U-cut Christmas tree farms Skyline Ranch and Lone Star are rooted in the generations that run and support them.

Visitors to Skyline Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in La Honda can pick out and cut down their own tree. (Photos by Devin Roberts)

Perilous switchbacks and a little bit of mud and frost can’t keep families and groups of friends from venturing to the Santa Cruz Mountains and cutting down a Christmas tree this time of year.

“We have generations of families that come every year; it’s part of their holiday tradition,” says Donna Ducca, owner of both Skyline Ranch and Lone Star tree farms. Her own legacy, as a second-generation Christmas tree farmer, is as important to her as the tradition is for the families that make the yearly trek.

Ducca’s grandparents emigrated from Italy in the late 1800s and settled within the rugged Santa Cruz Mountain range. They made their living farming, and like other immigrant families in the area, they grew fruit until the orchards slowly died off and the canneries closed up. In the late 1950s, Ducca’s father, Julius, pulled out the family fruit trees and planted native confiners. He was one of the first in the area to market and sell them as Christmas trees.

At their peak, the family operated more than six Christmas tree farms. Today, with help from her son, Parker, Ducca runs Lone Star in unincorporated Los Gatos and Skyline Ranch in La Honda, the latter one of only a few U-cut Christmas tree farms in San Mateo County.

At 77 acres, Skyline, which is leased from Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, has been in the family for 64 years. Lone Star, at 15 acres, was purchased by Ducca’s father in 1982.

Ducca appreciates the isolation. She likes to think that her customers do too. “Even though we’re only miles from Silicon Valley, we don’t have internet or cell service up here. I like that customers can be free of distractions and enjoy being in nature like our ancestors did,” she says.

Ducca stresses that each farm has its own personality, saying “Skyline has views of Silicon Valley and is close to lots of nearby hiking trails, whereas Lone Star has forest views and has a more out-of-the-way feel.”

She and her son split their time between farms, and both are determined and dedicated to the farms’ longevity. “I tried living in town once and couldn’t do it. My son won’t even try. We were born and raised in this area and will never leave,” says Ducca.

According to a 2021 National Christmas Tree Association consumer study, the top two locations where consumers purchased trees were big-box stores like Home Depot and Walmart (28.5%) and choose-and-cut farms (26.8%).

Theories abound about the status of these tree farms — some say climate change, the convenience of cut-tree lots and the proliferation of artificial trees have put a dent in these multigenerational land stewards. But, according to Ducca, they are consistently busy and attribute any minor loss of sales to the artificial tree industry.

“The artificial trees are our biggest competitor. People believe that they are environmentally friendly and do less damage, but for every tree we sell, we replant or regrow from an existing stump,” she says. “How long will that artificial tree sit in a landfill? With a real tree, it gets recycled and turned back into a product that you can use in your yard. Educating people about this has been the hardest thing we’ve had to do in the last 20 years.”

The Duccas practice stump culture, a technique popular in California where trees are cut with lower branches still intact. A new tree can grow by protecting the exposed part of the stump and trimming away all but one branch. Ducca has one section of her Skyline farm propagated this way since 1960. She explains that there’s less labor involved, and it is more cost-effective than planting new trees.

“There’s less watering with stump culture, and trees are ready for harvest in five to six years as opposed to six to eight years,” she says.

The trees are dry-farmed, and the land requires year-round management like brush removal and new tree maintenance.

“If you manage it right, you should have a consistent crop every year,” Ducca says. “You only sell a percentage of your crop, and you’re always looking four to five years down the road.”

The prolonged drought hasn’t affected her farms, and she feels fortunate that the fog in the area keeps the trees happy.

“We’re just caretakers of the land. Mother Nature does a lot of correcting, and she may give us a bad time now and then, but I have faith that she will fix it,” Ducca says.

Skyline Ranch Tree Farm grows both white and Douglas fir in addition to Scotch and Bishop pine. Skyline also sells freshly made wreaths from foraged branches. Pre-cut Noble and Nordamm firs are priced as marked.

Hours are Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Trees of any size are $75. Netting is an additional $5 per tree. Open through Dec. 18; call to confirm as they will close when they sell out. Cash or check only. 408-395-0337.

Lone Star Tree Farm grows two California natives: Douglas fir and white fir. The coast Douglas fir is the second-largest conifer in the world after the coast redwood, so when you’re out in the forest looking for that special tree, contemplate that you’re literally walking among giants.

Hours are Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Trees of any size are $73. Netting is an additional $5 per tree. Open through Dec. 24. Call to confirm. Cash or check only. 408-395-0337.

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