Growing Christmas Trees … in Hawaii?
What happens when island spirit meets American tradition?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Christmas spirit lives.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Aaron O’Brien, Helemano Farms
The day was OK. We sold about 200 trees today — a little slow. You shoulda been here the first weekend. On Black Friday, we sold 600 trees. We got wiped out of the cypress trees. We’ve already sold this year’s crop, but now they’re buying next year’s crop. I guess they look nice enough: We sell up to 12-foot, but all that’s left of the cypress are the 5-foot and 6-foot. We sell a few types here, from the Norfolk pines to the Leyland and Murray cypress, to the Carolina Sapphires and Blue Ice.
I’m tired from working every day for about three months now just to set up the tree farm. I wake up at 4:30, come out here, get everybody started. Those early guys collect the tips for the wreaths we make. We’ve got about 20 workers that come during the harvest. They go grab the trees with the customer, cut it down, tie it to the car, the whole scoop. Back at the mainland, you can cut your own tree. Not here. It’s just the liability. Over there, if you cut yourself, it’s your fault. Here on Hawaii, it’s our fault somehow.
Shit, people bring in 100,000 trees a year from the mainland. So despite what you might think, it’s not really palm trees for a Christmas tree. People don’t know any different, right? Because they grew up here. We’re not serving hot chocolate up here; that’s for sure. There’s no ice.
Usually the mainland trees, when you bring them to Hawaii, they grow too fast — and so the branches grow too far apart. Because you don’t have a freeze, a dormant stage. The hardest part is just the general labor. Mowing, spraying for bugs, all the pruning. Have you ever tried pruning one tree? Imagine pruning 2,500 trees. We use hedge trimmers. But there’s this hedge pruner. The engine goes on your back, and there’s an 8-foot sickle bar. There’s this thing that hangs up and you hook the bar to, and the weight is on your whole body. You set it at the angle you want, and walk around the tree. We’re going to pick one of those up next year.
It would be nice to take a year off. But if you don’t do it for a year, then you don’t have any trees four years later.
The cypress trees, those are the same Christmas trees you would see in the Southern states on the mainland. The most popular, though, are the Norfolks. They would be considered the Hawaiian Christmas tree. Every tree is different. And that means there are different ways to decorate them. The Norfolks, the difference is that you put the lights in the middle of the tree — and the lights hit the ornaments from the inside, instead of the opposite.
We’ve been doing this since 2002, and it took them five years to mature, so selling them since 2007. Initially, we had only one tree here, which we call mama. She’s huge — about 15 feet tall, 12 feet wide. All of the thousands of Murray cypress trees come from the cuttings of that tree. Is it normal to take it from one tree? No, but we didn’t have much to cut from.
My dad and I started this. He grew up in Sacramento, California, and worked for Dole Plantation, which brought him here. We wanted to bring his childhood memories of cutting a tree down to Hawaii.
He did it when he was about to retire. Unfortunately, he passed away before we even started the first harvest.
But I’ve seen kids come here who have never taken a tree down, never seen a tree farm, actually crying in excitement. Families who haven’t had a tree in five or six years. We even sell discounted $15 trees for families who can’t afford them. We try to help people out. That’s what’s rewarding. I’ve got customers who have been coming for more than 10 years. I’ve gotten to watch their kids grow up.
It will continue. There have been plenty of people offering to buy the place. I’ve got 40 acres here, and I plan on expanding to both sides of the road. This year, we’re doing 4,000 trees — last year, we did only 1,800. It’s doubling every year, almost. It’s just word spreading. People will hear about us, but they won’t believe we’re actually here, because they think, “How the hell do they grow Christmas trees in Hawaii?”
They didn’t have the tradition of a choose-and-cut tree farm. Actually buying a tree with your family. Putting it up with your family. Spending time with your family. Making it an event. And now they do.
As far as how my Christmas goes? Shit, I’m working.