2021 Great Press

Salem Statesman Journal

Capi Lynn

Published 6:01am PT Dec. 23, 2021 – Updated 12:04pm Dec. 23, 2021

Homes around the world can ‘deck the halls’ thanks to Pacific Northwest holly farmers

The roots of a Stayton holly farm can be traced to a single tree and a television news report.

Don Harteloo’s father worked for the local telephone company in the mid-1970s when a colleague offered him a holly tree. He planted it alongside his driveway. The tree grew over the next decade, always visible from the house.

Don Harteloo, owner, stands in a row of hollies at Mill Creek Holly Farm in Stayton, Ore. on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. – BRIAN HAYES / STATESMAN JOURNAL

The family raised livestock and corn on the 13-acre farm.

But that would all change after a Portland TV station aired a segment about another farm’s success selling the prickly green foliage with clusters of red berries that holly trees produce.

“The next best thing to picking money off trees,” is the claim Harteloo said grabbed his father’s attention, leading to the planting of the first 200 trees at Mill Creek Holly Farms.

Today, 1,500 trees cover eight acres of the farm, situated just a couple blocks east of Stayton Middle School, with housing developments encroaching.

Holly has been a profitable specialty crop for the Harteloos and generations of other Oregon farmers, but only during the winter when families who celebrate Christmas traditionally “deck the halls with boughs of holly.”

Oregon and Washington produce more than 90% of the holly sold in the United States, which has been the case for decades. The number of commercial holly farms has gradually dwindled, though.

Membership in the Northwest Holly Growers Association went from a peak of 78 in 1959 to 50 in 1989 to just seven today.

“Age has depleted the numbers over the years,” said Ken Bajema, the group’s secretary/treasurer and a second-generation holly farmer. “They got old, and their children have not continued on in the holly industry. Urban growth has also taken a lot of holly farms out of operation.” Demand has remained steady at Columbia Gorge Holly Farms, which Bajema’s family owns and operates. He sells to wholesalers in the region and florists across the country.

“I think people are coming back to natural things again now,” Bajema said. “You don’t see much plastic holly around anymore.”

Made-to-order products from Mill Creek Holly Farms were in high demand this season. The Harteloos and their crew absorbed customers left hanging when a Portland-area farm halted retail shipping.

Bundles of holly await being made into wreathes and other arrangements at Mill Creek Holly Farm in Stayton, Ore. on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. – BRIAN HAYES / STATESMAN JOURNAL

“We’re one of the only ones who do a lot of retail wreaths and centerpieces,” Sue Harteloo, Don’s wife, said. “A lot of places just do cut holly.

Holly as sacred and magical history

Fresh cut holly is a traditional Christmas decoration. The glossy green leaves with clumps of vibrant red berries are used to accent wreaths, garlands, swags and centerpieces.

Its use is tied to Christianity. The spiky leaves are said to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and the berries His blood.

Jose Manzo puts the finishing touches on a wreath at Mill Creek Holly Farm in Stayton, Ore. on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. – BRIAN HAYES / STATESMAN JOURNAL

But holly’s cultural significance dates long before the first Christmas holiday. It has been revered through the ages for its sacred, magical and protective qualities.

In Celtic mythology, it symbolizes peace and goodwill. Druids believed it would guard against evil spirits and bad luck. Harry Potter fans would be quick to point out his wand is made from the wood of a holly tree.

Crop thrives in the Northwest

Ilex, or holly, is a genus of evergreen trees and shrubs containing hundreds of species, varieties and hybrids.

English holly is the most commonly grown species in the Northwest.

It thrives in the temperate climate and rich soils of the Willamette Valley and was introduced in Oregon in the late 1800s as a market for holiday décor.

The Stump farm near Monmouth was one of the first in the Mid-Valley to grow holly as a commercial Christmas crop, planting 14 acres of trees in about 1929.

Growing holly is not a get-rich-quick enterprise. A tree takes several years to be established for commercial production.

Demand for the greenery grew faster than the trees.

The Capital Journal reported in mid-December 1931 an unknown quantity of trees were stolen from the Stump farm.

But by the late 1930s, the Stump farm was cutting, packing and shipping thousands of boxes of the seasonal greenery to every state in the union, plus Alaska, Hawaii and England.

