Christmas magic is alive and well in Sonoma County. If you aren’t overwhelmed with joy during the “most wonderful time of the year,” you won’t need to travel all the way to the North Pole to be rid of any Scrooge-like cynicism. A healthy dose of Christmas spirit can be found at 961 Chapman Lane in Petaluma, where visitors are bound to leave Kriss and Carol Mungle’s Christmas tree farm with a smile.
“You could come here not particularly in a great Christmas mood and leave a little bit jingly,” Carol shared. “A gal that worked about 17 years for us, she would tell the employees starting out, ‘So you’ve been to Disneyland right?’ They would say yes and she would say, ‘This is the next best place.’ That’s the kind of feeling that we want you to have. It says Christmas when you’re here.”
Kriss and Carol’s business was never just going to be about the trees; it was always about the Christmas experience. Visitors at Little Hills are greeted by friendly staff before walking through the festive sales barn constructed by Kriss and a local architect, and made from recycled chicken barns that were on the property before acres of Christmas trees and dozens of farm animals took their place. Kriss and Carol are proud to share that a majority of the lumber, the metal roofing and even some windows are reused from the old chicken barns.
The sales barn is home to a gift shop with ornaments and decorations thoughtfully hand-picked by Carol, flocked trees prepared by Kriss with artificial snow, and a jolly Santa Claus ready to take photos and hear Christmas wishes. “When customers don’t realize that Santa is going to be here you should see the looks on their faces. I think the parents are just as happy as the kids. It’s fun,” Carol said.
Just beyond Santa’s quarters are hundreds of choose-and-cut Monterey Pine, Sierra Redwood and Leyland Cypress trees individually cared for by Kriss. Kriss learned the Christmas tree business from Carol and her family. Carol’s parents own and operate Larsen’s Christmas Tree Farm in Petaluma, where the family has lived since 1913. Kriss and Carol saw starting their own tree farm as an opportunity to get back to Petaluma and the great community there. They opened up shop in 1988.
“We knew we wanted to be in the tree farm business. I did it my whole life. My mom and dad teaching us, particularly my husband, how to prune a tree and how to make it pretty, was very helpful,” Carol said.
“I thought with my business background I could learn farming from her father and add to it with the business and creative ideas I had. With Carol having been involved with the business for as long as she could remember, there was all that knowledge and experience as well. Carol is very business savvy so it has been a pretty good combo,” Kriss added.
Kriss and Carol have been partners in life for 33 years and partners in trees for 29. Their business now spans two farms with the addition of Little Hills 2 on Liberty Road 10 years ago. Kriss manages the trees all year long and prepares for planting as soon as Christmas is over, though he admits he is oftentimes at the mercy of Mother Nature when it comes to preparing for the following season. Carol runs her bookkeeping business and prepares for Christmas tree season by hiring between 30 and 40 employees, buying for the gift shop and organizing employee schedules.
The Little Hills employees have a reputation for returning to the farm year after year. “I have an employee coming back for his 18th season,” Kriss shared. The employees’ enjoyment and hard work translates to the customers, who also return year after year for friendly service, a beautiful tree and the Little Hills Christmas experience.
“I try to make sure everyone that comes here has an enjoyable time, finds a nice tree to their liking and that it’s a feel good experience. There will be people I don’t necessarily know but I’ve seen them before, and they will come up and hug me and thank me for being here. That really means a lot,” Carol said.
In addition to great service, Kriss and Carol set themselves apart as one of the few choose-and-cut farms in the area. “When we started there used to be 12 to 15 farms in Petaluma. Now we have three,” Kriss shared. As the trend has moved more towards pre-cut trees, the Mungles also provide fresh-cut firs from Kintigh’s Mountain Home Farm in Springfield, Oregon as part of their farm experience.
“We started with the whole idea of cutting a fresh tree and then we graduated over to the pre-cut trees to have varieties that we couldn’t grow here. That is part of the trend any way; for the ones that don’t want to go out and cut their own it’s easier, but I still wanted to give the freshest tree that I could,” Kriss said.
He ensures the freshness of the pre-cut trees by re-cutting them with a chainsaw once they arrive from Oregon and getting them into water within minutes. The trees are also covered with a shade cloth to keep them as fresh as possible. “I learned as we went what more we could do to keep these trees fresher. I think we work as hard as anybody to do that. It’s really important that the tree be in water. It’s not representing what I’m trying to do otherwise,” Kriss said.
Kriss also carefully monitors the inventory in the choose-and-cut field to keep the business sustainable. “I try to estimate what I think we have available and as we start getting close to that number I will close the field off. Sometimes that makes me unpopular but if I overcut it’s going to catch me down the line,” he said.
