Q: When and how did Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm get started? A: My father opened the farm about 30 years ago. He had owned the property for years, but had been renting it out to a potato farmer. When my father retired from being an executive with McDonald’s—he had been in charge of East Coast commercial real estate development for the company—he and my Mom set up a real estate company out here and then he decided to try his hand at being a gentleman farmer.
We knew people in the vineyard business—my Dad sold land to the Hargraves and the Lenzes that they used to set up the first vineyards out here—so he thought about that for a while, but decided to grow trees instead.
We would look at the trees each year to see if they had matured enough to be ready for a family's Christmas. Every year he’d bring us around to pick out the family tree, and for several years they were just too small. Then, after the trees had been growing for about eight years, we found one we liked and that was perfect for our home. That’s how we knew the trees were ready to start selling to the community for their homes.
My Dad sold the development rights several years back so this property can only be a farm, beyond the building and house. And that is just fine with us. We farm over 25 acres and invest time and love into every yard.
Q: Eight years is a long time to harvest a crop. Did your dad start selling anything before the trees were ready?
A: Oh sure that is true. My Mom and Dad started by selling potted trees with pipe cleaner ornaments; they would make wreaths, decorate them, and sell decorations for them. Over time, sales people would come in and say, hey, you’re selling wreathes, would you like to sell Christmas scented candles, or you’re selling wreaths, how about some of this ribbon? And then that cascaded into the year-round business we have now with merchandise for any occasion at any time of the year.
When Dad was running this business with my brother's and my help—Dad passed away a 18 months ago, my brother Evans and I run it now, with help from Mom--he would open in a big way right after Thanksgiving, and sell through the end of Christmas, including a big after Christmas sale. In January we’d go to the gift shows to buy for the store—Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas and Philadelphia—and then he’d go to the Christmas tree farm convention upstate. After that he’d be off February and March. In April he’d start tilling the soil, start the farming of the land. In August through October the merchandise would come in. We’d get the store ready September through November, and then the day after Thanksgiving would be the beginning of the selling season.
Q: You said your Dad passed away and you and your brother run the business now, with Mom’s help—have you made any changes to the way you run it?
A: We have made some. The biggest change is that we’re now an open year round store. We decided to continue our post-Christmas half-price sale through the winter until April. By April 1 we’re ready to display new merchandise, items we bought at the January shows.
Part of the shift in going from strictly seasonal to year-round is expanding our inventory to include things that make not only great stocking stuffers, but also great gifts for birthdays, special occasions, and really any time of the year. We’re not just about Santa Claus, snowmen, and reindeers anymore.
One example is a line of merchandise from Papyrus that is high quality cards and paper. As part of that line we had Rosh Hashanah and Hanukah cards—those sold out really quickly. And, of course, there are everyday cards for any occasion. Whether or not the long-term economics will work out is hard to say. Right now it is a labor of love and preserving the memory of our father who loved this so much.
Q: Jewish holiday cards? That’s a friendly thing for Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm to offer.
A: We’re really very friendly to everyone and do not view offering Jewish holiday cards as any different then offering Christian cards or any other denomination. Our goal is to embrace all consumers and we love to receive input as to what we can offer our customer-base, and potential customer-base, to better meet their needs. Owning a business like this is an evolving process and we intend to evolve with the market and our consumers.
We have people come from throughout the tri-state area and beyond because we’re so friendly, accommodating, and because the experience at Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm is so unique. One customer referred to us as the Stew Leonard’s of seasonal gifts, memorabilia of their North Fork visit, and of Christmas. We took that as a very gratifying compliment. Some people come from Connecticut every year because the tree farm near them won’t let them picnic at their farm, but we’re happy to let them do a little tailgating while they’re here and we encourage such family time and camaraderie.
We’re also very LGTB friendly, right down to the ornaments that say Mr. & Mr. and along with the cards I mentioned, we have ornaments with menorahs and plates that say shalom on them and even items that are non-denominational. And if we are missing any faiths that are market desires, we are more than willing to listen to those inputs and will react as needed. People have blended families these days, and we make people aware that we understand and support everyone.
Q: Wow, I didn’t realize you’d draw people from the entire tri-state area here. Is your business really tourism focused, or do you have a local connection too?
A: We are deeply invested in the local community, much more than tourism. As a matter of fact, tourism is not as much of our business as we would like. Having the wine tour busses stop by our year-round shop would be wonderful for us and a treat for the clientele of those busses.
Being involved in the community, it’s the right thing to do, and it’s also good for business. For example, we had a PTA event the other day where we donated 13 trees, and every grade from kindergarten through high school seniors made ornaments for them, each grade representing a different country. When the trees were decorated, the PTA charged $10 a car, sold hot chocolate, had a performance by a local ballerina, and we donated Santa Claus’ time. I understand that the fundraiser was very successful.
We’re actively involved with breast cancer efforts. We have a huge incidence of breast cancer on Long Island. In April we do a conference for oncology doctors and nurses to benefit Monday’s with Racine. This month we’ve been working with Bob Tapp over at the Christmas Show House that is supporting local charities. We donated lots of trees and lights.
Next Monday we have a couple of classes from Little Mercy School coming, I’ll be dressed in the reindeer outfit; we’ll be driving them around in the tractor and teaching them about tree farming. They’re kindergarteners, and we’ll show them the five year old trees, show them that they’re about as tall as those trees, and then take them to the eight year old trees that have grown to six to eight foot tall and are ready to harvest. We do a whole educational event for the kids.
As a further example, Sheryl Keil has a dance studio in Mattituck, and her daughter Lilly works for us after school. Lilly and her classmates did a dance recital for St. Jude’s Children Hospital, and the patrons in the store donated money and wrote notes for the kids in the hospital.
