An 81-year-old Bigfork man is the sole operator of one of the last Christmas tree farms in the Flathead Valley.
Don Schiltz has been the owner of Bigfork Christmas tree farm for the past 37 years, working seven days a week - and he does it all by himself.
“I'd had a career where I had to work for somebody all the time and I had people working for me and I just kinda wanted to be by myself, doing my own thing,” said Schiltz.
After retiring from the US Army, Schiltz saw the growing popularity of Christmas tree farms. But now, Schiltz says he's one of the last operating Christmas tree farms in the Flathead Valley.
“There's no money in it. It takes you, once you plant your first seedlings, it takes 10 years before you get any return on it. It takes 10 years before you get a six foot tree and nobody wants anything less than six feet. So, you have to find a way to survive for ten years without getting any income,” said Schlitz.
For those 10 years Schiltz survived off of a US Army pension and his wife's teaching salary -- and learned all he could about Christmas trees, even the hardships.
“In the fall, September and October, is what I said basil pruning. Cutting the bottom branches out from underneath the tree so that the tree is flat along the bottom so you have that triangular shape you know?" Schlitz explained.
"It's quite artificial, you know, trees don't grow that way. But I have to lie down on my side and reach under the tree and cut with hand clippers, and if it's raining I still gotta do it. It's a yucky job I don't like it."
He sells his trees at Sliter's in Bigfork, pricing them based of the specific type of species. Seven days a week, Schiltz loads and unloads these Christmas trees and drops them off at Sliter's.
But this operation won't continue forever. “Up until this year it was ok. This year has been hard. My family is starting to lean on me now, you know, our kids and our 11 grandkids are all grown and they all think it's time for me to knock it off.”
Schiltz says he will continue selling his Christmas trees locally in retail stores next year. He noted that it's s a yearlong, full time job to ensure that people get the best Christmas trees.