trees can be harvested, and there’s no income to pay for it until that happens, Wiseman said.
“That was a long six years,” Wiseman said. “It was tough living on one salary, buying trees and taking care of them every year.”
Now that the farm’s been going for 37 years, things are much more streamlined. Wiseman’s tree rotation method is simple. Anytime a customer cuts down a tree, he plants a new one in the spot.
“I have 15 foot trees and bigger right alongside new seedlings,” he said.
The tree shortage
Oddly enough, the Wiseman farm is one of the few that wasn’t impacted by the larger Christmas tree shortage impacting national sales this year.
Many small farms around The Tree Wisemans sold out long ago or just didn’t open this year, but his farm still has an abundance of all tree types.
Part of the shortage issue is that the tree growing industry has been shrinking and its farmers have been graying, Wiseman said.
“(The industry is) still feeling the effects of the recession,” Wiseman said. “I was president of the (Pacific) Northwest Christmas Tree Association and before the recession, we had 500 to 600 members. We have maybe half that now. There’s also a lot of old gray people in this industry.”
After the 2007 recession, the Pacific Northwest ended up with perhaps 40 to 50 percent fewer Christmas tree farms than before, he added.
Another reason for the shortage is that there were some bad cone years recently — which are years when the seed cones of the trees don’t produce well.
“We had terrible cone years the past few years,” Wiseman said. “What that means is there’s no seed to plant at the nurseries.”
Nurseries plant the tree seeds and grow them out for 3-4 years, until tree farms buy them. Once at the tree farm, they grow for another 6-7 years before harvest, he said.
“Nobles have been affected the most — that’s why there’s a big shortage,” he said. “I bought nobles for my wholesale customers separately this year because I wanted my U-cut customers to be able to get my nobles.”
Next year, the farm may skip out on wholesale all together and go strictly U-cut, he added.
“It’s more lucrative, and the wholesale season also starts sooner,” he said.
The U-cut part of the business is doing so well that there really is no need to continue shipping trees wholesale to California and the Southwest, he added.
Asked if he’d consider retiring at some point, Wiseman dodged the question. He doesn’t seem interested in that as an option.
“I don’t think he’ll ever retire,” Ramey said after Wiseman wandered away to flock some trees, which is the process of adding fake snow.
“There’s enough grandsons and granddaughters that someone will continue it on though, if he ever does.”
Still, this Christmas season has been a special one for the family. Bruce and Nicki celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary Saturday. Weeks ago as he looked ahead to that day, Wiseman laughed about something that seemed certain to a veteran Christmas tree farmer.
“We’ll still have people popping by for trees that day, too, I bet,” he said.