Earth & Conservation

Christmas Tree Farmers Tackle Epic Harvest with Helicopters

These guys in Oregon have six weeks to harvest a million trees.

<p>Great Big Story on YouTube<span></span></p>

It's no flying reindeer, but the blue and white helicopter hovering over the vast Christmas tree farm in Oregon might as well be one of Santa's helpers.

Choppers like this have been instrumental for the crew at Holiday Tree Farms in Corvallis, Ore., since the early 1980s. The team only has six weeks to harvest a million trees - no exaggeration. Oregon is the nation's largest supplier of Christmas trees, senior production manager for the farm Mark Arkills told Great Big Story. The ratio: 12 holiday trees to every human in the state.

Out on the farm, cultured Douglas fir trees get cut down individually with chainsaws and then bundled together with heavy-duty ropes. The helicopter swoops in and lowers a separate rope with a metal hitch. A person on the ground called a "slinger" loops in the rope bundling the clump of cut trees, and then up, up and away they go at a rate of about 1,000 trees per hour. The farm uses five or six helicopters at the same time.

A line of trucks waits for the helicopter, which lowers the bundles into each truck's bright yellow bed. Each tree goes through a quick process where loose needles get shaken off before the tree is bailed, loaded up and then sent off to be sold, probably to someone you know. Altogether, the 2016 Oregon harvest is worth $90 million, according to the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association.

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Artificial trees represent fierce competition for tree farmers. "We real tree farmers have a saying about fake trees," Arkills, who actually looks a bit like Santa himself, said in the interview. "Nine years in the house and nine million years in the landfill. They cannot be recycled."

Growing the fragrant real trees typically takes eight years until they reach ideal height. Holiday Tree Farms has about 8,000 acres of actively growing trees, according to Arkills. Every spring after the harvest, new seedlings get planted to keep the operations going.

Watch the Holiday Tree Farms crew get it done this year: