East End Christmas Tree Shortage Hits Before Holiday
The Grinch may be a fictional character in a Dr. Seuss book, but it looks like a very real Christmas tree shortage is going to make it tougher to get trees on the East End this year.
That could lead to fewer trees, higher prices and a holiday rush at Long Island’s pick-your-own farms, which provide a Christmas tradition for some as much a part of the holiday season as Santa’s ho-ho and reindeer stories.
Real estate development has gobbled up some farms over the years, reducing options. But this year, another force hit the holiday.
A wholesaler in Pennsylvania cancelled an 800-tree order to Shamrock Christmas Tree Farm in Mattituck, causing it to cancel its Christmas sales and festivities.
“We grow a lot of trees, but we just found out we aren’t getting a delivery of pre-cut trees to subsidize the farm,” said Joe Shipman, who with his wife Cathleen owns Shamrock. “Without those trees, it wouldn’t make sense to open.”
Shamrock grows about 20,000 trees of different sizes on 20 acres, opening a new field annually with more than 2,000 trees typically 5 feet and taller. Shipman said this will be the first time in 29 years they are unable to open.
“Once we found out we weren’t getting those subsidized trees, there was no sense in opening. We’d be done the first day,” Shipman said. “It’s going to be a tough year. I won’t make any money this year.”
Shipman said he went to his supplier’s farm, met with the owners and had a verbal contract over the phone. “Everything was OK until about 10 days ago,” he said. “It wasn’t just me. It’s happening across the country. Certain farms aren’t able to get what they need.”
Ed Dart, owner with his wife Judy of Dart’s Christmas Tree Farm in Southold, said they will be open for business.
“This will be our 52nd year. We are a historic, boutique-type shop operation,” Dart said. “We grow some, but we have to supplement with some that we bring in. It’s a fact of life.”
Paul’s Lawn and Landscape Services and Christmas Tree Farm, in Center Moriches, has grown about 1,500 trees, including about half ready to be sold, and is bringing in another 150 from Canada.
“We ordered fewer, because we sold fewer last year,” said Paul Vigliotta, owner. “We bring Fraser firs and Balsam firs in.”
Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm, in Cutchogue, with owners continuing the tradition following a family who owned it for over 30 years,” is a kind of Christmas central as well.
Trees were first planted there in 1978 and their 28 acres now boasts 8,000 trees for browsing and buying.
The average mom-and-pop Christmas tree farm nationwide spans about 20 acres, so many supplement home-grown with wholesale, Shipman said.
“Those farms, if they have retail business like we have, need more trees than they can grow,” he added. “You can’t grow enough trees on 20 acres to fill the demand for fresh-cut trees out here.”
The National Christmas Tree Association says wholesale supply has been tight since 2016 and farm-grown tree supply “will remain tight” this year.
The association estimated more than 22 million real Christmas trees were sold in 2022 at a median price of $80. Calls to Long Island farms indicate prices here can be significantly higher.
A little under a third or about 31% in 2022 bought at choose-and-cut farms, while 19% bought from chain stores, 17% from nurseries, 16% from retail lots, 8% from nonprofits such as churches and a little more than 7% online, the group said.
They point to the “family experience of selecting the tree” and “the wonderful scent of a real tree” as hallmarks of cut-your-own trees, which farms say typically have needles that fall less quickly.
Cut-your-own farms also typically provide experiences and purchases. Dart has a gift shop, 1700s barn, home-made Christmas wreathes, garlands, birch logs, firewood, pretzels from Pennsylvania and a fire pit.
“It’s a very nice atmosphere,” Ed Dart said. “People like to come here and sit around our firepit and grill their pretzels.”
Paul’s has a store with a wood stove, free hot chocolate and popcorn, and sells wreathes, blankets, gifts and a wide range of Christmas items. In addition to the pick-your-own element, rabbits and chickens roam the property.
Shamrock typically offers visitors access to clams, oysters, potato chips, pickles, beef jerky and cider vendors, as well as music, a train ride, gift shop and Santa, but not this year.
“The vendors won’t come if you don’t have the volume of people,” Shipman said. “It’s like an outdoor street fair or flea market. If no people come, are those people going to come there and set up?”
The Christmas Tree Association recommends shopping early since “supplies are tight and some locations will sell out early,” and be flexible.
“You should also be open to trying different types of trees,” according to the group. “There are many beautiful varieties of Christmas trees.”
Dart also sells Christmas trees in different colors in their “Magic Color Forest,” providing another option to please customers — and boost prices.
Lewin Farms, in Calverton, operates a farm stand and various pick-your-own operations, including apples.
And farms are branching out such as Dart, which sells Leyland cypress and Thuja Green Giants as privacy screening trees.
“Christmas only comes once a year. You can’t sell Christmas trees all year long,” Dart said. “We need to have revenue all year round. Privacy screening rounds out the year.”
Vigliotta said they do landscape contracting and insulation as well as operating a nursery the rest of the year. “For that one month from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, we’re Christmas trees full-time,” he said.
While pick-your-own farms may not meet demand, firehouses, churches and stores such as the Home Depot and Lowe’s should have inventory.
“All the big-box stores are selling Christmas trees now,” Shipman said. “A lot of people might have to settle with something they’re not used to. They won’t have the experience they might have at our farm.”
As to this year’s Christmas tree crop at Shamrock, they should be ready to go for 2024. “They’ll be in the ground for next year,” Shipman said. “They’ll be that much bigger and better.”