Hillcrest Christmas Tree Farm in Reedley
Nov 24, 2015 01:00PM
By Brandi Barnett
Farm FreshDecember 2015
By Jordan Venema
“The Christmas tree farm, from everything we can figure, is the oldest in the valley,” says Melissa Bautista, who owns the family-operated Hillcrest Tree Farms with her husband. “Evergreens don’t generally like this weather, but it was started by Ed Toews, a Mennonite pastor. That was in 1960.
“Fast forward 55 years, and as far as we know, we’re the only ones growing Monterey pines for a couple counties,” says Bautista.
Bautista and her husband bought Hillcrest Tree Farms 25 years ago. The 30-acre property is about 15 miles east of Highway 99 and an hour drive from Sequoia National Park. “It’s just a few minutes from where the foothills start,” adds Bautista.
Hillcrest sits along a creek, a riparian habitat that creates a surprisingly lush area along the valley floor, and possibly explains why pines thrive at their farm. With rich soil, a Monterey pine can grow six to nine feet in three years, though Bautista says some mature after five or six years when the soil hasn’t gone fallow.
When the trees have matured, and Thanksgiving is but a hiccup and full belly behind us, then Hillcrest opens its arms – and branches – to anybody who would chop ‘em all down. That’s how Hillcrest has done it for 55 years, offering Central Valley residents the opportunity to harvest their own Christmas tree while staying close to home.
Sure, Hillcrest imports trees, too, “just like everybody else,” says Bautista; but about 20 percent of the trees they sell are still planted. “The ones we grow are still in the ground,” explains Bautista, “and you have to go and get your saw and cut them down yourself.”
It’s one of those Christmas traditions that some families do every year, and Bautista believes every family should try it at least once. “Some families love to do it no matter what, and for some people it’s fun with smaller kids; it’s educational. Then, after a while, they’d rather not get muddy,” she says with a laugh.
And if you don’t mind the trek, the mud or the manual labor, cutting down your very own pine costs just about as much as the other imported ones. “For 50 bucks you can cut down any Monterey pine that’s growing,” says Bautista.
One of the best experiences of chopping one’s own tree, Bautista adds, is catching the train on the way back. After the Bautistas purchased the farm, they laid tracks for a five-inch scale, narrow gauge train. With about 15 cars, their locomotive holds more than 100 people, and tickets are $4. After you’ve scouted and scoured your tree “and if there’s room,” says Bautista, “throw it in the back of the train and you can ride the train, too.”
The Hillcrest train has become one of the farm’s highlights, but since it only runs on weekends, Bautista says there can sometimes be a wait. In fact, the ride is even popular among employees, who during an impromptu, after-work train ride, helped the Bautistas come up with the idea for Pajama Night.
Hillcrest employees wear red flannels – “like lumberjacks,” says Bautista – and one evening after a hard day’s work, some employees jumped on the train, calling it “the red flannel express.” By the end of that ride, the Bautistas decided to start a Pajama Night, opening the train from 6 to 9pm on weekend nights.
On Friday and Saturday nights in December (prior to Christmas), a $16 ticket gets a nighttime train ride, which includes homemade cookies and a hot chocolate bar. Bautista says what really makes the ride special are motion detector Christmas lights that hang from trees around the farm that are triggered as the train approaches. After the ride, guests are welcome to sit around a fire while listening to live music.
Hillcrest Tree Farm • 6943 S. Reed Ave., Reedley
(559) 638-2762 • www.hillcrestreedley.com
Open daily Nov. 28-Dec 20
Find them on Facebook
Pajama Christmas Nights: 6pm-9pm
Dec. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18, 19, 20 & 21