A One Man Christmas
BIGFORK, Mont. — Don Schiltz has been growing Christmas trees in Bigfork for 35-years.
Don is 81-years-old and has no definite plans of retiring. Chances are you've purchased one of his trees through the years. In this week's 'Montana Moment' we visit with Don at his farm where he explains the skill and patience it takes to grow the perfect tree. He revs up his 1988 Ford pickup for a trip around the farm to show us those trees."Around 1915 or so," said Don, "this whole area was big, big, big timber trees. So it's been a natural tree growing area."
Don's wife Sharon was born and raised across the road.Back then it was a dairy farm. Sharon's grandfather came here in 1910.Kneeling down to sift the dirt through his hands, Don said "what you've got here is very sandy soil. And I guess the trees like it. "The water table here is so high he doesn't have to irrigate his trees.So I assume it always will be good for growing trees," he said.
It's a whole different life from the military life Don knew in his younger years. After college he joined the Army and spent 21-years in the service. He's a Viet Nam veteran.In 1964 he was an adviser to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion. "And then in 1968-69," he said, " I commanded an infantry rifle company in Viet Nam. He said his "self-imposed mission" was to "keep as many men alive as he could." Many of these men, he said, "didn't want to be there and came home to be spit on."
After his military service Don wanted a more peaceful life filled with hard, physical work. Sharon and Don had purchased the farm in 1968. "I didn't want to have anybody working for me like I did in the Army," he said, "nor be working for somebody. So it's been a one-man-show with the exception of the harvest when my son Mark and my grandsons help me. "This "one-man-show" works seven days a week pretty much all year long. He currently has about 8,000 trees of different ages. All those trees need to have the weeds cultivated around them. But not too close." Or you start harming the tree," he said. "So you also have to hoe." He can't sell a tree until it's at least six-feet-tall.
To get the manicured look Don's trees are known for they need to be sheared. He shows us a perfectly groomed tree to demonstrate. "This tree has a definite line and that's because I shear it to give it that perfect symmetry," he said. "He constantly trims branches from the bottom of the trees' trunks so there's room for presents when it's taken into the customer's living room.In the winter trees can turn yellow.So he uses a non-toxic colorant to keep them green.His best seller is the Fraser fir. Originally it came from the Carolinas on the eastern seaboard," said Don. " It does not grow natural here. We brought it in." But the Frasers are flourishing.
He grows native Montana trees too, like Douglas fir and Grand fir. His Scotch pine trees are popular also, but not as popular as they used to be. "The firs have started to replace it in popularity," he said. One of the most aromatic trees is the Balsam fir. It has an especially fragrant Christmas tree smell. Don sells 1,300 to 2,000 trees wholesale to markets all over Montana. He cuts those trees a little earlier so they can be shipped on time for the holidays. But he harvests all his trees as late as possible.
He sells about 400 trees just down the road in downtown Bigfork. "I take the tree out there every day as they're sold," he said. So they are all freshly cut. He cut one of those trees and showed us the process of shaking the dry needles off so the customer won't bring falling needles into the house. He also has a special shaking machine that rids the tree of all excess dry needles. Then he puts the tree in his pickup and drives to Vessel Coffee Shop in Bigfork.
Outside the shop is a lot that's already filled with Don's trees. Vessel's owner Julie Meisner welcomes Don and shows us some of the varieties for sale. "These are my favorite," she said, pointing to the Douglas fir. "We've got an Eastern pine here," she said," and a Plantation fir." She showed us several other kinds of trees as well. Also in the lineup are several Doug fir trees that Don harvested. He left those in their natural state for customers who want a less manicured look to their tree. Julie said buyers come from all over to buy Don's trees. From Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Ronan, Lakeside, Polson and Missoula. "People love Don," said Julie. " People come in and ask if these are Don's trees? I want a tree if they're Don's trees. And I say they're Don's trees. He's still doing it." A shopper named Beverly, who came all the way from Libby, examined a tree that her husband held up. "That's the one I want," she said. "It says Beverly."
Don said it takes ten years for a Christmas tree to grow tall enough to sell.So when you first start out that's ten years without an income. The farmer said a small operation like his can't compete with huge operations in Oregon and Washington. He said with all the labor he puts in he really only makes about $5.00 an hour. "I couldn't hire or go in business with somebody else," he said. "Neither one of us would make anything then." But he has a military retirement and said he's doing okay.
And he loves his work. "I don't ever want to retire," he said. "I have to have something to do." But after a full day's work he said he does get tired. He has started to slowly wind down. He stopped planting new trees four years ago. So he's reduced his inventory from about 20,000 trees to 8,000 trees. That's plenty to keep Julie Meisner's customers in the lot at Vessel Coffee Shop happy for years to come.