O, Christmas tree, O, Christmas tree

Mario DeHaro, from Gilroy, works with his sons Dmitri, 15 months, Devon, 5, and Dylan, 4, to cut down their Christmas tree Saturday at Ludewig Ranch.

The South County Christmas tree trade is much more than sellers making a living or buyers finding a canvas for colorful holiday decorations.

On both sides of the transaction, the feel-good tradition of Christmas tree hunting underscores the essence of family togetherness embodied by the holiday season, according to shoppers and merchants at local tree farms on their opening weekend.

John and Debbie Tawney and their three daughters always cut their tree the day after Thanksgiving, and they prefer to spend their money locally. On Friday, they perused Sierra Redwoods, Monterey Pines, Douglas Firs and other options growing at the San Martin Christmas Tree Farm on Ludewig Ranch, located along Monterey Road near California Avenue.

“It’s our tradition, rain or shine,” Debbie said, cheerfully.

The family lives in Gilroy, but previously resided in San Martin and is hoping to move to Morgan Hill at the beginning of next year.

“We’ve liked the trees (at Ludewig Ranch) in the past,” said John, looking on as the couple’s daughters scrambled about the farm on the east side of Monterey Road, which is surrounded by quiet farmland and rolling hills. “And we usually try to put our money back in Morgan Hill.”

Less than a mile east at the Battaglia Ranch Christmas Tree Farm, the Bergkeist family of San Jose was working on establishing their own annual post-Thanksgiving tree cutting family tradition, now that their two daughters, age 2 and 4, are old enough to join in, Jackie Bergkeist said Friday. The family has purchased fake Christmas trees in recent years, but plans to cut their own at farms such as Battaglia’s from now on.

“It makes it more of a family outing,” Bergkeist said while sitting with her daughters and mother-in-law in the family’s SUV, as her husband Peter tied the Noble fir they just purchased to the roof.

Like Battaglia’s, the operation at the San Martin Christmas Tree Farm is a family-run business.

It is owned and operated by three generations of the Ludewig family. The Christmas tree farm was established by Leo Ludewig, who died in 2007. His son and daughter-in-law, Steve and Connie Ludewig, have run the farm since 1978. Prior to that it was a prune orchard, according to Connie Ludewig. Leo Ludewig’s granddaughters Jeanette Ramos, 41, and Jacque Morton, 46, now help run the Christmas tree farm.

It’s only a seasonal operation, as the 10 Ludewig clan members who work on the farm also have full-time jobs elsewhere, according to Jacque Morton, Leo Ludewig’s granddaughter.

“We all like to be together for the holidays,” said Morton, who works as a controller for a construction contractor. “We love being out here with our dad. It means Christmas to us.”

Like many other Christmas tree farms in the area, the Ludewigs allow buyers to cut their own tree at the ranch. The family also imports Noble firs from outside the state for those who seek the challenge of maneuvering extra-large Christmas trees (up to 13 feet tall) into their homes.

Families should mark their calendars for Dec. 2 and 9 at the ranch, when children are invited to consult with special guest St. Nick about their Christmas wish lists.

The Friday after Thanksgiving is not typically the Ludewigs’ busiest day of the year. Whatever the reason, customers start flooding in the following weekend, Morton said.

The Ludewig family is expecting a busier season this year in terms of sales, partly because buyers are fueling a trend away from fake trees and back toward fresh-cut real trees that generally cost less than their synthetic counterparts.

“They’re more traditional,” Morton said. “And there’s nothing like that smell (of a real tree).”

According to the National Christmas Tree Association – a trade group that represents more than 700 active farms and 4,000 affiliated businesses – Christmas tree sales nationwide jumped to about 31 million real trees in 2011 from about 27 million in 2010. The volume is still below a seven-year peak of about 33 million trees in 2005.

In 2011, the retail value of real trees sold was about $1.1 billion – or about $35 per tree – according to the NCTA website. Sales of about 9.5 million fake trees that year totaled about $670 million in value – or about $71 per tree.

Locally, retail prices for real Christmas trees range from a minimum of $20 to $45 for a five-foot tree, depending on the variety, at the San Martin Christmas Tree Farm. The cost goes up the bigger the trees are, from $4 to $8 per foot. Larger trees (8.5 feet and taller) and varieties that are shipped in can cost significantly more.

Paul Battaglia, co-owner of the Battaglia Christmas tree farm which sits next to the U.S. 101 on the west side of the freeway, is the president-elect of the NCTA. His 20-acre farm has been in operation since 1997 at its current location, which is accessed from San Martin Avenue to Murphy Avenue. But Battaglia and his brother Ed are no industry neophytes, having run a similar operation in San Jose for about 45 years.

The Battaglias also own a 100-acre tree farm in Salem, Ore., where they grow firs that don’t survive in the California ground. They ship these trees to their San Martin farm as they are needed in order to keep the supply fresh, Paul Battaglia.

The Battaglia farm was a beehive of activity Friday, although Battaglia said he expects even busier days to come.

Dozens of customers and families stood in line with their freshly cut trees loaded on hand carts, while children waited in line for two train rides – Rudolph’s Magical Ride and a Narrated Enchanted Christmas Train – around the ranch. Employees directed traffic into parking lots that were nearly full. Lines formed in front of vendors selling hot chocolate, pizza, tamales and other goodies.

About 20 of Battaglia’s family members work at the farm, plus about 40 other employees, he said.

Battaglia is also a proud supporter of the Trees for Troops program, which collects donations from the public to send Christmas trees to the families of United States armed forces in all branches of the military. The American Legion manned a booth for the program, collecting donations and providing more information about Trees for Troops over the weekend.

“We give them a Christmas tree and say ‘thank you for helping us, for your service, and your dedication and duty,’” Battaglia said.

Battaglia said he expects sales to be about the same as last year at his San Martin farm, though he said it’s difficult to say how many trees he sold last year.

Livermore residents Jason and Kim Townsend were tying their Monterey Pine Christmas tree to the roof of their truck while their daughter Jinjer, 11, was in line for one of the trains at Battaglia Ranch Friday.

They went Christmas tree shopping with Jinjer’s grandparents, who were visiting for the holiday in San Jose, along with Kim’s sister and her four children.

The Townsend family tradition is long established, as they have cut their Christmas trees together after Thanksgiving each year for the last 42 years, ever since Jason Townsend was little, he said. They have purchased their tree at Battaglia’s for the last 14 years.

“All the activities here are cool, and they have a good selection of trees,” he said.

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