ORTING, WASH. -- For a while, the Pacific Northwest's strange, tantalizing drought -- days of clouds that yielded little rain -- seemed to threaten the region's yuletide treasure: 10 million Christmas trees.
But along the narrow upper reaches of the Puyallup Valley, amid hills ablaze with gold, orange and yellow maple leaves, the perfect cones of Douglas and Grand fir trees stand in their rows like dark green gumdrops, officially designated by botanists as at their peak of color and fragrance.
If they want water with their meals, diners in Seattle restaurants must now ask for it. Fountains in Portland no longer spout. Salmon and steelhead circle restlessly in coastal bays waiting for streams to rise high enough for them to go inland and spawn. The Seattle area has received barely two inches of rain since June 1, less than one-quarter of what was expected.
Signs of the worst Northwest water shortage in decades are everywhere -- some scientists suspect that a new "El Nino" condition in the Pacific may be responsible -- but the Christmas trees, blessed by a stroke of meteorological good fortune, have escaped unscathed. They achieved most of this year's growth by July, as usual, and had more than enough resources -- with some helpful irrigation -- to survive the dry spell.
Meteorologists see no clear end to the drought. Recent sprinkles did not provide anything close to the 10 to 15 inches of rain needed to refill reservoirs, some of which are down to 17 percent of normal depth. But the hearty Christmas trees are so abundant that an expanding numbers of growers may not be able to sell them all.
At Kenneth and JoAnn Scholz's Snowshoe Evergreen Inc. here, one of more than 2,500 enterprises that make the Pacific Northwest the national leader in Christmas tree production, the wreathes of high-altitude Noble fir tips already are stacking up in sheds cooled to 34 degrees. The Scholzes have 100,000 of their 1 million trees in fields scattered throughout the valley already tagged for cutting and sale this month.
When Ken Scholz began to turn the family dairy farm into a Christmas tree operation 14 years ago, his father, Alfred Scholz, told him he was crazy. "We'd spent all those years digging out the stumps on those fields, and now he was going to put a lot of stumps back in," said the elder Scholz, 73, a retired Soil Conservation Service technician.
Today, Alfred and Emmajane Scholz enthusiastically assist in their son and daughter-in-law's business. The dairy cows are gone, but income from Christmas trees, seedlings, wreathes, garlands, swags and door charms is enough to allow Ken and JoAnn Scholz recent holidays in Australia and Scandinavia and to employ as many as 50 people in the peak weeks of harvest and Christmas merchandizing.
In this unusual enclave of the American agricultural industry, an estimated 34 million trees harvested throughout the country are about to head for market without benefit of federal price supports and with a foothold in places even as resistant to American produce as Japan.
The Druid sorcerers who hung golden apples and lit candles on oak trees before the birth of Jesus Christ could never have imagined the commercial possibilities of their seasonal ritual, but they understood the emotional power of light and color against dark green boughs. It lives on in this century.
Ken Scholz, whose handshake could crush a green pine cone, rolled his eyes helplessly toward the ceiling when asked how many trees decorate his home at Christmas. His wife picks out 15 or 20 of the best while supervising the cutting. She sells most of them to friends but saves four or five for the house -- one in the family room, one in the living room, one in the master bedroom, one in 13-year-old Kristi's room and, in those years when he can find space for it, one in 16-year-old Monte's room.
Family arguments over which variety is best -- Douglas, Noble, Grand, Fraser or Shasta fir, or white pine -- are resolved by putting a different species in each room.
Duane Kaiser, a former state legislator active in the Washington Christmas Tree Growers Association, had expressed some fear that the recent closure of 19 million acres of Northwest forest because of fire hazards might affect some growers, but the forests have since been reopened. Most Christmas trees here are not grown in forests but in open fields, replacing strawberries, corn and other crops that could not provide the same profits, or satisfactions.
Does the lack of federal price supports and controls appeal to Christmas tree farmers? "Damn right it does," Ken Scholz said.
Kaiser recalled the time he was running for the legislature and a local real estate broker asked whether he "believed in independent business." "What kind of stupid question is that?" Kaiser replied. "There isn't anybody more independent that a Christmas tree farmer."
On the wall of the Scholz farm office is a color photograph of Ken, JoAnn, Monte and Kristi standing with President and Mrs. Reagan after a Scholz-grown Noble fir won a 1983 competition to decorate the Blue Room of the White House. The Scholzes employ no sales people, as many other Christmas tree growers do, but rely on old customers and a reputation for meticulous attention to the care and feeding of their trees.
After a field has provided two consecutive harvests of 6- to 10-year-old trees, all stumps are removed. Peas and rye are grown and plowed under, to rejuvenate the soil. Scholz looks for sandy loam, well drained, and uses a rich mix of different fertilizing nutrients, which some of his competitors consider unnecessary.
"But it means I sleep better at night," he said.
He buys one- or two-year-old trees, called "starts," from big growers such as Weyerhaeuser, plants them in close rows for two more years before selling the "transplants," as the 4-year-old trees are called, to other growers or transplanting them to well-spaced rows in his fields.
To satisfy the prevailing preference for bushy, cone-shaped trees, the Scholzes and their crews splint bent tops to assure proper upward growth and trim top buds in a way that yields far more branches per foot of tree trunk than nature would provide. Each year the trees are trimmed with long shearing knives to assure their proper shape.
About half of their trees are sold in the Seattle area. The rest are placed in refrigerated tractor-trailers for lots as far east as Washington, D.C., and New York. Scholz sells a six-foot Douglas fir to a broker for about $10.50. By the time it reaches the Christmas tree lot, said Northwest Christmas Tree Association marketing director Wally Hunter, the price will approximately double.
The Scholz children spend their summers working on the trees, although they are, in their father's words, "treed-out" and say they look forward to different ways of life once they leave home.
"I'm not going to do anything like this," said Monte, leaning over the counter of the farm office.
Emmajane Scholz winked at a visitor and encouraged her grandson to reveal his hoped-for occupation.
"Maybe a forest ranger," he said.