Running a Christmas tree farm is a working vacation.
Most of the year, Aaron Karejwa works for an ambulance company. But for one month, he takes time off and dedicates his December to helping people find just the right tree to take home for the holidays.
He is a salesman at one of three family-operated locations for Menefee’s Christmas Trees in Tacoma and Lakewood.
The business started in 1980 when Lou Menefee and his son Scott started selling trees in an empty lot next to their house. They’d hand pick natural nobles and Douglas firs, then haul them in his 1972 Datsun pickup and sell them to passersby.
Lou Menefee retired in 2012 and his son took over.
Now, they sell about 3,500 trees each year and are experts on picking the perfect tree, loading it into any vehicle and avoiding a Clark Griswold kind of Christmas.
Karejwa, Menefee’s brother-in-law, spoke with this paper about the finer points of buying and selling Christmas trees.
Q: Do people typically buy the first or last tree they see?
A: I would say 90 percent of the time it’s the first tree they’re drawn to. They know their home well enough and they know how the tree will work in their house and whether it’ll fit in the corner or in front of the window.
But the funny thing is I’ve had people who have bought a tree, paid for it, gotten it on top of the car and then they come back and say, “I didn’t see that one over there” and they turn around and leave with a different tree.
Q: What’s the biggest tree you’ve ever had to move?
A: Sixteen feet. And I asked, “You’re bringing extra people, right?”
If it’s a substantial tree like that, there’s a lot of logistics to get it loaded into a trailer. We’ll load the top forward so that when they go to pull it off the trailer, they won’t break any branches. Then you have to make sure that if it’s overhanging, you put the caution flag on top.
Sometimes I have to call in a couple of extra people to help move the tree.
Q: For those of us who don’t know what to look for in a tree, what tips can you offer?
A: Pay attention to the health of the tree.
A couple things are good indicators of freshness, and a lot of that is putting your hand on the branch and pushing it down and seeing how it reacts. If it comes up fast, it’s a healthy and happy tree.
Then pluck a needle off the branch and bend it tip to tip. You want it to break. That’s an indication water is getting through to the tree.
The other thing I ask people is size. Their eyes are always bigger than their house and they don’t know the height they’re working with.
Q: Do people ever ask for crazy things in regard to their Christmas tree?
A: Something that seems to have re-emerged lately is the flocking of trees (fake coloring the tree), but we don’t do that. It’s a very messy process.
The most entertaining challenge is what kind of car do they have. The other day a guy came in a VW two-seater sand buggy and we tied the tree up, but we put it in the passenger seat.
It gets a little creative. Sometimes I’ve gotten trees that literally go bumper-to-bumper. Or people who want the smallest tree and tie a tiny tabletop tree to the top of a big pickup. That’s funny.
Q: Does someone stay on the lots 24/7 to keep people from stealing them?
A: Between our three lots, two of them are completely fenced in but the one on Bridgeport is not. We typically find college kids who need an easy Christmas gig so they can watch the lot overnight.
We have a trailer that was custom-designed — somebody could sleep in there and it has Wi-Fi, so the kid can study and do work. It’s insulated and warm.
Q: What do you do with the leftover trees nobody picks?
A: We do our due diligence in trying to make sure we don’t have any leftovers. We sell trees up to Christmas Eve.
If we do (have leftovers), we consolidate everything down to our lot on McKinley and whatever is left over we take to the Tideflats so they will chip up all the wood and branches.
We work really hard to dial in so we have little to no waste.
Q: Where do the trees you sell on your lots come from?
A: The trees we planted ourselves are not ready for harvest; maybe in another six years. We work with a lot of small farmers in the local region, all the way down into Oregon — La Grande, Rainier, Mossyrock and Estacada. That’s Christmas tree heaven.
About September, we go to those fields and hand pick the ones we want. If it’s a field of 1,000 trees and only 300 look good to us, that’s all we tag. I think that makes a difference that we hand pick what we want.
Q: What’s your favorite part of working there?
A: What makes it fun for me is just talking to the people when they come and helping them make their own Christmas tradition.
I get a whole diversity of people, from your military families to people from Europe who come and educate me on how they do trees.
I watch some families grow up with kids when they were 2 years old and now they’re 10 years old. I become part of their tradition.
Q: Is there a popular day when most people make a mad dash for their trees?
A: It’s usually the second weekend in December. There’s really no rhyme or reason, it’s how the pattern trends. It’s just the right time for people to put their trees up.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653