PICO RIVERA — Visitors to Lyon Christmas Tree Farm come with saws in hand during the holiday season, looking for the perfect tree among rows of molded pines and cypresses growing under massive electric towers.
“The smell just makes it Christmas,” said Berta Henning, 55, whose family has been cutting fresh trees for about 30 years. “We just got to have that Christmas smell.”
But time is running out for this cut-your-own-tree operation, where 6,500 trees are grown in the narrow public utility plot between a housing track and a creek in this suburb 12 miles east of Los Angeles.
For nearly 40 years, urban Christmas tree farms flourished in the open spaces under California power lines. Over the last decade, they have been forced out of cities or out of business because of rising rents and aggressive redevelopment.
“It’s a tradition that’s going away,” Lyon farm owner Bud Lyon said.
“It’s economics,” he said.
Lyon has rented power line properties from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Southern California Edison. “When we first started leasing, we got our land and we kept the weeds down for them.”
But real estate prices caught up with growers in the 1990s. As the state’s population increased, development encroached and rents skyrocketed.
“You couldn’t grow enough trees to make a decent profit off it,” said Sam Minturn, executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association.
Home grown Christmas tree farms in the state gross about $140 million per year — a pittance compared to producers like Oregon, which supplies more than a quarter of the trees sold nationwide, Minturn said.
Tree farming under power lines started in the 1960s, when enterprising growers searching for cheap land close to customers found an ideal landlord in the local power companies.
During the 1970s and 80s, more than half of Southern California’s tree farms were located under power lines. Lyon may have one of the last ones in the state now, Minturn said.
When Lyon started in 1966, he leased 5 acres from the DWP for $50 an acre a year. Now the land rents for about $1,200 an acre a year and could nearly triple to $3,500 by 2004.
For utilities, higher rents meant getting fair market value for land they once gave away at bargain prices.
“They’ve been underpaying for a long, long time,” said Craig Luna, a DWP real estate manager. “We’re not interested in making a killing. We’re trying to get them to pay fair rent. ... There’s just not a lot of empty land laying around.”
Some Edison land once used for trees has been converted to more lucrative public storage.
“What we’re doing is no different from the general real estate market,” spokesman Steve Conroy said. “In essence, we’re utilizing the property in a way that lowers our operating costs, which benefits our customers.”
Only three more growing seasons remain for Lyon, 65, who has decided to retire when his lease expires in 2004.
If he accepted the terms of DWP’s proposed lease, his rent would equal nearly a third of his $60,000 in annual sales.
“When those trees go into the ground, that’s it,” he said, pointing to several cartons of unplanted saplings.
When Lyon retires, Henning’s search for that fresh pine scent will become more time-consuming.
“I guess you can drive out to the country for the trees,” she said.