Kriss and Carol are striving to sustain the Christmas tradition in addition to their trees. Kriss recalls how certain weekends the farm can become like a high school class reunion with friends bringing their children and grandchildren as part of their family tradition.
“We wanted to build a tradition. That’s our logo: “We’re Growing Tradition.” And we are. We see it. One year it occurred to me that our idea was growing tradition for other people; I realized this is our tradition as well. This is what we do and having this place and these people coming out year after year, some we’ve never met and other people that have been coming for years, it really feels good,” Carol said.
Country Christmas Trees: Beginning Tradition
“As I’m putting together my first Christmas tree farm, I’m thinking about what my kids like to do. With everything I’ve been planning, I’ve been focusing on the experience. It’s all about the experience with your kids,” said Jessica McIsaac, who works alongside her husband Neil on their family dairy and pasture poultry operation in Marin County.
The McIsaac family has been diversifying over the past few years. They transitioned their family dairy from conventional to organic and got started in the poultry business, which they have grown to about 6,000 laying hens on two different ranches. A Christmas tree farm is their next adventure and an opportunity to ensure succession.
“We have four kids and it would be hard for four kids to take over one small dairy. We want to continue to grow,” Jessica said.
Growing Christmas trees on the ranch isn’t an option due to limited resources like land and water so Jessica is determined to provide a farm experience to visitors while selling pre-cut trees sourced from a family farm in Oregon. The McIsaacs have built up a small area towards the front of the ranch to debut their first Christmas tree venture and festivities.
The trees will be on display surrounding tents filled with Christmas activities. “In one tent the whole inside will be 300 square feet of fake snow,” Jessica said. She found an environmentally friendly fake snow product for families to play in. Jessica is staying true to the idea of providing activities and experiences that she would want to share with her children; Santa Claus also came to mind right away.
“Being a country girl I thought, why go to the mall and see Santa when you can come and see him on a farm while getting your tree? That is a fun Holiday experience,” Jessica said. Another tent will feature Santa sitting by the mantle for the perfect photo-op, activities like face painting, ornament crafts and a visit from Clo the Cow.
Jessica is also focusing on the farm and advocating for agriculture as part of the family fun. She plans to take groups up to visit the milk cows so she can explain the family dairy operation. “We believe in teaching kids and the public about what we do. It is important for us to incorporate whatever agriculture aspects we can,” Jessica said. The last tent among the trees will feature a mini horse named Tinkerbell, goats, rabbits, and calves and chickens from the family farm.
“I’ve been advocating for agriculture for 20 years. I’ll enjoy seeing families have the farm experience, especially combined with Christmas,” Jessica said.
Victorian Christmas Tree Ranch: Continuing Tradition
Adam Parks and his family are determined to keep the Christmas spirit thriving on their farm in Sebastopol. Adam is growing Christmas trees on the same land his grandparents did after his grandfather retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1972. Before Adam, the farm was managed by his mom and stepfather for about 20 years.
“A big part of the reason why I keep the farm going is out of respect for the tradition of it. My grandfather was pretty amazing and very well respected. Whatever I can do to honor the way he did things and give people that same sense of comfort that he did would be considered doing a good job,” Adam said.
In 2009, Adam, his wife Laura and their children Jackson and Molly, were given the opportunity to manage the tree farm and continue the tradition. As they are working to build up the number of trees they grow for choose-and-cut, they supplement with pre-cut trees from Oregon. “It is just as important to be a sustainable business as it is to be a sustainable farm,” Adam said.
Adam considers the tree farm a labor of love. He fights to keep it going because it is a significant tradition for his family and for many others. “We’ve got families in here that have been coming since ’72,” he said as he flipped through a photo album filled with tree farm memories and generations of the same families returning year after year.
Creating a relaxed, family focused environment is also important to Adam and his family. They want customers to come out and take in the farm atmosphere, visit with the animals on site and enjoy complimentary treats like apple cider and homemade pumpkin bread. “We intentionally do not charge for much of anything other than the tree,” Adam said.
The family is also conscious of those who may not be able to afford the nicest tree. “We have a policy where once we get past the third weekend where we’ve had our opportunity to sell the trees and we are down to the last few, that everyone who wants a tree gets one. If you’ve got five bucks in your pocket we will find you a tree. If you don’t have two pennies to pinch together we will figure something out,” Adam said.
“This was a retirement vehicle for the two generations before me and it’s not a retirement vehicle for me but those traditions of making sure that everybody has an opportunity to have a tree to gather the family around was important to my grandparents and my parents; it’s important to me too. We do a pretty good job of making sure that we live up to that tradition,” he said.