Pleasanton Weekly

Column - November 29, 2013

From the Bering Sea to Christmas trees in Pleasanton

by Jeb Bing

Those of us who have spent some time in the Midwest or East no doubt recall the bitterly cold, wintry days when we went shopping for a Christmas tree. Matt Shadle, who operates the Pleasanton Christmas Tree Lot at the corner of the Fairgrounds at Valley and Bernal, remembers those times, too. Only for a tree lot operator, the work starts before dawn to shake the snow off trees and open up the frozen branches before customers arrive.

Shadle, a commercial fisherman who lives near the Bering Sea in Homer, Alaska, has tree farms in Washington and Oregon as well as a cattle farm in Utah. Born in Anaheim, he welcomed the chance to take over the Regan Bros. lot at the Fairgrounds to bring his trees to Pleasanton to sell. Regan sold trees at the site for three decades and many of Shadle's trees are from the Regan Bros. Shadle opened the business here last month with the pumpkin patch, marketing that business and the tree lot with special family attractions that include train rides, bounces, slides, obstacle courses and what he calls Hamster balls, giant water walking balls children and their parents can sit inside and try to maneuver around an 18-inch-deep portable pond, much like Dodge-em rides at a carnival. Five minutes in the Hamster ball is like a two-hour workout, leaving riders ready to talk seriously about buying a Christmas tree.

It used to be that most customers sorted through lots of Noble Fir trees until they found one they like. Today, although Nobles are still the most popular, other varieties make tree shopping more fun and challenging. Shadle has Fraser, Alpine and Douglas firs all in various shapes, heights and symmetry. Needles hang down, point up, wrap around and seemingly weep. Grand firs have a fragrant smell, strong enough, Shadle says, that its very pleasant smell can be detected when you open the front door no matter where the tree is located in the house. So-called Charlie Brown trees are gaining in popularity because of the large spaces between branches that allow for the more exotic, large and even animated ornaments that are hard to place on bushy Nobles.

Nor are trees necessarily green, although most are. Shadle's crews flock and paint trees in a variety of colors to meet customer requests. There are pink trees in princess decor for little girls, red and blue trees, white trees, and new on Shadle's lot are black trees for Oakland Raider fans who can decorate them with silver balls to have next to their TV sets in their dens.

To customers who hesitate to see a tree cut down for their brief holiday enjoyment, Shadle says every farmed tree he sells actually allows him to plant two to three new trees in that space. By cutting down a seven-year-old fir (the age of most marketed Christmas trees), there's more room and oxygen in the space it occupied. Every state grows Christmas trees and the business -- from planting, farming, trimming, harvesting and selling -- provides 100,000 jobs, according to Shadle. Plus, it's an American-owned and operated industry.

Shadle buys his trees from nurseries after they've been nurtured inside for two years and outside for another year. Those have passed the survivability test. He tells customers never to buy trees only grown in a nursery. They won't last through Christmas. Once planted, he and his crew "culture" the trees as they're growing, trimming them with thin-bladed machetes at least once a year so that the trees "bush out" and continue growing in the shape we like to see in our homes. When they reach seven feet, it's harvest time, although some firs, such as the Charlie Browns on Shadle's lot, are 26 feet tall, ideal for homes with atriums and businesses.

When he's not cultivating or selling Christmas trees, Shadle makes his living fishing in the Bering Sea and as a cattleman in Utah. He has high praise for the folks from Pleasanton and the Tri-Valley he's seeing on his tree lot for the first time this year, although he's not quite used to the freeways. They don't have any in Homer, which is an artsy community of artists and craftsmen, oil workers, fisherman and a few with dreadlocks located about four hours southwest of Anchorage.

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