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Hew and haul: The tradition of cutting down your own holiday tree lives on

The image of a family making a day of chopping down a holiday tree and happily dragging it home to be decorated may seem quaint.

But the handful of family-owned tree farms in Orange County still draw people who crave the fresh smell of a nice spruce or fir and appreciate the time-honored tradition of hewing and hauling it themselves.

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Nestled between Black Star Canyon and Santiago Canyon Road in Silverado is Peltzer Pines Christmas tree farm, a lush green, ecofriendly forest paradise just south of Irvine Lake.

Charles "Chuck" Peltzer, 82, drives his Scion casually through the seemingly endless rows of evergreen Monterey and Leyland Cypress pines, which are divided by age — some are up to 5 years old.

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The seed is ordered from a farm in New Zealand, and seedlings grow in the nursery for about nine months before being planted in the soil to take root. The Peltzer trees grow to 9 or 10 feet after about four years.

When Peltzer planted his first Monterey pine, in 1963 — by his father's old 20-acre citrus grove on what is now Disneyland in Anaheim — he knew the farming business would be his family's legacy to Orange County.

"The fact that we're on top of an old dump, from an environmental point of view, this location takes care of this part of the world quite nicely," Peltzer said.

Peltzer Pines opened in 1966, eventually growing to eight locations in Anaheim, Orange, Garden Grove and Irvine. The original farms closed when property values went up and development swept through. In addition, they faced fierce competition from big-box stores like Home Depot and Lowe's.

"It was a high point of our business, having the eight farms," Peltzer recalled.

The Silverado location opened 10 years ago on land leased from the Orange County Parks department. Peltzer's other current farm, which opened around the same time, is in Brea, off of Carbon Canyon.

Under California's current drought conditions and resulting water restrictions, the farm has converted to an environmentally sound drip irrigation system, which feeds a gallon and a half of water every 10 days to each tree, Peltzer said.

"The Peltzers have always been farmers," he said with pride.

Aside from growing pine trees, the Peltzers also maintain dairy, citrus, palm tree and pumpkin farms, as well as a new Temecula family winery.

"I enjoy seeing my sons and the grandkids all helping this family-run operation," he said.

His son Nicholas "Nick" Peltzer, 58, grew up in Orange working the family farm from a young age.

"I liked working with my hands. My office is outside," he said.

Over time Nick involved his wife, Beth, and daughters with the business, hiring a small crew of pruners to help maintain the fast-growing trees.

Come holiday season, Peltzer Pines sells 4,000 to 5,000 trees between the Brea and Silverado farms, with loyal customers traveling from as far as San Diego and Big Bear. They sell from $9 for a "Charlie Brown" tree to well in excess of $100 for one 10 feet or over.

At least 400 trees are donated to the military each year to be distributed to needy families, the Peltzers said.

By opening day this weekend, more than 1,000 trees have been pre-sold (identified and tagged). These early buyers — and others wanting the whole experience — then chop down their own fragrant Monterey pine or hypoallergenic Leyland cypress.

Chuck Peltzer said it takes a sense of commitment and willingness to work to run a Christmas tree farm.

"I did exactly what I always wanted to do, and it turned out to be a lot of fun," said the family patriarch. "And it teaches them [the younger generations] the value of hard work."

Richfield Pines

Uniquely situated on an old avocado farm overlooking the suburbs of Yorba Linda, Richfield Pines tree farm has been in business since 1978 on family-owned land.

"We provide a service to this community," said 78-year-old Mauro Dentino Sr., who opened the farm with his late wife, Theresa, after they built their home on the Yorba Linda hills.

"I knew I needed something to help me stay in shape, but I wanted to earn money doing it. The special part of it was being able to keep the kids close to us too, participating in the same work — you become very close. It keeps the family together."

When Dentino was growing up in Illinois, he helped run his family's grocery store in Chicago. He remembers childhood holidays decorating and selling Christmas trees.

"Growing up in that environment, I understood responsibility," he said. "My wife and I wanted to do something so that the kids can learn the same values, and what better way than starting a family business."

The hilly, 10-acre property made an ideal location for growing more than 8,000 Monterey Pines, scattered between the leftover palm and avocado trees. Seeds were delivered from the U.S. Forest Service but now come from a pine farm in Pismo Beach.

"With a family business, you see every aspect: when it works well, when money's short. You see the whole thing, and it forces you to look at the whole package, adapt and make it work," said son Mauro Dentino Jr., 54, who runs the whole show and also owns several apartment properties in the area.

"Because of the residential area surrounding us, we're also kind of grandfathered in, and it gives our farm more of a forest feel."

For 38 years, the Dentinos have learned to overcome challenges, including California's warm climate and regional drought restrictions that bring dryness, lack of color and rampant bark beetles to the trees.

"We're working on growing the crop back to larger size, and we irrigate sparingly, with overhead sprinklers," said the younger Dentino. "The Monterey pines are the only thing that grow in these drought conditions, and they grow fairly fast. Naturally, they are really green and very hard to burn, unlike the store-bought, dried-out ones."

"The trees take in carbon dioxide and generate tons and tons of natural, beautifully smelling oxygen. When you prune it, it smells so good," his father agreed.

Running an integrated, free-enterprise business helped the Dentino family combine farming and management talents and share them with the siblings, grandchildren and small staff. Dentino Sr. notes that it takes tenacity and willingness to simply get the job done.

"No kid wakes up and says I want to prune pine trees on my weekends," said Dentino Jr. "But looking back, you see your old friends and realize they never really knew their parents well. We worked with our parents — to us, this was second nature."

The trees are sold for $8.50 per foot. Once cut, they require constant watering to maintain color, freshness and fragrance.

Richfield Pines customers often travel from Los Angeles County looking for the traditional tree-shopping, chopping and trimming experience.

"We're not a Home Depot parking lot," the younger Dentino said. "We saw down the trees for them and take photos of customers using their family ax. We find a lot of families still love it — the hike, the hills, kids running amok, people having photo shoots. It's a big traditional, community thing. Everyone has fun; that's really what it's all about."

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Peltzer Pines is at 3400 Rose Drive in Brea and 7851 Blackstar Canyon Road in Silverado. Call (714) 649-9251 or visit Peltzerpines.com. Richfield Pines is at 5392 Richfield Road in Yorba Linda. Call (714) 253-7581 or visit richfieldpines.com.

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