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Whether chopping or shopping, 'tis the season for Christmas trees

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YAKIMA, Wash. -- Stan O’Bara takes his family and friends deep into the woods near Chinook Pass every year, sets up camp, starts a couple of fires (one for cooking, one for warmth) and sets out to find the best Christmas tree he can.

“We make hot buttered rum, we fry oysters, we cook steaks, hot dogs, whatever,” the 55-year-old Terrace Heights resident said. “We make a day of it.”

That’s what a “getting a Christmas tree” means for O’Bara. It’s an event unto itself, with the camaraderie, food, drink and fun creating more memories than the actual harvesting of the tree. (Though the gang still laughs about the time O’Bara got stuck in waist-deep snow and needed his nieces to help get the tree and their uncle back to camp.) He’s never really considered doing it any other way since the group started going about 15 years ago.

“It just wouldn’t be the same,” O’Bara said.

But, like the trees themselves, there is no single “perfect” Christmas tree expedition. One family’s is a trip to a tree farm or lot for a full, bushy spruce. Another family’s is a trek through the national forest for a relatively thin Douglas fir. And yet another’s is a trip to Walmart for a pink PVC tree with fiber-optic lights built right in.

In fact, according to a 2017 study by the nonprofit American Christmas Tree Association, 81 percent of Americans last year opted for artificial trees. This despite the fact that real Christmas trees still outsell fake ones every year. Part of the reason for the seeming contradiction is that fake-tree people don’t need to buy a new one every year. They just reuse them.

That has been an increasingly attractive option the past couple of years as a tree shortage — with its roots in the 2008 recession — has pushed prices of real trees higher and, in many cases, made them harder to find. Longtime local Christmas tree sources like McIlrath Family Farms outside of Yakima and Bill’s Berry Farm near Grandview haven’t sold trees the past two years.

There has been one new source on the local Christmas tree market, though. Patrick and Trishia Gasseling started planting Christmas trees on their farm near Wapato six years ago. The first ones were ready to sell last year.

The Gasselings, who have dedicated 28 acres to trees, make a point of offering more of an experience than your typical tree lot. There are tractor rides and reindeer and s’mores to cook over an open fire. There are even free pictures with Santa.

“We’re trying to make it for families,” Trishia Gasseling said. “We’ve focused on what is going to make this fun for them.”

It has worked better than they’d expected. The Gasselings planned to be open through the entire Christmas season, but because supply is limited, the farm will only be open one more day this year, this Sunday. It’s been fun watching families come and enjoy themselves, Patrick Gasseling said.

“A lot of families will make a day of it,” he said. “They’ll stay for three or four hours, which is great.”

For their time — and their $10 per foot, with a 5-foot minimum — customers are rewarded with a tree that’s fresher than they’d find at a tree lot. And they get to live out their Clark Griswold fantasies by cutting it themselves (though help is available). What’s more, the Gasselings have maintained ecological sustainability by replanting each year in the same space where the trees have been cut.

“We like to think — and it’s been proven — that a Christmas tree farm is more sustainable than a fake tree,” he said.

That’s a matter of debate. The environmental impacts of real trees versus fake trees was the subject of a New York Times story just last month, with both sides having their advantages. But what’s clear is that families buying at Walmart or any other fake-tree retailer aren’t going to get the same experience as those who head out to Gasseling Ranches Christmas Tree Farm.

“The best part is the kids,” Patrick Gasseling said. “To see them smiling when they see the reindeer. And we’re always handing out candy canes and stuff. Then they go out there and ride on the wagons. That’s what it’s all about.”

Indeed, that’s what it’s all about for many families. For others, it’s about having a fully decorated tree with built-in lights just waiting to be brought down from the attic. And for others still, it’s about that trip to the woods.

“We get anything from a Charlie Brown tree to a 10- or 12-footer,” O’Bara said. “But we pick it out, not somebody else.”

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