Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
It was Christmas Eve and there was a knock on the door.
Rick Sanchez, his brother and his grandparents were sitting around the table for a family dinner that night roughly 40 years ago. Their backyard at 8826 Fourth NW was a Christmas tree lot. They had just one tree left.
The knock was a customer looking for a last-minute Christmas tree. Sanchez’s grandfather, Tony Garcia, told him to help the customer, so Sanchez trekked out into the snow to sell him the remaining tree.
The man handed Sanchez a $100 bill.
“Mijito, you put that in your pocket,” Garcia told his grandson when he returned to the house.
Garcia started selling Christmas trees in 1937. Years after his death, Sanchez, now 49, has continued the family business, which still operates out of the yard behind his childhood home in Los Ranchos. He remembers his grandmother cooking beans, chile and tortillas on a hot plate while her family worked in the cold lot out back.
But Sanchez wasn’t certain he’d be able to open the lot this year for its 85th season. According to Sanchez, Thanksgiving is generally the target opening date for tree lots. Most years, he said, he has customers wanting to buy trees up to two weeks before the holiday. But, this year, his normal tree sources dried up.
“Thanksgiving came and went,” Sanchez said, with no trees in the lot.
He generally buys northern New Mexico trees cut by landscape architect Phillip Bustos. But when Bustos went to scout for trees in Mora, he wasn’t able to find enough trees in the ranches he normally cuts from due to fire damage, Sanchez said.
In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, the lot was still able to open with a contact-free tree “drive-through.” Sanchez sold over 400 trees that year. But this year was different.
Even finding Oregon trees was difficult, Sanchez said.
A July report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that, between 2015 and 2020, Oregon Christmas tree harvesters cut 27% fewer trees and farmed 24% fewer acres.
“This year, you know, we didn’t know what we were going to do,” Sanchez said. “And so I thought, well, what would my grandpa do?”
Sanchez got on the phone with John Seaver, the owner of Just Sprinklers, who sold him about 100 Oregon trees for a bargain price. Then, Richard and Jennifer Hobson, owners of Jericho Nursery, scrounged together another 20 Oregon trees for Sanchez.
Between the two sources, Sanchez was able to open the week after Thanksgiving.
“If it wouldn’t, honestly, have been for those guys, I probably wouldn’t have got to open my gates,” Sanchez said.
It was the first time Sanchez has ever sold Oregon trees from his lot. Although many customers liked the Pacific Northwest trees, Sanchez said many others were still looking for New Mexico trees.
“We thought, you know, we’re just gonna have a really quaint, small season,” Sanchez said. “And, hey, we are successful in our own right, that we were able to acquire some kind of Christmas trees, just so we could keep the tradition.”
But Sanchez had another stroke of luck. A group of tree-cutters from Pecos drove past his lot with a trailer full of piñons. When they saw the Christmas tree signs, the driver made a U-turn and sold Sanchez 40 piñon trees.
“The piñon tree is probably one of our staple trees that we almost sell out of every year,” Sanchez said. “Well, how serendipitous that is that these folks are now rolling into town with the exact type of tree that a lot of our customers seek.”
Over time, friends and acquaintances started reaching out to Sanchez, letting him know they had trees to sell, including New Mexico-grown white and red firs.
“These folks didn’t have to help us,” Sanchez said. “They sold trees out of their own stock, which could have been their own potential money coming into their own pockets. But … we have just this awesome community base of businesses that try to go out of their way to help other businesses.”
During the rest of the year, Sanchez operates a small chile farm in Los Ranchos and works in the film industry as a rigging grip. But he continues the family tradition of selling Christmas trees every year.
“Being able to keep up to the tradition and memory of my family, you know, I have really come to hold that in my heart,” Sanchez said. “Those smiles on those kids’ faces.”
Just like in his own childhood, Sanchez plans to keep selling trees until Christmas Eve.
“This year, people have been so amazing and caring and giving,” Sanchez said. “I think this is one of the best Christmases in my career.”