Keith Stocker poses for a portrait at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Keith Stocker poses for a portrait at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Snohomish tree farm brings Christmas spirit, one seedling at a time

At Stocker Farms, it can take a decade to grow the perfect tree. All you have to do is pick the right one.

Keith Stocker is no stranger to waiting.

It’s a trait inherent to most farmers, patience. Something about spending year after year in the same cycle of planting, fertilizing, spraying, trimming, tending, harvesting fosters an unshakeable patience in the people who do it.

On any farm, things move simultaneously at breakneck speed and at a glacial pace. On a drizzly fall afternoon, Stocker Farms in Snohomish is abuzz with activity: parents push strollers past trucks offering hot apple cider and kettle corn, kids meander the muddy field in search of the perfect jack o’lantern. When darkness falls, the cheery farm setting will be transformed into Stalker Farms, and teens and couples will file into the Halloween-inspired corn maze — perhaps never to emerge.

During its peak fall season, the farm employs over 150 workers, many of them high schoolers. There’s never a dull moment.

But follow Stocker through the bustling midway, past the pumpkin and corn fields and out towards the lush green landscape of the river valley his family has farmed for the better part of a century, and you’ll get a peek at the farmer’s real test of patience. You’ll find yourself among 20 acres of towering evergreens and pint-size seedlings, a forest carefully managed by human hands.

Keith Stocker talks about the process of growing trees at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Keith Stocker talks about the process of growing trees at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

The trees aren’t like most of the crops around here — they won’t find themselves at the centerpiece of a beautiful fall feast or spiced in a latte or carved lovingly into a menacing grin. Out here in the man-made forest, things are much quieter, more solitary, at least for now. The trees are planted in neat rows, damp clover and grass separating them from each other. Only a trained eye, like Stocker’s, could tell you for sure how long each one has been waiting.

It’s not exactly farm-to-table, but Stocker’s Christmas tree farm is a testament to the long, slow process of growing something up from nothing. Each tree takes up to a decade to reach its desired height and strength, requiring plenty of tender loving care in the intervening years. Then they’re bundled up and hauled away to become the emblem of a family holiday, strung with lights and decorated with tinsel for a couple of glorious months before the story ends. Stocker is there, every step of the way.

Hurry up and wait

The land on which the Christmas trees grow is itself part of a very long story.

Stocker’s great-grandparents started farming this parcel of land in the Snohomish River valley over a century ago. In the years since, four generations of Stockers have stewarded the farm through countless existential crises, market booms and busts, births and deaths.

In 1958, when the farm was raising dairy cattle, Highway 9 swept right through the largest barn on the property. So they pivoted to row crops and pumpkins. When local markets for those started to shift, the Stockers adapted again, opening a produce stand right at the end of their driveway. That’s where Keith Stocker got his start as the business’s fourth generation, hawking fruit from the back of his parents’ truck and using a cigar box to make change.

By the time Stocker was grown up and managing the farm himself, market tides again were shifting unfavorably. He made the choice to divorce the family farm from the fickle mistress of traditional agriculture, shaping it into the family attraction it is today for a better sense of predictability and profitability.

Christmas trees were part of that plan, a natural extension of the u-pick experience you can choose to partake in with any of Stocker’s crops. The only difference is how long you have to wait to reap what you sow.

“We planted our sweet corn fields in June and we’re selling it now, already making back that investment,” Stocker said. “For Christmas trees, it might be at least a few years, if not a whole decade, before you ever see that money back, and it’s just something you have to work into your business model and hope for the best.”

Christmas trees at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Christmas trees at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

For much of the year, the tree fields are fairly quiet compared to the endless hustle and bustle of the farm’s other ventures. Each of the nearly 3,000 trees are visited by farm employees five times a year on average, to be treated with fertilizer or doused with neem oil to control bugs or just to check on their progress. And every time Stocker or anyone else happens to be out in the field, they bring a long blade — a sort of Christmas tree machete — with which to shave off straggling branches or invasive weeds, keeping the trees in the classic conical Christmas tree shape.

A lot of attention revolves around the leader, the singular branch that sticks straight up off the top of the tree, and for good reason: “Trees, just like people, need good leaders,” Stocker said.

If the delicate lone sprig is knocked off, usually by a perching bird, the top of the tree will grow unevenly. So employees step in to help nature along by securing a nearby branch in place as the new leader, where it will naturally step up to its new task.

Evergreens are hardy, and well-suited to growing in just about any condition Western Washington can throw at them. But there are still some pitfalls that can’t be avoided, resulting in about 3% of Stocker’s trees not making the cut, so to speak: disease, bugs, weather, interference by wildlife. Young deer often wander into the field and pick one tree to rub off the velvet from their antlers on. The beat-up tree usually gets left behind as a sacrificial “buck tree” in hopes the deer won’t pick on any others.

