Published in the Suffolk Times/ Northforker holiday supplement on November 25, 2015
Does it make sense to drive to a rural area, cut down a seven-foot tree and put it in your living room for several weeks? No, it does not. But Christmas was never about being sensible. Even for people who think nothing of apple- or strawberry-picking, the experience of going out in a field to bring back a freshly cut tree is a peculiar delight.
And speaking of rational acts, who in their right mind would tie up acres of valuable Long Island real estate growing a crop that requires fertilization, pest control, pruning and eight to 10 years of growing before it can be harvested?
On the North Fork of Long Island, there are still a handful of farms, all family-owned, where generations of tree buyers and tree growers have participated in this illogical, magical Christmas tradition and made it an annual part of their holiday.
Riverhead resident Tony Yarusso, who is blessed with a beard as white as snow, has spent the past seven holiday seasons as Santa Claus, including the last three at Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm on Main Road in Cutchogue. He is a close observer of what a visit to a cut-your-own tree farm means to a family with small children.
“These places are truly working farms,” he said. “The experience of cutting your own tree is to learn how the trees grow. The trees are not leaning against a house with a row of lights on them. These are real ones in the ground.”
There are many easier and less expensive ways to get a Christmas tree than to cut one down. The Home Depot typically sells natural trees at prices that can be half the price of a field tree. But Joe Shipman, owner of Shamrock Christmas Tree Farm in Mattituck, said the people who come to the 20 acres he’s been farming since 1989 to pick out one of his beautiful Douglas firs are not just looking for a tree transaction.
“They want to take time at Christmas for a family experience,” he said.
Shipman plants trees in blocks, opening one block every year for cutting. He described this year’s designated block as unusually good, with many “perfect” trees.
“Everybody’s theory of the perfect tree is so different,” he said, “Color, shape, branching and symmetry, those are what I think make the perfect tree.”
Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm has been in the Edson family since the 1960s and has sold Christmas trees since 1988. At 30 acres, it’s one of the larger North Fork Christmas tree farms. Started by Lewis Edson, who passed away in 2013, the farm is now managed by his children, Lisa and Evans Edson. Open year round, Santa’s offers the largest variety of trees of any North Fork farm; concolor firs and blue spruce are planted along with Douglas fir.
Zuhoski’s on Oregon Road in Cutchogue has been a family farm for three generations, but it wasn’t until 1996 that Steven and David Zuhoski began to convert the farm from growing potatoes to Christmas trees. They have established a strong following over the years.
“We get a lot of repeat customers, especially from Massapequa,” Steven Zuhoski said. Like Shipman at Shamrock, the Zuhoskis plant mostly Douglas fir.
The oldest of the North Fork Christmas tree farms is Dart’s, owned and operated by Ed Dart. Dart is the grandson of George Fletcher Downs and the third generation of his family to farm on Main Bayview Road in Southold.
With only about eight acres of Christmas trees, Dart manages his crop differently from the other North Fork farms. Instead of planting trees of the same age in blocks of land, he interplants, putting seedlings in the spaces left by trees that have been cut.
“It takes a long time. A tree seed doesn’t grow like a corn seed,” he said. “So there are trees of different sizes.”
Unlike other farms that grow mainly Douglas fir, Dart grows primarily Fraser firs, which are tricky to grow, but are preferred by many people because they are easier to decorate. He sells all trees on a first come, first served basis, with no pre-tagging allowed.
“If there is a way to do something, the Dart family finds the most expensive, time-consuming and labor intensive way to do it,” said Dart. “But I think people appreciate that.”
Christmas tree buyers often arrive with their own handsaws, but oftentimes, they are not completely successful, so all of the tree farms have staff on hand to help.
If Mattituck were the North Pole, Joe Shipman would have to call the guys who assist customers at Shamrock Christmas Tree Farm elves. Shipman retains this vital staff by providing breakfast, lunch and an after-work “get-together” in the barn for the guys who cut, shake and bale the trees and tie them onto the customers’ cars — essentially the same crew for most of the 19 years he has sold trees.
“They won’t leave,” he said.
Those who come to a farm for a field tree year after year have already decided to get a natural tree with a shape that is not necessarily perfectly conical. For those with that aesthetic, artificial trees were invented.
“Often, the Christmas trees families like the best are the craziest looking ones in the field,” said Dart. “You’ll always remember that Christmas when the tree was too big for the living room, or the one that was all flat on the back.”
Here where to cut your own on the North Fork:
Dart’s Christmas Tree Farm
2355 Main Bayview Road, Southold, NY
Open daily after Thanksgiving, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. All field-cut trees are $99.
Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm
30105 Main Road, Cutchogue, NY
Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Field-cut trees are $75 up to 6 feet, plus $10 for each additional foot.
Shamrock Christmas Tree Farm
20685 Main Road, Mattituck, NY
Open daily after Thanksgiving, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. All field-cut trees are $75.
Verderber’s Landscape Nursery & Garden Center
459 Main Road, Mattituck, NY
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. through 5 p.m., Sundays, 8 a.m. through 4 a.m.
11825 Oregon Road, Cutchogue, NY
Open Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. until dark. All field-cut trees are $65.