Several other farms across Marion and Polk counties, including two near Silverton, wanted in on the action and planted holly orchards around this time.

The Willamette Valley quickly became a major supplier of holly, with approximately 1,500 acres of English holly by the mid-1960s. An acre can have as many as 100-120 trees.

The original “granddaddy” holly stands nearly 25 feet tall at Mill Creek Holly Farm in Stayton, Ore. on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. –BRIAN HAYES / STATESMAN JOURNAL

Holly farmers do own marketing 

Ken Bajema was a teenager when his father first planted holly on the family farm in 1952.

“He was a schoolteacher in Portland looking for something for his retirement and thought it would be a lucrative business to get into,” Bajema said. “I guess it was for some time.”

Raising holly is much like farming other crops. Some years are leaner than others.

Harvest runs mid-November through mid-December, in some of the year’s worst weather. Orchard maintenance and spraying for disease and insects is necessary year-round.

In many cases, the families do the work themselves.

Bajema left the farm when he went to college and didn’t return until after retiring as a natural resource manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1988.

Columbia Gorge Holly Farms, located about 10 miles east of Washougal, Washington, has 1,200 or so trees and sells primarily to wholesalers and florists.

He and his wife, Dee, have always done their own marketing.

They spent vacations visiting small-town floral shops and attending trade shows to build up their clientele and still have many original customers.

Now they rely on reputation and word of mouth, focusing on shipping the freshest holly. One customer in Montana told them she has thrown out just one piece in 15 years.

Small-time operation pushed to limit

The initial harvest at Mill Creek Holly Farms was in 1996, eight years after Don Harteloo and his father planted the first 200 trees.

They educated themselves, touring other holly orchards and seeking advice from other farmers. A long-time holly farmer in south Salem was Don’s mentor.

One of their employees, Manuel “Jose” Manzo, has more than three decades of experience in the local holly industry. He has been their foreman for more than 20 years.

Silvia Alvarez Topete makes a tree wreath arrangement with holly and fir at Mill Creek Holly Farm in Stayton, Ore. on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. – BRIAN HAYES / STATESMAN JOURNAL

The farm has sold as many as 2,000 10-pound cases of holly in a season and employed as many as 30 people. It has evolved in recent years from selling holly cuttings to creating custom holly gifts.

Sue Harteloo estimated they shipped more than 500 of their signature wreaths this Christmas. Their holly is dipped in an expensive hormone solution before being crafted into elegant decorations and again after, so it will last longer.

They ship across the country, up and down the East Coast, and to Canada.

“We’re not big-time, either,” Don Harteloo said. “We’re a small-time operation. A lot of other growers don’t want to do retail.”

A three-person crew with a combined 40 years with the Harteloos couldn’t make wreaths and centerpieces fast enough this season, logging 11-hour days, seven days a week. Another person made bows.

“We wouldn’t be what we are without them,” Sue Harteloo said.

From left: Silvia Alvarez Topete, Felipa Vasquez and Jose Manzo work to make wreaths and other holly arrangements at Mill Creek Holly Farm in Stayton, Ore. on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021.

‘Sticky product’ not for everyone

The holly tree that planted the seed is visible from the workshop at Mill Creek Holly Farms. They call it the granddaddy, even though it is a female tree.

Only female holly trees produce berries, but they need male trees nearby for pollination. Don Harteloo said they have about 50 male trees in their orchard.

Extreme weather this year took a toll on the trees. They lost 30 during the February ice storm, and historic high temperatures in June left the south side of many scorched.

After all that and picking up the slack from a farm that ceased retail operations, the Harteloos were reminded they won’t be able to carry on forever.

“It’s a young person’s business,” Don Harteloo said. “We enjoy it, but you’ll have a tough time finding many people who do. It’s a sticky product.”

Alfredo Coria(front) strips leaves as Jose Manzo arranges wreaths made of holly at Mill Creek Holly Farm in Stayton, Ore. on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021.BRIAN HAYES / STATESMAN JOURNAL

He and Sue have two daughters who so far have shown no interest in taking over the family business.

Bajema’s children already are involved in the operation at Columbia Gorge Holly Farms, and they are likely to get more involved.

