Christmas trees go from chopper to chopper with efficient heli-harvesting

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - A helicopter helps with the Christmas tree harvest at the Banks farm run by Mark and Daryl Schmidlin, whose 70 acres of Christmas trees made up a small part of Washington Countys 2,300 overall acres of the crop in 2010.Mark and Daryl Schmidlin took their Christmas-tree harvest to new heights this year.

The brothers have worked on their family’s Banks-area farm since they were kids, but this is the first year they tried using a helicopter to bring in the trees.

It turned out to be a good way to save time, energy, labor and money — savings that are crucial with tree prices still stagnant due to the recession and an oversaturated market.

“With the helicopter we did in one hour what it would’ve taken 10 men three days,” said Mark Schmidlin.

Helicopters can carry up to 1,000 pounds of trees at a time and can pick up a new load every 30 to 60 seconds if all is going smoothly.

The Schmidlins use Mike Applebee of Applebee Aviation in Banks. Applebee said he and his crew fly in with a remote-controlled cable which they hook to a bundle of trees. In less than 60 seconds, they can lift and fly the bundle to a dropoff site, deposit it, then wheel around and come back for more.

Applebee said he harvests Christmas trees for about 10 to 15 farmers in Washington County, which sold about 155,000 trees in 2010.

This is the busy time for tree farmers in Oregon, but they work throughout the year prepping, planting, trimming and spraying.

The Schmidlins have to keep a continual watch out for pests and diseases like root rot, common in the Northwest, which they try to offset by planting on sloping ground.

Not only do Christmas trees require far more labor to maintain and harvest than some of the Schmidlins’ other crops such as wheat, clover and grass seed, but it takes between six and ten years for the crop to mature. That’s why the brothers continually renew their resources.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Mark Schmidlin watches a bundle of Christmas trees rise into the air. After a lifetime of teamwork,  the Schmidlin brothers run like a well-oiled machine. Mark does the selling, paperwork and sawing; Daryl bales, hauls and shags. Its nice not to have to make all the decisions by yourself, Daryl said.“When we harvest a tree, we plant a tree,” said Mark. “It’s a sustainable crop. It’s not like we are cutting down a forest. We planted the trees specifically for a Christmas tree crop.”

Their 150,000 trees include Grand Firs, Nordmanns, Noble Firs and Douglas Firs—and shelter deer, elk, birds and other wildlife.

In addition to opening their land to u-cutters, the Schmidlins sell their trees wholesale and export them to Mexico and all corners of the United States. Oregon exported more than $13.5 million worth of Christmas trees in 2010, selling more to California than any other customer, even Oregon, which came in second.

In order to export trees, growers have to follow state protocol to ensure they aren’t also exporting pests like gray garden slugs and yellow jackets.

Tree sales were down in 2010 from 2008 levels, dropping more than $6 million. So was the average tree price, falling about 80 cents to $14.21. After a few difficult years, business seems to be picking up this season, Mark said.

Despite the difficulties, the Schmidlins are committed to carrying on the crop started by their father in the late ’50s.

“I can remember being out there planting trees when I was 6 or 8 years old with my little pail of seedlings,” Daryl said, who now, at age 56 is two years younger than brother Mark. “The bigger guys didn’t have to bend over because I was dropping them in the ground.”

This year, Oregon will once again be the number one Christmas-tree-producing state in the nation. And the Schmidlins will do their part, expecting to sell 10,000 trees wholesale.

“It’s good to see happy families going home with a product they love,” Mark said.

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