And sometimes, a seedling just fails to thrive. Seedlings are already three years old by the time they’re planted in Stocker’s field, and if it soon becomes apparent that they aren’t hacking it, it’s best to cull them rather than wait another couple years in the hopes that they catch up. When you’re working with this long of a timescale, you learn to be a little ruthless in hedging your bets; any minute change in today’s conditions can mean huge ramifications for your crop years down the road.

A sapling grows next to the stump of a tree from a previous year at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

A sapling grows next to the stump of a tree from a previous year at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

During the unprecedented Northwest heat wave of summer 2021, for example, many of Stocker’s colleagues in the Christmas tree world lost vast swaths of their crop, sometimes 90 or 100% of that year’s new seedlings. Stocker’s trees were luckily protected by circumstance, growing as they are in an irrigated river valley rather than mountain foothills like many other tree farms, but he predicts the whole industry will feel the echoes of that summer years from now.

“One thing like that happens ten years in the past, and no one is going to remember that’s the reason why Christmas trees are so expensive and hard to find in 2029 or 2030,” Stocker said. “Something like that messes with you for years to come.”

Seeing the forest for the trees

To the untrained eye, the 20 acres of trees on Stocker’s property read as endless clones of one another, blurring into a mass of green like any Washington hillside. But Stocker knows the quadrants of his field like the back of his hand, expertly spotting the division between a square of Douglas firs and neighboring grand firs.

There are six distinct varieties of Christmas tree growing on Stocker Farms, each uniquely suited to a specific task.

Douglas firs are the quintessential Christmas tree for a reason, Stocker said, with their dense, full branches and lovely deep green color. But they’re relatively fast-growing, reaching the five-to-eight-foot range most of his customers seek within six or seven years.

That makes their branches less sturdy than slower-growing varieties like the Nordmann or noble firs, which don’t have all the aesthetic qualities of a Douglas but offer strong branches well-spaced for large and heavy ornaments. Because they take at least a decade to reach a marketable height, they’re more expensive compared to the budget-friendly Douglas.

Those are the trees Stocker himself goes for each holiday season, the Nordmanns. His wife Janet started a tradition when they were first married of buying a new silver bell for the family Christmas tree each year. Thirty-seven years later, they need the solidity of a Nordmann to support all those bells.

Then there are the grand firs, the “perfume factories” of Christmas trees, as Stocker calls them. He agitates the needles of a tall tree with the blunt edge of his blade, some dead ones falling away as the branches release a potent fragrance, pure green forest tinged with bright citrusy sunshine.

If you’re in cramped quarters this holiday season, you might opt for one of Stocker’s Fraser firs. Tall, narrow and efficient, they’re the “apartment tree” of choice.

Christmas trees at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Christmas trees at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Just as the hectic pumpkin season dies down on Stocker Farms, it’ll be time to kick it into high gear for Christmas tree season. A couple dozen employees will stalk the fields to survey which trees are ready to be harvested this year, tagging them according to their height. The majority of Stocker’s trees are sold when they’re between five and eight feet tall, suitable sizes for the average living room, but he gets enough requests for truly towering trees that he imports some stock from other suppliers each year at heights of up to 18 feet.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, the farm will open its Christmas tree season, and families will descend on the fields to select their perfect holiday centerpiece. You can brave the conditions yourself and cut your own tree, then a friendly farmhand will get it on the tree shaker to loosen any debris, bird nests or rodents and secure it on top of your vehicle, tied neatly like a Christmas present. Or if you’re not quite in the lumberjack spirit, there’s always a selection of pre-cut trees available.

Stocker’s advice for a smooth, hassle-free Christmas season? Get your tree picked early, because when they’re out for the season, they’re out. And when you’ve got the perfect specimen loaded up, be sure to get it in water within two hours. Otherwise, the cut on the trunk heals over like a scab, Stocker said, limiting its ability to drink in water and resulting in a tree that dries out faster.

Christmas trees at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Christmas trees at Stocker Farms in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

If you keep up on maintenance, Stocker has seen trees last well past Valentine’s Day — but be warned that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Though artificial trees have gained in popularity over the years, Stocker doesn’t feel any heat from the competition just yet. He believes firmly in the superiority of his homegrown product. The real deal even conveniently biodegrades at the end of its life cycle, unlike a plastic tree that goes in the landfill after its useful lifespan is over.

And besides, you just can’t top the experience of stomping through the trees in search of the perfect one, family and the fresh scent of the forest surrounding you.

“It’s a hectic and sometimes stressful season for us who work here, but it’s always worth it in the end,” Stocker said. “People are always happy when they come here. People are making traditions and memories that will last lifetimes here. And that’s a great way to end 10 years of growing, I think, if I were a tree.”

Sound & Summit

This article is featured in the winter issue of Sound & Summit, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $4.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $18 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to soundsummitmagazine.com for more information.

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