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Tree's company at Hidden Springs Christmas Tree Farm in Atascadero

Fred Franks, a forester and former CDF unit chief, with a 7-year old tree that’s ready for this season.
Fred Franks, a forester and former CDF unit chief, with a 7-year old tree that’s ready for this season. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

This year marks 50 seasons of growing cut-your-own Christmas trees for the Fred Frank family of Atascadero.

The idea for the tree farm began in December 1959, when Fred Frank Sr. trimmed a few of the Monterey pines he had planted along the road to screen their 10-acre tree farm from the street. Locals bought the pretty pines for Christmas trees at $3 each.

By 1962, when son Fred graduated in forestry from Humboldt State University, he and his dad, retired superintendent of county roads, developed a partnership and opened Hidden Springs Tree Farm.

Through the ensuing years of young Fred’s career in northern California with the California Department of Forestry, he and his wife, Pat, and their children traveled on weekends to work the tree farm. In fact, he calculated that they made about 300 weekend trips to Atascadero to plant and tend trees with Fred Sr. By 1985, Fred and Pat bought out his parents’ interest and moved back to the area, at which time he became CDF unit chief and county fire chief for the rest of his career.

As a professional forester, Fred is an expert in forest management, and he uses that knowledge to manage the tree farm. He plants a variety of species at different times, which he calls an “uneven age, mixed stand” of trees.

“If you have all the same age and species, you invite problems from disease, insects and deer,” he said.

Since certain diseases and insects target specific species and ages, he’s in little danger of losing the whole crop. Therefore, no insecticides are used on the farm.

To reduce the aphids in his Scotch pines, he planted incense cedars, which attract ladybugs. He protects his firs, spruce and white pines from deer damage by intermixing some “sacrificial Monterey pines,” which the deer prefer for their frequent sparring practice.

Fred explained that this organic method of tree farming is more challenging and requires additional work, but he’s committed to providing a chemical-free tree for use inside the home.

The mixed stand requires two watering systems — a drip system for the young trees needing water more often, and an overhead system for the older trees. For Fred, the extra maintenance for two systems is worth the work in order for the plantation to simulate a natural forest.

As the Franks celebrate this 50th anniversary, they also are in the process of transitioning the family farm to daughter Aurely, her husband, Craig Dobbs, and their children, Andrew, 21, and Olivia, 18.

Andrew is following in his grandfather’s footsteps as a forestry major at Humboldt State University, while Olivia is at UC Santa Cruz.

Even though grandfather Fred said he is “trying to not work as much,” he can still be seen almost every day planting, trimming, weeding and irrigating his forest.

The real enjoyment for the Franks comes during the holiday season, when families start arriving the day after Thanksgiving to select their Christmas tree from the forest.

Many of them have made this an annual tradition, some coming from as far as the Bay Area and Southern California. They are greeted with hot apple cider and roasted chestnuts from Fred’s chestnut trees.

With a saw in hand, they set off to find their tree, wandering under the oaks and along paths, crossing a creek bed and occasionally spotting a group of deer. (Maybe Santa’s reindeer, for the little ones!)

Reach Connie Pillsbury at conniepillsbury22@gmail.com.