Many farms haven’t been as fortunate, often leading to abandoned or neglected orchards.

“People just gave up,” Bajema said. “They got old, and no one else wanted to go in the holly business.

Capi Lynn is the Statesman Journal’s news columnist. Her column taps into the heart of this community — its people, history and issues. Contact her at clynn@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6710, or follow her on Twitter @CapiLynn and Facebook @CapiLynnSJ.

And from Country Folks Grower on line magazine…


The Praises Are Coming In for 2021

My holly wreath arrived yesterday and it is absolutely beautiful as always! Thank you and Merry 🎄 Christmas to you. 

DL – Clarkson, WA

We always look forward to your beautiful holly, especially with other holiday customs restricted. Thanks!

RG – San Francisco, CA

I just wanted to let you know how pleased we were with your Holly. It was just beautiful! And was great down to the last sprig in the box! It was such a nice touch to all our arrangements and glad we could provide it again..last few years I have not had much success with it. I will definitely order again and just sorry we can’t use it more often. All the best in the New Year to you and yours. Regards, LT-Blossom Shoppe Florist 

Last year was the first year I had purchased wreaths from you.  They were gifts for family and friends and every recipient raved about how beautiful and long lasting they were.  Again thank you for giving so much holiday pleasure.

CT – Bainbridge Island, WA

Norta Vista Estates

Dear Mill Creek, 
I purchased your holly, variegated, this year for the first time.
I have been extremely happy with the product received.  I had given up using holly because what was available to me locally was dry with few berries that stayed on the stem.  
Your holly was so very fresh and a joy to use in holiday designs. I have a vase of holly on my dining room table for at least three weeks now and with simple care it is still beautiful.  
Thank you for doing a great job!
W D AIFD – The Flower Nook

2020 Holly photos and comments!

Some of our customers send photos of what they do with the holly they receive from us. Others send comments. Below are a few of what has started coming in for this VERY unusual year! We ARE truly blessed!!

Friends in Massachusetts order three wreaths every year! Two for the house and one for the garage! David and Ann choose not to put bows on their wreaths. A lovely accent to their holly bushes! David says they “arrived safe and sound”

From TL: Just a quick note to thank you for your extraordinary service and product.  I purchased holly from you for the first time this year and could not be happier.  I described my intended use of the holly to the woman who answered the phone.  She guided me toward purchasing the three pound box rather than the five.  And she was absolutely right.  Thank you for listening and actually taking my needs into consideration.  And your product is fabulous.  The holly was fresh, beautiful and packed with care.  The addition of the mistletoe was a delightful bonus.  Thank you again. I will be a return customer.

DK writes: I had ordered a holly wreath to be shipped to Florida.  Mom received it and it brought her to tears. It was so beautiful!  I wanted to Thank You for your attention to detail and your amazing customer service.  From our family to yours we wish you a Happy Holiday and a New Year filled with happy memories and good health.

JR shared: Just a note to say my order came today.  Unbelievable!  So fresh and so beautiful.  In the times we live in the holly just makes you feel so much better! Thanks so much – customer for life.

First project for 2020

Our first big order of the year is a wholesale order of consumer bouquets. They are sold to florists and garden centers as a quick grab item for folks that want just a little holly to decorate with.

Each bouquet consists of five stems of holly inserted into a cello sleeve and secured. Sounds simple, but there are ten steps before each bouquet makes into a box. Once they have made it to the box, they head for the cooler for storage at 36* to await the truck for shipping to the buyer. Our crew of ten (including Don & I) have been working feverishly since 6am to get this particular order ready for pick up tomorrow morning. We generally don’t do 12 hour days, but once in a while you just have to to provide the appropriate customer service!

We could have lost it all…

Highway sign between Stayton & Sublimity September 9, 2020 – Courtesy of abcnews

In the early morning hours of September 8 we were awakened by a phone call from a friend that the wildfires here in our canyon had exploded and we needed to prepare to evacuate.  For those of you who live outside of Oregon, the late summer wildfires in our Santiam Canyon traveled 40 miles to the west in less than eight hours, fueled by sustained east winds over 50mph . We were blessed that firefighters and local farmers were able to suppress it before it could destroy our beautiful towns of Stayton and Sublimity. But, for the better part of a week we were on alert in case things reignited. Thankfully, our communities were saved. But many of our friends have lost everything.

