Christmas in the air Helicopter harvest helps local farmer get trees to distant markets in a hurry


11/23/11By Scott Swanson

Problem: How to move 5,000 Christmas trees from the farm to the sales lot as quickly as possible.

For local tree farmer Jon West, the answer last week came in the shape of a helicopter.

West and his family – wife Nancey, son Matt and daughter Kristi farm some 60 acres of noble, grand and Douglas fir trees on a hillside off Berlin Road, about half a mile south of McDowell Creek Road.

Tuesday, Nov. 15, was harvest day for many of the approximately 15,000 trees on the property, which are spaced about 3 feet apart and are difficult to access from the ground.

“You start moving 5,000 trees and the roads don’t hold up,” said Tyler Stone of BTN of Oregon, a family-owned Salem company that specializes in Christmas tree planting and harvest operations.

Jon West said this is the first year he has used a helicopter “at this level,” but it appeared to be a very efficient operation. The Bell 47 chopper, operated by Western Helicopter Services out of Newberg, flew at least a quarter of a mile on most of its trips out and back and made the round trips in less than a minute.

Workers on each end hooked bundles of eight to 10 trees, one at a time, to a hook dangling below the aircraft, and others at the landing site unhooked the trees after they were released by the helicopter, which flew just high enough that its load didn’t hit anything on the ground. Once on the ground, trees were placed on a machine that vibrated them, to shake off loose needles, then were run through a strapper that bundled them, and later in the afternoon were placed on a truck bound for BTN’s sorting yard in Salem.

“The trees go all over,” West said. “I had a container yesterday going to Hawaii. I’ve got orders from Colorado and Louisiana.”

He said the trees were cut the previous Sunday by a crew of “eight to 10” workers who arrived with chainsaws and had 5,000 trees cut and ready to pick up within “six or seven” hours.

Stone said his company uses helicopters for nearly all its harvest operations. He said his family has been handling Christmas trees for three generations.

“This is my dad’s 54th harvest,” he said.