Get in the holiday spirit at Graton Fire Christmas Tree Farm
Visitors to a certain Christmas tree farm in Graton know one thing for sure: Santa Claus wears a firefighter’s helmet. It’s only appropriate, considering the Graton Fire Department owns and operates the tree farm.
The Graton Fire Christmas Tree Farm surrounds the department’s fire station on picturesque Gravenstein Highway North. Shoppers can select a choose-and-cut tree or opt for a pre-cut tree from among those grown at a certified sustainable tree farm in Oregon.
Visitors are treated to a specially prepared wassail hot apple cider made daily, one of several welcoming touches at the farm. Members of the department’s career team, volunteer crew and cadet group stop by on occasion to say hello or lend a hand.
Now in its 16th season, the tree farm is distinctive in several ways.
“There’s no fire department that owns a Christmas tree farm in the country besides us,” said Heather O’Dell, who has managed the tree farm since its first year.
Other departments operate Christmas tree lots as fundraisers, she said, but O’Dell doesn’t know of any that run a year-round tree farm.
When the Graton Fire Department purchased the 9-acre site in 2006 to build its new station, it came with an agricultural use permit condition. The location was home to the Del Davis Christmas Tree Farm, where locals had been selecting holiday trees for generations.
Rather than lease property for a vineyard or other agricultural use, department officials decided to keep much of the parcel as a tree farm. Today about two-thirds of the site is dedicated to the operation, with proceeds supporting the department.
O’Dell and her crew revitalized the farm and increased the volume. It’s now a destination for West County residents as well as those from across Sonoma County and beyond.
“People are interested in helping the fire department. That’s a big deal,” she said.
Creating a positive experience
Customers return year after year, often bringing friends and extended family members.
“It’s so special,” said Linda Lucia, who works full-time at the tree farm. “They come because they know they get treated like royalty.”
She said everyone at the tree farm works to create a welcoming atmosphere and “those little things make this place special.”
Lucia and O’Dell work at the tree farm year-round, with a local high school student also on the payroll. A few other paid employees help during the holiday season and in the winter when new seedlings are planted.
For the department’s chief, Bill Bullard, the tree farm is more than a fundraising venue. It’s an opportunity to build community. Rather than encountering people while responding to fire calls, medical emergencies or out at vehicle accident scenes during “somebody’s worst moment,” the tree farm provides an outlet for casual interactions.
“It’s great. We end up chatting with people and it’s such a positive experience for them,” Bullard said.
He and O’Dell were especially touched by the community support last year amid concerns about COVID-19 transmission before vaccines were available.
“It was amazing to see people come out the past year during COVID and find a sense of normalcy,” Bullard said.
“People came like mad,” O’Dell said. “We had our best year ever.” Patrons purchased not only Christmas trees – lots of them – but also tree stands, ornaments and wreaths.
Seedlings to statement pieces
Additionally, visitors can sponsor a seedling for $1. In exchange, they use a ballpoint pen to engrave a name, message or design on an aluminum plant tag. Each tag is then attached to a seedling.
“It lets folks understand we intend to keep it going,” O’Dell said. “By sponsoring a seedling, it’s your blessing to move forward.”
She said the tags often memorialize milestones like marriages, births, the addition of new pets or the passing of loved ones.
“These are a story,” said O’Dell, standing in the afternoon sunshine in the farm’s nursery, where tags can be spotted on dozens of tiny trees.
She and her team strive to provide quality trees that are least likely to catch fire. The pre-cut trees O’Dell orders from Oregon – cut a few days before delivery – arrive in a refrigerated semi trailer less than 36 hours before opening day. The trunks are then cut and the trees dunked into a specially constructed shallow pond to soak up water.
When visitors view the pre-cut trees, several dozen are resting in buckets of water, free of baling netting to reveal their size and shape.
The effort requires “a lot of work and a lot of time,” O’Dell said, but trees won’t dry out so quickly and catch fire as readily as those cut weeks earlier and standing without water.