In the end, the Beachie Creek fire destroyed 200,000 acres of forest and farm land, more than 1300 homes, outbuildings, and businesses. It took 5 lives and most of four small towns. Its westward migration was halted by the dedicated firefighters, farmers and individuals who spent day and night on watch. They dug fire lines and poured water on thousands of acres of land in order to keep fire away from the towns of Stayton and Sublimity.

A map showing the local area. Stayton & Sublimity are separated by one mile and the highway

Please pray for those who lost everything. So many did not have any insurance, especially the renters. Many local non-profit organizations and folks from every walk of life have stepped up to assist. We are proud to call the Santiam Canyon our home.

If you are inclined to donate to assist those most in need, a non-profit organization is distributing cash and goods to victims of the devastation. You can also read many stories shared by those who live in the worst affected areas of the canyon. In the end, we thank God daily that we still have our lives, home and farm.

The first link is about friends who barely got out. Listen to their story:


Most of western Oregon, including Salem, our state capital, had and eerie glow from the wildfires which erupted following a freak early September wind storm. Courtesy of Reddit

Over the River and…


The trip to Central Oregon is always tricky this time of year!  Yesterday, we ventured across the Cascades and made our way to Redmond to be vendors at the Holiday Food and Gift Festival.  We delight in the opportunity to sell our products in Central Oregon. So many folks here are originally from the valley and they miss having beautiful holly as readily available as we have it in the Willamette Valley.  We come to the show prepared too!  Any customer who has ordered the previous year is astouded by the fact that we come with their gift list from that year.  So, if they have forgotten what wreath they sent to Aunt Mae and Uncle Jimmy, WE KNOW!  If you’re in the Central Oregon area, stop by and see us at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds, booth 311 tomorrow (Nov. 18) & Sunday (Nov. 19)!  We’ll help make your holiday shopping/decorating  easier!

A fun note from a customer!

In January, our friends Ann and Dave in New England shared this with us!  We love that even after the season is over, our products are being enjoyed – just by a different species!!  They sent the following photo and comment:

This year, I spotted a process I hadn’t noticed in the past. Your wreaths rest on top of the composting pile until I get around to dismantling them, but the squirrels help out by plucking all the berries and having a feast on the rock wall.


December Snowfall!

Our holly season has ended for 2016 with a beautiful snowfall!  We received about 4″ of snow at the farm, and with the snow and ice comes an immediate halt to our harvest. And since we have reached the 15th of December, it brings to a close the creation of wreaths, centerpieces and the rest of our beautiful creations.   It warmed today, just enough for icicles to form off the edges of the holly leaves.  A shiny jewel accenting the natural gloss of the leaves and the glow of the scarlet berries.

Its peaceful and quiet, with just the hoof prints from the deer and paw prints of Sweet Pea, our little mouser pussy cat, to break the surface of the snow around the trees. Around the 8th of December every year, the birds come in to feast on the holly berries. This year was no different. Robins, jays and other winged creatures continue to dart madly from tree to tree gorging themselves on the festive treat.  And though winter is still six days away, they carry on with the feast as though spring will never come!

We will spend the ten days between now and Christmas cleaning up the shop and putting it back to its previous state of being, our party and recreation space – ready to entertain friends and family in the new year. Then, next October, we will transform it back to our own “Santa’s Workshop”, ready to create your holiday decorations and gifts.

So, for now, from all of us here at Mill Creek Holly Farms to all of you in the greater world, we wish you a Christmas filled with blessings and a new year abundant with adventures!

Happy Holly Days!!

PS: If you have photos of your holly decorations, we invite you to post and share!

To be prickly or not be prickly?

I came across an interesting article posted by National Geographic.  Seems as though (like WE didn’t already know) holly leaves on the same tree can be VERY different!  Take a read of this:

Some trees looked like they had been browsed upon by wild goats and deer. On those trees, the lower 8 feet (2.5 meters) had more prickly leaves, while higher up the leaves tended to be smooth. Scientists wanted to figure out how the holly trees could make the change in leaf shape so quickly.