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The view is free at Sonoma’s only tree farm

Friday, November 16th, 2012 | Posted by

John Ferrando, left, and his sister Bobbi Hall, among the Christmas trees on their Moon Mountain Tree Farm. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent

Visitors to Moon Mountain Christmas Tree Farm won’t be greeted by Santa or Mrs. Claus. They won’t find holiday decorations or tree trimmings for sale. They won’t even find someone to flock their trees with fake snow.

Sonoma Valley’s lone Christmas tree farm is all about the panoramic beauty found high atop one of the most scenic ridges in the area. Nothing commercial, nothing artificial.

The tree farm is a hidden gem — literally. Located two miles up a narrow, winding road off Highway 12 in Agua Caliente, it’s there waiting for the rare visitor who just happens along.

Yet the tree farm has enjoyed a consistent stream of customers since selling its first Christmas tree in 1971.

“Obviously, we’re in a naturally beautiful setting surrounded by vineyards and mountains,” says John Ferrando, who owns the tree farm with his sister, Bobbi Hall.

“It’s kind of like you’re out in a forest,” adds Hall, spotting a flock of chattering Canada geese migrating in a “V” formation overhead, her fifth sighting of the day.

Situated near the end of rural Moon Mountain Road, the expansive property affords sweeping views of a wide canyon and the neighboring Gallo family vineyards.

The tree farm is part of the hillside ranch that has been in the Ferrando family since 1918. Both Hall and John Ferrando live withe their families on the property.

Six acres are planted with Douglas, Noble and white fir trees, about 10,000 in all. Each year some 3,000 trees are tagged for sale, some representing 15 years of growth and work. Prices, including tax, range from $35 to $175 depending on tree type, size and appearance.

Not cheap, the owners agree, but just enough to cover costs and turn a small profit.

For some longtime customers, price is an afterthought. “For us, it’s more of an experience than finding a deal,” says Sonoma resident Gilly O’Donnell.

She and her husband Fred have been coming to Moon Mountain since they began dating 17 years ago. They return each year with their children, 14-year-old Oscar and 11-year-old Ivy, capturing each visit with a family photo in front of their favored tree.

A transplant from England, Gilly O’Donnell was accustomed to buying Christmas trees from a city street corner in her homeland. That’s far from the experience her children have at Moon Mountain.

“It’s a tradition for us, and it’s fun,” she says. “We look forward to getting our boots on and going out there as a family.”

Despite increased expenses (like liability insurance), prices have remained stable.

“We’ve been able to keep them pretty steady,” says Hall.

Tree sales have been down a bit in the recent economy, but not enough to keep the owners awake at night. Last year some 800 vehicles headed down Moon Mountain Road loaded with fresh Christmas trees, a number Ferrando and Hall expect to mimic this year.

“It’s a tough business, no question,” says Ferrando. “We’ve been lucky because of where it is (located).”

Mother Nature imposes greater threats. The tree farm has learned to work with deer, pesky insects, weeds and hungry jack rabbits and gophers that favor young seedlings. Fencing keeps the deer away, and longtime ranch manager Juan Chavez uses his experience and attentiveness to control other nuisances during the planting, trimming and selling seasons.

A devastating wildfire in 1996 was far more difficult to manage, with 1,500 trees lost in the blaze.

Despite the challenges, Ferrando and Hall focus on the joy their tree farm brings to so many people, many of them second- and even third-generation customers.

When the tree farm opened in early November, loyal customers were already lined up waiting to claim their trees, with 130 reserved the first weekend of the season.

Hall says it’s always amusing to watch visitors select a tree. Some spend hours, others are more decisive. Some take cell phone photos for comparisons, others leave plastic cups attached to branches so they can spot their contenders.

Seemingly, there are no beauty standards for Christmas trees. Even skimpier Charlie Brown trees are beloved to some.

“Everybody likes something different,” says Hall. “They enjoy the hike and the searching, but everyone has an image of what they want.”

As customers return to pick up their trees, teenage boys in red jackets are on hand to cut the trees and trek them to awaiting vehicles. Moon Mountain employs 20 seasonal workers at its “you choose — we cut and carry” tree farm, with no shortage of hard-working teens eager to earn some extra cash.

Hall and Ferrando credit the teens and full-time employee Chavez with the operation’s success. They are thankful for their own family members and friends who also help out on busy days, directing traffic, greeting customers and serving the complimentary cookies, candy canes and hot beverages that grow more popular every year.

Hall and Ferrando are especially pleased that their fourth-generation homestead continues to be a holiday tradition for so many visitors from Sonoma Valley and beyond.

“It’s a great feeling to know all these years later and all the time Dad (Ed Ferrando) and (his brothers) Tom and Larry put into this farm, that people appreciate it,” says Hall.

Moon Mountain Christmas Tree Farm, 1550 Moon Mountain Road, is open weekends through Thanksgiving and Friday to Sunday after Thanksgiving until Dec. 16. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Only checks and cash are accepted. Shake and bale services are offered. For more information, call 996-6454 or visit moonmountainchristmastreefarm.com.

Writer Spotlight

Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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