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Melange Dietz, left, and Anthony Medina, tag-team a Christmas tree to be placed on a conveyor belt for KLM Tree Farm on Monday.

ROCHESTER — KLM Tree Farm owner Mark Steelhammer stands in the middle of South Sound Speedway’s race track with a clipboard. He’s counting each one of his already cut Christmas trees as workers haul them onto a conveyor belt that’s fed into the back of a semi truck. Inside the darkened trailer are a handful of workers stacking them into tight bunches.

A race track isn’t the place one might expect to find a tree farmer during the height of Christmas tree season, but it’s a necessary location for Steelhammer to load and ship his thousands of Christmas trees that end up in homes across the entire U.S.

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Melange Dietz, left, loads a Christmas tree onto a conveyor belt as KLM Tree Farm owner Mark Steelhammer keeps count Monday at the South Sound Speedway in Rochester.

What started out as more of a hobby for Steelhammer and his wife, Luanne, has sprouted into a flourishing holiday business. Steelhammer’s aunt and uncle sold a few trees in the 70s on a small plot of land, and he thought it might be a worthwhile venture. He figured all he would have to do is plant some trees, do nothing but wait for seven or eight years until they reached the desired height and then rake in the money. It didn’t quite work out that way. Steelhammer found out there was a lot more work involved.

He started out in 1979 with 4 acres of wet ground that wasn’t ideal for growing trees. But he kept picking up more and more land over the years, buying and leasing, increasing his output each time.

Now, 41 years later, the Steelhammers are selling 45,000 to 55,000 trees annually, grown on roughly 300 acres of land.

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KLM Tree Farm employee Anthony Medina smiles while loading Christmas trees into a semi truck Monday.

Each tree species has a different length of time to reach a desired height. Douglas firs take about seven or eight years, while noble and Nordmann firs take at least eight and up to 12 years to mature. Nordmann’s, which are popular in Europe, have started to gain traction in the U.S. in recent years because their needles stay attached longer than traditional Christmas trees. The tree farm also grows Fraser firs and grand firs.

“Nordmann is kind of a new tree, a slower-growing tree,” Steelhammer said. “It doesn’t have a lot of disease or bug problems. It doesn’t have a lot of scent, but people like it. It’s a very pretty tree.”

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KLM Tree Farm owner Mark Steelhammer watches his employees prepare to ship out Christmas trees on Monday.

Steelhammer uses a rotation to ensure he has vast stocks of trees each year, using a process called interplanting, where he plants trees in between the stumps of previously-cut trees. After two rotations, over about 20 years, he pulls the stumps out, puts a soil amendment in the ground and starts the process over. The harvest size ranges from tabletop, which are 2 to 4 feet, all the way up 10 to 12 feet.

KLM Tree Farm does not offer U-cut or sell directly to the public. All of his trees are sold commercially, shipped all over the U.S., as far away as Florida and Massachusetts, to retailers and garden centers.

The Steelhammers have also participated in Trees for Troops the last 10 years, where they donate and collect trees from several local tree farms to be given to service members at Joint Base Lewis McChord. Last year, the Steelhammers collected 350 to 400 Christmas trees for military members.

This year, KLM Tree Farm started their collection on Monday, Nov. 30, at the South Sound Speedway. Trees are brought in from local growers, loaded on a FedEx truck and shipped to the military base near Lakewood. Steelhammer expected to ship about 300 trees this year.

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Melange Dietz lifts a 12-foot Christmas tree in preparation to be shipped on a semi truck Monday.

“It’s pretty cool,” Steelhammer said. “They give a lot and we certainly can give back to them with some trees for the holiday season. It’s a great program.”

The pandemic hasn’t affected KLM Tree Farm too much this year, Steelhammer said, especially when compared with other businesses in the area. One client in California, which was planning to use the trees as a fundraiser for a high school, canceled their order because of COVID-19 concerns with kids gathering together to pick out trees. 

There was also some doubt with a few retailers in California who weren’t sure if they would be allowed to open their pop-up stands, but Steelhammer thinks most of his clients will continue their orders. 

The Steelhammers also own three Christmas tree lots in the Bay Area that their son operates, complete with hand sanitizer and masks.

He predicts that more real trees are going to be sold this year than in the past, due to the fact that people are spending more time at home with the pandemic going on. And people, he said, are anticipating Christmas this year as a result of everything going on.

“When I was a kid, you never saw any Christmas decorations until way after Thanksgiving was over,” Steelhammer said. “Now, you see them already.”

Steelhammer hopes more people begin buying real Christmas trees, and this year is a great year to make a switch from plastic ones. 

Trees have a limited shelf life, but the frost that hit at the end of October and early November, makes the trees go dormant and sets their needles better. That, coupled with some good rain recently, should make sure this year’s batch of Christmas trees are long lasting.

More Information on KLM Tree Farm

Owner: Mark and Luanne Steelhammer

Location: 16725 Marlu Ln. SW, Rochester, WA

Phone: 360-273-7216

Email:  klmtreefarm@gmail.com

Website: klmtreefarm.com

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Reporter Eric Trent can be reached at etrent@chronline.com. Visit chronline.com/business for more coverage of local businesses.

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