By STEVE E. SWENSON, Californian staff writere-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: This story was revised Dec. 1, 2004, to remove an inaccuracy which stated Santa's Forest near Shafter was the only place in Kern County that sells choose-and-cut Christmas trees. Lawrence Tree Farm at 19669 Banducci Road in Tehachapi also sells them.
Rod Goodmon's family could walk out into their back yard in the hills east of Sonora and cut down a Christmas tree.
But they don't because it's not tradition.
Instead, they drive 41/2 hours to Santa's Forest near Shafter and join the rest of the Goodmon clan on the day after Thanksgiving to cut a tree and ride Chuggy the train.
The tradition began a dozen years ago when a couple of the moms were pregnant with the children who came out Friday to chop down a Monterey pine.
"We go have breakfast and make a day out of it," said Ray Goodmon, Rod's father. "There are 12 of us here today. We'll go back and decorate the tree. We'll enjoy the Christmas lights and the fresh tree smell all month."
Choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms have been a decades-old tradition in Kern County, but this year, Santa's Forest is one of only a few left.
Retirements, changing business conditions and even a fire last year at Enchanted Forest, off Breckenridge Road, have caused such farms to close.
Among the more well-known of the choose-and-cut farms in the past were Clendenen's, near Lamont; Neufeld's, near Wasco; Bussell's, west of Bakersfield; and the Rosedale Christmas Tree Farm, whose lease with PG&E was canceled in spring 2003.
"We almost got out of it a couple years ago," Santa's Forest owner Judy New said. "Then everyone left. We decided to stay in it."
Mrs. New and her husband, Gary, who is a freelance art director for movies and a home-building designer, moved back to their hometown of Shafter in 1976 after spending some years in Corona.
For the next few years, they bought their Christmas trees from Neufeld's in Wasco before deciding they would try planting a farm of their own. "We thought it can't be much trouble," Mrs. New said. "Little did we know."
Tree trimming, bugs, bad weather, government regulations, water issues and all the other problems of farming have convinced them it takes a lot of effort, she said.
But "seeing people happy at Christmastime and knowing we have a fun place to go" is a reward for the couple, Mrs. New said.
She won't say how much money they make selling trees, "But if we can go two or three months without the need to work, then it's worth it," she said.
They have about 6,000 Monterey pines, from seedlings to 10 or 12 feet high, on five acres. They cost $27.95 for trees 6 feet and under, and $29.95 for taller trees.
They import about 300 noble, grand and Douglas fir trees, which sell from $21.95 to $99.95, with most in the range of $35 to $50.
Last year, the business closed on Dec. 16 because it had sold all of its trees. The busiest weekend each year is around Dec. 10, she said.
Mr. New contributes to the fun part of the business -- rigging up Chuggy the train and building Santa's Depot, part of which is a train station from a movie set. He's still making improvements to the depot, which he began last year.
"We always come here," said Breanna Goodman, 12, a seventh-grader at Stockdale Christian School. "We get to ride the train and to cut our own trees." She was the first to yell, "Dad, I found it."
Jim Barks, 64, of Bakersfield, came out with family members, including granddaughter Abi, 7, of Santa Maria, who "cut down the tree all by herself," he said.
"We like the freshness and the spirit of being together as a family," Barks said. "I'm from Colorado. We never bought trees off a store lot."
Kelly Andreas, of Delano, wanted her children to experience the farm aspect of Santa's Forest.
Andreas' 5-year-old daughter, Julianna, tried cutting a small tree down, but big brother John David, 8, helped her finish the job.
Mrs. New said it takes about four years for a tree to mature to the 6 or 7 feet that most people like for Christmas.
"So if somebody wants to start a new farm, they better hurry up," she said.
For their part, the News will plant 1,000 to 1,200 new trees for next year and they will promote their business in parades with an antique fire engine they just bought from the Minter Field Air Museum. "With support from the community, hopefully, we'll be here a long time," Mr. New said.