The Huey comes in low out of the south, slinging 4,000 pounds of living-room decoration on its tow line.
Hovering 50 feet above a patch of hard-packed dirt and gravel, the helicopter gently sets down two bales of noble firs before peeling back out over the groves of Yule Tree Farms in Aurora.
Latino guys in orange hard hats come running to load the pallets onto a Bobcat and a John Deere backhoe, steadying themselves against a blast of wind from the chopper's blades. The air smells richly of pine, like the copter's breeze was scented with a car freshener. The wind sends evergreen tumbleweeds spinning across the parking lot. A man blows dirt out of his nose.
"See how they all have hoods on?" says Tom McNabb, general manager of Yule Tree Farms, pointing to his workers wearing hoodie sweaters. "If you don't, you'll have needles going down your neck and down your back."
Over and over, the helicopter flies across the fields, towing loads of 6-footers, 34 at a time. Sometimes it carries them the length of three football fields, sometimes only one. The flights are absurdly short. So is the time window. Yule Tree Farms has five weeks to cut and ship the product it took six years to grow.
Oregon's annual Christmas tree harvest, the largest in the country, is big business. The state grows more holiday trees each year than any other place in America—6.4 million last year. That's 31 percent of the national Christmas tree market. Oregon ships 96 percent of its crop out of state, half of it to California. Evergreens in the Willamette Valley grow up to a foot a year, faster than anywhere else on the continent. And they go all over the continent, as far as Mexico, a country that's increasingly important to this operation.
Four days after being harvested on this bright, frigid November afternoon 24 miles south of Portland in Marion County, these firs will arrive at a Home Depot garden center in Phoenix. They will travel there in refrigerated trailers packed with ice that will slowly melt to keep them moist. But first, they take the very short, airborne journey over pastures of thick mud by rented helicopter.
Last year, from the first week in November to the second week in December, Christmas trees earned the state's economy more than $90 million. This year, with hopes that Oregon's exports will grow to 6.6 million trees, Oregon's freshman U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley sponsored a Senate resolution declaring last week "National Christmas Tree Week." Lately, though, Christmas tree growers are more concerned about Mexico—where they get their labor and need to expand their market.
At Yule Tree Farms, owned by Oregon natives Joe Sharp and Richard Gingerich, annual harvests top 500,000 noble, Douglas and grand firs, chopped from fields in Sheridan, Sublimity, Canby and Aurora. For more than a month, manager McNabb has been arriving in the fields every day—including Thanksgiving—at 6 am and staying until 7 pm.
"We've already shipped three-quarters of our trees," McNabb says, standing in Yule's Aurora field Nov. 30. "We're starting to feel good about life."
It has been cold and rainy. He wants it to be colder and rainier.
"You don't want to chop the trees and have the sun come out," McNabb says, because warm sunshine kills firs faster. "The ideal days will be 20 degrees every day."
With temperatures in the mid-60s in late November, Yule Tree Farms rents the helicopter for $725 an hour to lift its trees out of the fields. But at 10 am, a crew of five men is already 100 yards deep into a row of noble firs, steam billowing from their sweaters as they pile trees onto a board, then load that pallet into the jaws of a machine.
The "palletizer" squashes the cluster of trees into a cube—there's a cracking sound of boards splintering—that is left to be flown out later that day.
Across a dozen rows of stumps and newly exposed, pale, alien-looking mushrooms, another crew of five is running a binder: a Dr. Seuss-like, diesel-powered cylinder that winds rope around newly chopped trees so they're ready for the pallets. First, one man plunks each trunk into the machine's shaker, a vibrating, octagonal bowl that shudders dead needles out of the branches.
"They'll do a lot of bales today," says McNabb. "And they'll do this until dark. Or until they've run out of trees."
The binding machine breaks down, belching smoke. The five workers gather around, offering suggestions in Spanish. A mechanic arrives. He, too, is Latino.
At both ends of the production cycle, the future of Oregon's Christmas tree harvest depends on Mexico.
In October, the Mexican government ended two years of 20 percent tariffs on U.S.-grown Christmas trees, opening up a market that, before a trade dispute in 2009, bought 11 percent of Oregon's Christmas trees.
Father Angel Perez, pastor of St. Luke Catholic Church in Woodburn, says Christmas trees are an aspirational purchase in Mexico.
"My impression growing up is that Christmas trees more come to Mexico from the U.S.," Perez says. "I grew up in a place where few people were able to get a real Christmas tree. People would go out looking for dry bushes."
Even as they look forward to renewing a foothold there, Christmas tree growers depend on Mexican migrant workers to harvest their firs.
Oregon Association of Nurseries president Jeff Stone tried working a day of farm labor this spring after an argument about immigration laws with conservative radio host Lars Larson.
"I looked like I was in a car accident," Stone recalls. "And the line of azaleas I planted looked like I failed a sobriety test."
Driving between farms in Aurora and Canby, McNabb says he's seen workers getting increasingly nervous about their immigration status. He worries about the crew managers, who have been harvesting for more than 20 years.
"These guys have spent half their lives in trees," he says.
As the helicopter flies another load of pallets into the loading zone, a group of workers stands in the bed of a converted garbage truck, taking video of the spectacle with their camera phones.
One of them is named Pablo. He lives in Woodburn but is originally from Mexico. He works 10-hour days during the harvest. "It's not hard," he says. He prefers movies and dancing, however. "I like to drink beer," he adds over the roar of the rotors.
Pablo has a Christmas tree of his own, a 7-footer. He chopped it himself at Yule Tree Farms.