I could go on and on, but the bottom line is we believe in helping the community, being an active participant in the causes and needs of our area, and acting in a responsible manner regarding the environment. As with most people, I hope, we believe sustainability and the preservation of this planet is a priority.
Q: Since it takes eight years for a tree to be ready to harvest, how does tree farming work?
A: There are two ways that people farm and grow Christmas trees. One is called spot planting. They open their whole farm up to cutting at once, and will spot plant to replace. So there might be an eight foot tree right next to a brand new one. The other way—the way we do it—is in rotational grids. We’ll take an acre for example, plant it all at once, and when it’s ready to harvest, we open it up for cutting. After that season we’ll go in and clean up that acre—pull stumps, remove extras--and re-plant that acre.
When my father was alive he did the farming. Now my brother does most of the farming, but he works full-time elsewhere, so we also employ other people to help farm the land when needed and I enlist my fiancé to mount the tractor and work the land when he has time off from work.
Q: What kinds of trees do you grow?
A: We grow Douglas Fir, Concolor Fir and Blue Spruce. In addition we bring in Frasier fir, from a farm in North Carolina. We know when they’re cut and the quality of their tree. We also ball trees. We trim all our trees by hand throughout their lives so that they have the proper Christmas tree shape.
The Douglas Fir is very popular because they’re so soft and the shape is good. The Concolor Fir has a long soft needle that is citrus scented. It’s my favorite. It smells good, it feels good, and it’s a great tree.
Blue Spruces are beautiful and the color is gorgeous. People think all Blue Spruces are blue, but they’re not. Some come out all blue, some more green. When you plant them they can grow to be either. It’s a beautiful showing tree, but their needles are so sharp they aren’t necessarily a good family tree.
The Frasier Fir has branches that are a little sturdier, you can hang heavier ornaments, and it has pockets in it, which means it’s easier to put ornaments closer to the trunk, so the tree gets decorated from the inside out.
Q: The Christmas Tree Farm started about 30 years ago you said; is that when you and your family came to the North Fork?
A: No, it was well before then. My grandfather came here decades before my father opened the tree farm.
My grandfather went to law school at Fordham, but he couldn’t get a job as attorney in Jackson Heights Queens where he lived, so he opened a diner. One of the people who used to come into the diner was Mr. Dave Mudd. Dave was an airline pilot, and he lived out here on the North Fork. Indeed you’ll see the signs in front of vineyards that they’re managed by Mr. Mudd—that’s the same family.
Anyway, Dave invited my grandparents out to visit his home on the North Fork. My grandfather decided to sell the diner and move out here to set up a practice, back in 1941. He was the attorney for Southold savings bank, which eventually was sold to North Fork bank and so on.
My grandfather bought a lot of property over the years; the Christmas tree farm is one of them.
We used to come out here for summers and holidays when I was a kid. We grew up as a family going to Dart’s Christmas tree farm; that may have inspired my Dad when he was ready to be a gentleman farmer.
Q: Dart’s—right—there’s several tree farms out here. I’m sort of surprised there’s enough business to go around.
A: Oh, we’re a strong and supportive community--Shamrock, Vuhuski on Oregon Road, Dart—we’re all very friendly, we all work together. Sandy hit us because all that salt water hit our trees. One year we could have a bad crop, we send people to each other.
Q: What can people expect to experience if they come to Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm? A: Fun! Obviously they can expect a large selection of trees, and a huge selection of decorations and gifts in the store, but it’s a lot more than that.
Outside we do a free hayride around the farm and we have a big wooden train for kids to climb on. We have a couple of reindeer behind a fence that people can watch and take pictures of.
Sometimes we have other special animals; last year we had donkeys that were all dressed up and friendly; this year we had alpacas. We have a company that makes us alpaca wear—socks, gloves, etc. They came in and brought the alpacas, all the kids could pet them and they showed how they knit the gloves. It was a thrilling experience for those that came that weekend.
Inside, the biggest attraction (other than the merchandise) is Santa and his sleigh. Our Santa is so fantastic he was on Good Morning America. He was close with my Dad and now watches over us since dad died. Santa comes for events to answer questions, he comes in October for Columbus Day weekend, for photographs with families, and then he’s here on weekends from the Friday after Thanksgiving through the last weekend before Christmas. He’s here from 11 am to 4 pm officially, but he won’t leave until the last child on line sees him, even if that’s 5:30.
We sell $2 popcorn with free refills. $1 hot chocolate with whipped cream, refill for free. We do cider for free. Like I said the hay ride is free. We do everything can to make the visit to our establishment a remembered experience that is full of fun, excitement, and all of it affordable.
Q: Wow that’s a lot going on inside the store. Speaking of the store, does all your merchandise come from the big trade shows in January?
A: Not at all. We sell local people’s goods on consignment, like North Fork salt water taffy, a local guy’s needle point ornaments, we sell flags painted by a local artist. We are very happy to help support the local community by giving them a place to stock their goods.
Another thing we do is we employ someone all year long who will personalize something for anyone for free, like putting names, places, years on ornaments. Nutcrackers are another popular item for personalization.
Q: So the farm has gone through two generational transitions—first as land passed from your grandfather to your father, and then as Santa’s Christmas Tree farm from your dad to you and your brother helped out by Mom. Is there another generation up and coming? Do any of you have kids involved in the farm?
A. Yes! My brother has 3 kids, ages 9, 8 and 6, all of whom work at the store. From oldest to youngest it’s Oliver, Sloan and Hawke. They all work the cash register, sweep, make popcorn, help out with the trees—they love it and work so hard. It’s great having the family involved in the business.