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Harvey Hawken built a working locomotive at Crystal Creek Tree Farm, in part, to save money on roads. After 18 years of work, he's finally ready to haul customers and their trees around his farm this year.
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Harvey Hawken built a working locomotive at Crystal Creek Tree Farm, in part, to save money on roads. After 18 years of work, he's finally ready to haul customers and their trees around his farm this year.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

This local Christmas tree farmer has a plan to compete with Amazon

Elk, drought and now, Amazon.

Mom and pop Christmas tree farms have one more hassle to worry about this year when Amazon starts selling seven-foot-tall Christmas trees for the first time.

But one local Christmas tree farmer has a plan.

“My customers are real discriminating,” Harvey Hawken, owner of Crystal Creek Tree Farm in Maple Valley, Washington, said. “I have people who come out here and spend two days just trying to find a tree. They bring their lunch. And they look around, and they look around, and they put little markers on the trees that they kind of like. And some of them come back the next day.”

Still, what Amazon lacks in customer discernment, it gains in convenience. Customers will be able to have their trees delivered to their doorstep.

Hawken said Amazon’s trees will likely come from farms very different than Crystal Creek Tree Farm. To save money on roads, larger farms harvest trees by helicopter, he said. Workers on the ground cut the trees and put them in a net to be airlifted out.

Hawken doesn’t like to build roads, either – they cost too much, he said. But this year, his practical solution to that problem will become a sort of secret weapon.

For the first time, he’ll haul customers and their trees from the woods to the parking lot on a tiny locomotive he’s been restoring for 18 years. He laid the tracks three years before Amazon moved into its South Lake Union headquarters in 2007.

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Harvey Hawken, owner of Crystal Creek Tree Farm, with the small mining locomotive he and rail line he built on his property over 18 years.
Credit: KUOW Video/Joshua McNichols



As he chugged around the property, past a pond, over a bridge, beside a working train crossing gate, he pointed out row after row of dead or heat-stressed Noble Firs. Noble Firs typically sell for more money than other trees, such as the shapeless Douglas Fir, which needs regular shearing to achieve the traditional conical look, or the Fraiser fir, which requires a shower of pesticides to thrive. But this year, many of his prize Noble Firs look scorched and unmarketable.

Hawken has instead chosen to invest in thousands of recently planted Nordmann Firs, a recently imported evergreen tree from Turkey he said appears to be much better at resisting drought. The whole industry is competing for seeds from that tree, he said, trying to build up stock.

It takes years for seedlings to reach Christmas tree size. A lot can damage them in that time. Elk break tree branches by rubbing their antlers on them. Birds eat new growth like it’s asparagus. And lately the heat has also left its mark.

“I’ve got a lot of dead trees out there,” Hawken said.

Sixty percent of his newest seedlings died this year. And many trees that were almost ready for market saw all their new growth die off and turn brown.

“It’s so dry that there’s no moisture in the ground,” said Hawken.

Noble Firs on the left, damaged by drought. Nordmann Firs from Turkey on the right.
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Noble Firs on the left, damaged by drought. Nordmann Firs from Turkey on the right.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols


But between the seed shortage and the drought, Hawken said he’ll likely run out of trees long before he runs out of customers. When that happens, he’ll stay open, taking people around on his train, asking only for donations.

An Amazon spokesperson told KUOW that Amazon will offer two -day delivery on some trees. But they won’t come with a train ride.