Looking around Christmas tree lots in Juneau, and you likely spotted trees once rooted in the Lower 48. The trees are shipped up by the thousands during the holiday season. Varieties like Douglas fir can have a hard time growing in the state. As part of the CoastAlaska series “Alaska Made,” here’s the story of the one place to buy non-native species — grown in Alaska.
Todd Dorman moved to Kodiak in the 1970s after his family bought a cattle ranch. But his father dreamed of starting another venture.
“He looked around here and saw the native trees around here, and he said, ‘I think this would be a good place to grow Christmas trees.’ Or, they would grow here, anyhow, he thought,” Dorman said.
Dorman’s dad held on to the idea. He saw a niche for a Christmas tree farm, which is an unusual sight in Kodiak and most of the state.
Many of the favorite commercial decorative species don’t grow naturally this far north. It’s outside their typical ranges. Of course, native trees like Sitka spruce are just fine for decking the halls. But the needles can shed quickly, and the spindly branches aren’t to everyone’s liking.
So, in 2006, Dorman and his dad decided to embark on their long-talked-about experiment. They bought 500 small fir, pine and spruce trees from a nursery down south.
Dorman said they tried to manage expectations.
“The typical way that a farmer does something: It’s just kind of, (let’s) see what happens,” Dorman said. “So we just ordered some trees and worked up some ground and planted them out there and saw what happened.”
In the summer, the little trees looked like they were flourishing in the Kodiak soil.
“But after the first winter, it just looked like a desert,” Dorman said. “It didn’t look like anything was alive. So, it wasn’t very encouraging at all.”
The climate in Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the U.S. Tree species that were once thought to thrive in lower latitudes are starting to migrate farther north.
But Dorman said the weather in Kodiak has felt unpredictable. His dad didn’t lose hope after that first harsh winter, when the little trees resembled little more than twigs sticking out of the ground.
“Out of all these bad trees, he’d find one that looked good,” Dorman said. “And (he’d) say, ‘Hey, look at this!’”
That optimism paid off. Dorman said it wasn’t a total wipeout. Most of the trees survived.
The next year, the family planted 1,000 more trees. And the following year, even more.
Dorman’s father died about four years ago. But he was alive to see the tree farm make its first sale around 2012.
“I remember the very first one we sold. I’d been looking at this thing for seven years, I think,” Dorman said. “So when someone came along and wanted to buy it, I was a little freaked out.”
He remembers it was a standout Fraser fir. Noticeably, the most beautiful one on the farm. It quickly caught the attention of a father and son who borrowed a saw to cut it down.
Dorman said it’s hard to describe the feeling of letting that first tree go.
“It didn’t take long to get over it,” Dorman said. “But I was thinking, ‘OK, this is the point.’”
He hoped more trees would grow as lush and sturdy as that one, and they have. There are now two-and-a-half acres of Christmas trees on the Dorman farm.