First they came for the houseplants.
Then, as the pandemic wore on, people still sequestering at home returned to Cornell Farm in Southwest Portland to stock up on seeds and supplies to create edible gardens.
Now, with the holidays upon us, customers are relying on the 33-year-old nursery to provide them with another green jolt of joy to close out a particularly difficult year: Christmas trees.
"November was up 47%," says Cornell Farm's president, Deby Barnhart. "That's pretty dramatic."
In the past few years, sales data shows American consumers prefer to celebrate the holidays around artificial trees. But this year, that trend appears to be reversing. Barnhart couldn't yet say whether the spike in sales was due to virus-weary regulars looking to jump-start the holiday season or a newfound desire by first-time shoppers to embrace nature, messy needles and all. Anecdotally, however, she suspects the latter.
"In my personal conversations, there definitely are people who are choosing to do a live tree this year," says Barnhart. "I think it's because people are so isolated they just want something real around them."
The National Christmas Tree Association is also left to speculate about a possible boost in business, since its annual consumer survey of the nation's approximately 15,000 individual farms doesn't begin until January 2021. (Fun fact: Oregon is the top Christmas tree producer in the country.) But the organization has received observational data that it's been a robust year so far, with many growers opening before Thanksgiving, and the pandemic has something to do with that.
"Because of COVID, people want a real tree for a change, and we're glad we can help in some way with what we're calling the 'COVID blues,'" says spokesperson Doug Hundley. "People are obviously distraught from the stress, and if people are turning to real trees this year because they're home more than normal and they want some traditional good Christmas cheer, we're glad to help a little."
Another factor that could be boosting sales is the relative safety of the activity during a pandemic that has pushed everyone outdoors. Most Christmas tree shopping takes place in open air, whether on multiacre farms or corner lots lit up by strands of bulbs.
Then there's the hunt itself. So many other rituals aren't safe this year: No one will raise a toast at the Holiday Ale Fest, Peacock Lane has gone dark, and Santa's lap is off-limits. But tromping around in the woods and then felling a 7-footer with a saw? Not only is it easy for parties to keep their distance, it also provides an outlet to release some of that pent-up pandemic rage.
At Cornell Farm, though, the chopping has already been done for you. Barnhart orders only No. 1 trees—"perfect, premium" firs from growers in Oregon and Southwest Washington that she's built trusted relationships with over the years.
But there's still a thrill to be had in finding the one best suited as your living room centerpiece. Displayed in neat rows near the front of the property on Southwest Barnes Road, the trees are organized by type and then height, with a wealth of detailed coniferous knowledge provided by signs and masked employees alike.
All you have to do is debate the merits of the dense, fragrant branches of a grand fir versus the more sparse, dramatic look of a wild noble, also known as "Charlie Brown's tree of choice." Don't even ask about those silvertips, though—Cornell Farm sold out back in October during pre-ordering.
The surge in demand for real Christmas trees at this former dairy farm is just the latest plant there that's been swooped up by housebound customers since the virus limited mobility. Barnhart sees the drive for authentic evergreens as an extension of spring and summer's boost in pandemic gardens in backyards and succulent superblooms inside homes. It's part nesting, part distraction.
"I think people have taken a step back from their crazy lives and refocused a bit on their personal environment, and a lot of that is indoor plants as well as outdoor plants," she says. "You're going to be here for the foreseeable future. Why not enhance it and make it more livable or beautiful—your paradise?"
And for anyone who needs assistance turning their home into a Christmas-themed state of bliss, Cornell Farm can simply drop a tree off in your driveway or even set it up inside for you. The "Marriage Saver" package has been a feature there for at least 10 years, but is now an attractive option for Barnhart's customers who tell her they're still avoiding public places because of concerns about COVID. During the installation, the employee remains masked and minimizes the time spent indoors.
"The Marriage Saver concept has been really popular, because it truly is a marriage saver," Barnhart says, laughing. "You can't believe how many couples, when they hear [we have] that, they just howl."
GO: Cornell Farm Nursery & Cafe, 8212 SW Barnes Road, 503-292-9895. 9 am-6 pm Sunday-Thursday, 9 am-7 pm Friday-Saturday.
Other Places to Get a Christmas Tree in Portland
25877 NW West Union Road, Hillsboro, 503-647-5288, furrowfarm.com.
Nearly 10 years ago, Grimm helped ignite Hollywood's interest in Portland as a backdrop for prime-time TV shows. Though the supernatural crime procedural ended in 2017, fans can still get their fix by visiting locations where filming took place, including this farm. Multiple snowy, moonlit Christmas episodes were set on this third-generation grower's property. Consider the trees here the state's cover model: They've been featured in both Better Homes and Gardens and Fred Meyer ads.
Sleighbells of Sherwood
23855 SW 195th Place, Sherwood, 503-625-6052, sleighbellsgiftshop.business.site.
You can start Christmas as early as July 1 at Sleighbells, which is when this tree farm on the outskirts of Sherwood officially kicks off its season. Most come here for the Christmas cottage, where you can help yourself to a cup of hot chocolate or purchase sweets from a counter devoted solely to displaying the housemade fudge.
Helvetia Christmas Tree Farm
12814 NW Bishop Road, Hillsboro, 503-334-0905, helvetia-christmas-tree-farm.com.
If you're the type who eternally holds out hope for a rare white Christmas, then this farm is where you should tree hunt. Thanks to a machine, it snows here every few minutes. You can get even cozier by huddling around one of the fire pits and roasting marshmallows (one pit per family due to COVID) and then let your kids ride out their sugar high on one of the property's tractor trains.
Christmas Mountain Choose and Cut
25470 NW Dixie Mountain Road, Scappoose, 503-621-3169, christmasmountaintrees.com.
If the name itself doesn't immediately put you in the holiday spirit—it sounds like you'd be journeying through a candy cane forest with a floor dusted in powdered sugar—the extras will temporarily lift you out of that pandemic funk. While entry will be through an online ticketing system this year, many favorites remain, including visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus (behind plexiglass), fresh wreaths made onsite, bonfires and miniature deer fashioned out of logs.