Salem Statesman Journal
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.”
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.