Tree farm in the business of growing memories

On the Farm: The family sold more than 225 Christmas trees last year and are also developing other attractions for visitors

SYLVAN LAKE, Alta. — The joy is in the hunt. Bundling up, tromping through glistening snow in crisp winter air, examining it from all angles, is all part of the quest for just the right tree.

Then after “the one” is discovered, cut, and packed for the journey home, there’s additional outdoor excitement to prolong the magic: speeding downhill on a toboggan or gliding across an open air rink. A crackling fire burns nearby, ready to warm cold hands and feet.

The Porttin family — Gary, Susana, and Ryker — have created the stage for this experience.

“It gives families memories that last a lifetime,” says Susana.

She says that Ryker, 6, loves meeting the people, showing them around, and joining in the kid-centred fun.

The Porttins agree that it’s wonderful having people come and go in the best of spirits in what started as a business proposition.

“The Christmas tree farm idea came about as a way to use the land,” says Gary, who operates his backhoe service from the farm.

Since 2005, the Porttins have planted about 7,000 white and Colorado blue spruce on the 80-acre property. Their supplier is the Bonnyville Forest Nursery.

“I’ve always loved to be around spruce trees,” he says.

Gary Porttin cuts a tree for Ricardo and Shannon Ferreira and their sons, Leo and Beck, from Red Deer. Porttin and his family have been operating the R Family Tree Farm since 2013. | Maria Johnson photo

Porttin felt that if the Christmas tree farm didn’t work out, he’d have this big beautiful natural forest. Unexpected benefits are the birds, deer, and moose the trees have attracted.

“There’s birds here I’ve never seen before,” he says.

The R Family Tree Farm opened for business in 2013. We didn’t have Facebook then. We used flyers in the mail,” says Susana.

She says they had about 65 customers per year the first two seasons and the number has been growing ever since. Last year, they sold more than 225 Christmas trees.

Susana promotes R Family Tree Farm on several social media sites. She says she likes being able to connect to a wide audience.

“Some people send us pictures,” she says. “They say the tree still looks as fresh on Christmas Day as the day they bought it.”

What can’t be shared in photos, she says, is the fragrance of a fresh-cut tree. As the trunk takes up water, sap runs and releases a woodsy spruce tree smell, more so at room temperature as compared to out in the cold.

She says that although most people are on the lookout for a bushy symmetrical tree, one customer’s annual mission is to buy a unique tree rather than a perfect one.

“Last year she picked one with two tops,” says Susana.

While the sales season is just a month long, the trees need attention throughout the year. To achieve the desired conical shape, trimming is carried out through the year on thousands of trees.

“It’s a big job,” says Gary.

He said for about the first 10 years of the trees’ life it was necessary to keep the soil black and weed free to more readily absorb warmth from the sun and to minimize competition for soil nutrients, encouraging growth.

“Now I want to slow them down so I’ve let the grass grow.”

As well as the tree farm, the Porttins are continuing to develop sideline activities.

Ryker Porttin waits just a few more seconds before bolting down the toboggan hill at the farm. A skating rink sits at the bottom of the hill and a protective gazebo with fire pit is on the right. | Maria Johnson photo

They’ve built a larger fire pit and gazebo, added a light over the skating rink, and are finishing a second full-service, all-season cabin available for rent. It will double as the tree sales office.

The farm’s location near Sylvan Lake makes it an easy destination for families travelling to the tourist area for summer or winter get-aways.

“It would be a good place to stay for people coming out for hockey tournaments,” says Gary. “They’d have their own skating rink and fire pit.

Gary grew up on the property, which is part of the original half section that his great-grandparents homesteaded in 1895 when they emigrated from Finland.

“We had a dairy farm here in the early 1900s, he says of his ancestors. “Right up until 1962. And a blacksmith shop.”

A symbol of his Finnish ancestry, although no longer in use, is the sauna. It’s just steps from the main house, which sits on the same spot as the home he grew up in.

Porttin’s parents farmed here until the mid-1970s.

Gary and Susana met in 2008 shortly after Susana came to work in Sylvan Lake from her native Indonesia. They married in 2013.

“This is my 12th Christmas here. I’ve started to adopt the traditions. Gary’s mom taught me how to cook the turkey,” Susana says.

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