Business Monday: Hāmākua Christmas Tree Forest offers fun family holiday experience
December 11, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
* Updated December 11, 8:20 AM
When Richard Bradwell was 12, his first job was at a Christmas tree lot in Palmyra, N.J., where he earned a nickel or dime for every perfectly picked pine he carried to people’s cars, being sure to tie them down good for the ride home.
Bradwell thought it was the greatest business ever.
He was living large in 1961, making enough money to support his candy and other pre-teen purchases. Two years later, the seasonal job also helped pay for date nights with his sweetheart Nancy, who has now been his wife for 52 years.
Doing well himself and watching as the tree lot owner racked in a wad of cash each year from Thanksgiving until Dec. 25, with no special skills or good looks required, the young Bradwell could see a future in the Christmas tree business.
It just took a little more than five decades after the seed was planted to open Hāmākua Christmas Tree Forest in 2015. And now, Richard and Nancy Bradwell, both 74, could be mistaken for Santa and Mrs. Claus, especially while wearing their red work shirts.
The couple provides families around the Big Island with the opportunity to think outside the container and come out to their Nīnole farm to take home a fresh, living Hawai‘i-grown Christmas tree.
Starting out with just 100 Portuguese cypress trees, the 10-acre farm now has about 6,000 in various stages of growth. About 90% are still Portuguese cypress, a traditional choice for the seasonal centerpieces of many families around the island, with the other 10% evenly split between Arizona cypress and Leyland cypress.
Once a tree is cut down, another is planted in its place.
Families can get a 7- or 8-foot tree for less than $100, with prices at $10 a foot for Arizona cypress, $12 a foot for Portuguese cypress and $16 a foot for Leyland cypress. They have trees of all heights, some as large as 16 feet or taller, and if you don’t want to cut one down, you can also buy a potted Christmas conifer.
The farm also sells potted saplings you can take home and grow yourself.
They sell wreath-making kits you can use with the trimmings from your tree, and homemade banana bread, banana chips and honey produced by bees kept by Nancy Bradwell on the farm. Families get a free ornament in the shape of a Christmas tree with the farm’s name.
However, the business is about more than just selling Christmas trees.
The hundreds of people who come to the farm from the first weekend of November until 2 p.m. Christmas Eve to take home a tree can count on the Bradwells to deliver a family holiday experience.
It could be Mom searching for her superior seasonal cypress or a 5-year-old girl wandering around the farm for a while until she finally zeros in on a tree, hugging it and saying “This is my tree.”
You can cut a tree yourself or get help from the Bradwells and their staff, using chainsaws or hand saws. Many families also bring their own saw. Once it’s cut, the farm bails the tree with a biodegradable netting and twine for the trip to its new holiday home.
It also doesn’t matter what the weather is like. The farm was packed the first weekend of December, despite pouring rain. On the Hawaiian winter day, cars lined the road outside the farm’s fence.
“The rain kind of added an atmosphere to it,” said Richard Bradwell, adding you kind of expect the rain this time of year and if you don’t, it’s just not Christmas. “Everybody loved it … they were feeling the experience.”
Many are repeat customers, with some families making it an annual tradition.
“It’s so wonderful seeing these little babies,” said Nancy Bradwell. “You’re just watching these kids grow up year after year.”
The husband-and-wife duo moved to their Hāmākua Coast home in 2009 after retiring from their successful 52-year-old exotic tropical fish business in Miami, where they raised their three sons, who also all help with the family business from afar.
The Christmas tree farm isn’t as lucrative as Richard Bradwell thought it would be when he was 12, with expenses, labor costs and everything else that comes along with owning a tree farm. But the experience they give families is worth more than any amount of money.
The rest of the year they are on the farm mowing, often when it’s hot. They’re sweating while they trim trees. But when Thanksgiving arrives, all their effort transforms into a magical experience for everyone involved.
“Sharing that joy, that love,” Nancy Bradwell said.
The world is crazy, there’s not much they can do about that, Richard Bradwell said, but Christmas is a time to set aside differences and love each other, whether you’re religious or not. Christmas trees bring that out more — the motivator that reminds you to show goodwill and celebrate family.
“There’s something about them,” he said. “You grow them, people put them in their house and the family gathers around. It’s the whole focus of a loving holiday. … When we sell trees to people, it’s remarkable. Everybody’s happy, they’re taking pictures and the kids are running around. It’s the happiest thing I’ve ever been involved with selling.”
The Bradwells are helped on the farm by manager Nick Dye, who is a spitting image of a young St. Nick himself, and family friend Ben Lair who helps maintain the farm’s land.
Hāmākua Christmas Tree Forest is located at 32-122 Piha-Kahuku Road and open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Christmas Eve. You can also reserve a tree online.
If by some chance you can’t make it out this year, the farm is also open on weekends in July for families to come out and stake a claim to their Christmas tree early.