Family and tradition are two things Ed Dart has always valued. The 67-year-old Peconic resident grew up in Southold watching his parents experiment with new ways to make a profit from their farm, which has been in the Dart family for 101 years. They built what he claims was one of the North Fork’s first farm stands in 1945. And his father, Fred Dart, established a retail vegetable route, delivering fresh produce to summer and weekend communities on the North Fork.
Like his parents, Mr. Dart also wanted to think of a new way to help keep the legacy alive.
In 1967, while preparing for his first year at the University of Rhode Island, he pitched his parents the idea of raising Christmas trees on the then 35-acre farm.
Mr. Dart recalled planting the first crop before he left for college and hoping the trees would be ready to sell by the time he graduated. But it wasn’t until 1975 that they sold the trees, he said, and he was shocked that they were a hit.
“Everybody came in, bought all of our trees and there were none left,” he said.
Since he did not prepare for the business to take off so quickly, he had to wait several years for more trees to grow so he could sell again.
What began as an innovation to keep his family farm going turned into a business that’s near and dear to the third-generation farmer.
“Christmas trees and Christmas wreaths and all of this is sort of where my heart is,” he said as he looked around a 250-year-old section of his barn, decorated with white lights and green homemade wreaths draped with red ribbons.
Mr. Dart said selecting a Christmas tree is a family event that unites grandparents, parents and children. Many of the young parents who visit the farm each year have been coming since they were kids, he said.
On a busy Saturday in December, Mr. Dart can be seen walking around the farm with his digital camera, taking snapshots of families with their trees or of children sitting on Santa’s lap. He saves these photos to give to the families when they return the following year.
That Saturday, 6-year-old Reagan Blydenburgh and her 3-year-old sister, Cora, were all smiles when Mr. Dart showed them their family photo from the previous year.
Their mother, Eileen Blydenburgh, said cutting down their own Christmas tree is a tradition that has persevered since her childhood in Pittsburgh, Pa. Now a Southold resident, Ms. Blydenburgh and her family have been coming to Dart’s for about five years.
“Mr. Dart takes really good care of us and we love that tradition. It means a lot,” she said.
Cutting down their own tree isn’t the only thing that makes visiting Dart’s a festive experience, Ms. Blydenburgh said. She mentioned the shop inside with collectible ornaments, homemade wreaths created by Mr. Dart’s wife, Judy, and a team of local women, and other decorations.
The farm also sells hot chocolate, keeps a roaring fire going for roasting pretzels and frequently has Santa there to take photos on the weekends.
“I love my Christmas tree from Dart’s,” Ms. Blydenburgh said. “When I sit in my living room and look up at this tree, it’s really beautiful and creates a moment.”
When Mr. Dart first pitched the idea of raising Christmas trees, he was looking for what he thought was an easy way to keep the farm going while he pursued a career in the business world. He quickly learned that Christmas trees were not the simple answer he was searching for. Evergreens require attention and care all year round, which is part of the reason trees at Dart’s cost $99 each. It became more work than he anticipated, but he said it’s been a labor of love. He worked locally in the insurance business until he retired at age 64 and began focusing on the farm full-time.
Although it is work he enjoys, the holiday season alone does not bring in enough money to sustain the farm. Mr. Dart is experimenting with growing different types of trees to bring in more profits, like raising nursery stock. For a few years now he’s been selling privacy screening trees, including Leyland cypress and Thuja Green Giants.
He said these are more marketable and take less time to grow. There is demand in this niche market across Long Island, Mr. Dart said.
He said he’s often asked how many Christmas trees he sells a year, and admits it’s not as many as people might think. Only a few hundred are sold each year, as the Fraser firs take seven to 10 years to mature.
For him, he said, it’s not about the number sold, but about the quality and the experience.
“I love my farm and I love my town and I love the history of it all and I love sharing it with people,” Mr. Dart said. “It means that much to them and it means a lot to me here, too.”