TENINO, Wash. — Mexico wants Christmas trees, but it doesn’t want hitchhikers. So Washington growers shake each tree like a pair of maracas.
The baler has a cup attached into which handlers stick the cut end of the tree. A vigorous shake rids the tree of loose needles, slugs and snails so they don’t cross the border.
“They specify 15 seconds of shaking, but we give them 30,” said Curt Hunter, co-owner of the Greg Hunter Christmas Tree Farm in southwestern Washington. “For Hawaii, they get a full minute.”
The shake is part of the inspection process. Tobin Gilbert, an inspector for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said this is the second inspection he performs for each tree farm.
In the first one, in late October, he examined the Douglas firs for signs of disease and insects. This time, in early November, he was inspecting the piles of needles that accumulated beneath the shaker, making sure no critters ride along with the shipment.
Washington is the No. 5 producer in the nation, with Christmas tree farms in 32 of the state’s 39 counties. About 250 growers harvest 2.3 million trees on 23,000 acres, with a sales value of $35 million.
Hunter said his father and uncles started this farm in 1948 when they were in high school. The family now has several farms totaling about 400 acres, from which they harvest 50,000 to 60,000 trees.
“We use helicopters on one of our farms, because the terrain just doesn’t allow us to get in there otherwise,” he said. “And one of our farms is U-cut — an agritourism operation with pumpkins, too.”
As each shipment is loaded onto a truck for the trip south, Gilbert attaches a biosanitary certificate.
The mechanical shaking is standard procedure for export, he said, not only for the trees but for wreathes and other cut greens, which he also inspects.
Every year, some details of the inspection procedure change.
“Customers are good about anticipating particular challenges,” he said. “Some are concerned about the soil, that none has splashed up on the branches.”
For Hunter and other growers, this is the busy time of year, but activity picks up early again in February, starting the cycle of ground preparation, fertilizing and planting new trees.