Family tree farm still growing 74 years later

Anyone looking for a last-minute Christmas tree need only head to Clinton.

Tony Shults

Anyone looking for a last-minute Christmas tree need only head to Clinton.

Follow the winding path to 7111 Heggenes Road, a street lined with tall timber and old farmhouses. There, Shults Christmas Tree Farm awaits to be browsed, meandered through and wandered on its 20 acres.

“You look out and it’s beautiful,” said owner Tony Shults, whose family has owned the tree farm for almost 75 years.

The farm is essentially a free-range tree grow. Noble firs, Douglas firs, and Shasta firs are grown in areas, not rows, and without the use of pesticide or herbicide. In addition to letting individual firs grow tall, Shults uses stump culture, which uses stumps as a base for new shoots. Like a nurse log, the practice results in ideal Christmas trees, he said.

He and some employees take great care throughout the year to shape and cultivate hundreds of trees. Clipping their outstretched branches allows the firs to focus their growth inside, making them full and bushy and great for hanging ornaments.

Others at the edge of the property, left alone for decades, tower into the sky. Those trees are relics of the family business that Shults, 72, has kept going the past few years.

The tree farm first sprouted in 1941 as a wholesale operation run by his parents. Around 1965 the Shultses opened their farm to the public for Christmas tree perusing.

“I started as a helper on the weekends,” Shults remembered during a recent visit to the farm.

These days, the farm is more of a hobby than a financial necessity. Given the amount of time Shults spends throughout the year shaping, pruning, weeding, and clearing the farm, however, it may as well be a full-time gig.

“In the summertime you work out here and it’s hot,” he said. “In the winter, it’s cold and wet.”

People come from across Puget Sound to buy a fir from Shults Christmas Tree Farm in Clinton. Locals support it financially, too, during the Christmas season. Churches and other groups often receive their trees as a donation from the Shults family. Some public displays include the Langley Chamber of Commerce tree on Second Street and Anthes Avenue, at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Clinton and at the Whidbey Evangelical Free Church in Greenbank.

“We forget so easily what a blessing it is to live on Whidbey Island because we have these great, forested areas,” said Mikkel Hustad, pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which has cut its Christmas tree from the Shults farm for at least seven years. “Especially around the Christmas season we get into our routine of trying to get things done. Then you go up there, you hear the music, have a cup of hot cider, it’s so different from the sterile rush we get into … You breathe deep and go, ‘Wow, this is wonderful.’ ”

Shults said the wintertime tree farm hasn’t made him rich. Before retiring and continuing the Christmas tree business his parents started, he was a graphic designer and now works part-time as a health care attendant.

“I don’t think it could (make money) if we wanted it to,” he laughed. “If we break even we consider ourselves lucky.”

Charging $25 to $60 for a tree, no matter how large it is, helps cover some of the maintenance costs for equipment and pays for a couple of employees outside of the Shults family. Seriously, Shults said even the towering trees a few dozen feet tall would only cost $60 if someone wanted to use the top 6 feet as their Christmas tree. The rest of the wood becomes ring stands for tabletop trees and firewood.

Just about everyone in his immediate family has some role in running the Shults tree farm. In addition to himself as the overall manager and caretaker, his wife Patty Shults does the bookkeeping, his adult daughter Julia runs the Facebook page from her home in Spokane, his son Max still tends to the store on weekends, and his oldest son Adam helped him clear some of the blowdowns during the recent windstorms.

Seeing that kind of generational support from customers, said Tony Shults, is one of the perks of running what he jokingly refers to as a community service. Some of the friends that he grew up on South Whidbey brought their children to the tree farm every Christmas, and now that legacy is continuing.

“Some of them are bringing their grandchildren now,” he said. “Makes me feel old.”

After the final weekend of operation before Christmas, several cut trees will be awaiting any last-minute tree shoppers leading up to Christmas Day. With the store closed, an honor system of paying what you can and what you want will be set up.

“I hate to see people go without a Christmas tree just because they can’t afford it,” Shults said.