‘When I sell a tree, it brings a smile’

Longtime Rochester Christmas tree farmer prepares for holiday season


In his own words, written in a six-page letter to The Chronicle reporter and photographer assigned to profile his farm, Don Tapio “believes he was destined to grow Christmas trees on his family’s farm near Rochester.”

For more than 60 years, Christmas Valley Tree Farm has opened for Thurston County families at 11540 183rd Ave. SW in Rochester to find the perfect tree. Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Christmas Eve, the U-cut farm offers Douglas, noble, grand, Nordman and blue spruce trees, with holly and wreaths available at the gift shop.

He’s never tallied how many trees he’s sold, that’s not Tapio’s motivation.

“When I sell a tree, it brings a smile,” he said while wandering around the 5-acre farm. “And it makes my day.”

For nearly an hour, Tapio walked through row after row of neat, perfectly cone-shaped trees, highlighting the different selling points, including the proximity of the parking lot.

After a trial run last year, Tapio has added custom carts for customers to move trees.

“The kids, they just love that,” Tapio said. “Something to play with.”

The distinctive barn that sits on the property is popular, Tapio said, particularly for photo opportunities.

“Most people recognize us for the red barn,” Tapio said, adding it’s been on the property since 1981.

Still, the focus remains on the trees.

Tapio wrote in the letter that “while other farms have added a holiday entertainment venue” his focus remains on “producing quality trees at a reasonable price.”

With years of experience, Tapio has become a de facto matchmaker, pairing families with the perfect style of tree to match their lives.

“They all have their own individual characteristics — kind of like children,” he said.

While each tree has its smell, Tapio said one has become synonymous with the Christmas season. The grand fir is the most popular variety, he said, because of its intense fragrance.

For families who have four-legged friends at home, Tapio said customers should steer toward a blue spruce.

“This is the tree for cat people,” he said, encouraging his interviewers to touch the firm needles. “Because it’s so prickly.”

Tapio’s trees range in size, with six to seven-foot trees being the most popular.

“Not all of our trees are heavily sheared, as I do a lot of hand clipping to retain the natural shape of the tree on the nobles and Nordman,” Tapio wrote in his letter.

For those with taller ceilings, the Christmas Valley Tree Farm also offers 10-foot tall trees and has sold 22” trees in the past. This year, Tapio said he has a few 30-foot-tall trees available for purchase.

Deciding when to buy a tree can be tricky, Tapio said, adding the activity is often folded into Thanksgiving festivities.

“Many people like to get their trees early so the family can decorate when they gather for Thanksgiving,” Tapio wrote. “Others have made it a tradition to get the tree on Thanksgiving Day, and we stay open for them.”

A year-round operation

While the holiday season largely spans the roughly four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Christmas trees are consistently on Tapio’s mind.

“I think most people underestimate that it’s a long turnaround,” Tapio said. 

The trees can take eight to 14 years to grow to marketable size, with the corkbark fir taking up to 18, Tapio said. 

“That’s a lot of faith.”

The corkbark fir, with its distinctive “soft blue needles,” is worth the wait, but the upkeep on the farm requires work throughout the year.

“The year goes by so fast,” Tapio said. “There’s some activity that needs to happen.”

But the work is familiar to Tapio. 

His parents began selling Christmas Trees in the 1960s, and after a 40-year career as a WSU Extension Agent, his sole attention turned to Christmas Trees.

“In Finnish mythology, the word Tapio means ‘God of the Forest,’” he wrote in his letter. “It seemed natural, then, that the majority of our family gravitated toward careers in forestry and agriculture.”