Word spread very quickly, first across the North Fork and then west on Long Island and into New York City: Shamrock Christmas Tree Farm in Mattituck, where – literally – thousands of people come each season to buy a tree, will not be opening this Christmas.
“It is heartbreaking, and we are very sad for our customers, but our supplier told us just on Tuesday he had none to ship us,” said Joe Shipman, the patriarch of the iconic family-owned business. “The Fraser fur, the most popular Christmas tree, is not there in enough quantity, and this is true for everyone in the retail Christmas tree market.”
News that the Shipman-family business, hugely popular between Thanksgiving and Christmas, would not be selling trees this season had their phones ringing off the hook all day. By mid afternoon Thursday, News12 had already aired a segment, as had at least one New York City television station, with CBS Television scheduling a visit with a video crew. Newsday sent out a crew to film the Shamrock farm with a drone.
“Everybody is calling,” Mr. Shipman said.
Ed Dart, who owns a popular tree farm in Southold, said one of the reasons for the shortage is that growers eight to 10 years ago didn’t plant enough trees that would be ready for shipping this season.
“This is a problem for every Christmas tree seller,” Mr. Dart said. “It’s nationwide. The trees that should have been planted for this season were not planted. I still have a few of my own. I have longstanding relationships with growers out of state and they will get me hardly anything. I wasn’t even going to open this year.
“I empathize completely with Joe Shipman,” Mr. Dart added. “Buying the family Christmas tree this year will be a challenge. His very loyal customers will be sad. I am winding down my Christmas tree enterprise. Instead of highest and best use, it’s the lowest and worse use of Long Island farmland.”
In interviews Thursday morning, husband and wife Cathy and Joe Shipman said they were stunned Tuesday when their supplier said he had none to sell them.
“Joe had been calling the supplier and he said, “I will let you know,” and then Tuesday he said they were short,” said Ms. Shipman. “There was a big influx of trees a few years ago and farmers stopped planting.
“We had a lead on trees in North Carolina, but they wanted $110 per tree and shipping costs are $3,200 a truck load,” she added. “My phone started ringing at 3:30 this morning. People are nice. They are understanding. But it hurts us very much.”
Mr. Shipman said the reasons for the shortage this season are many. “It’s almost a perfect storm of factors,” he said.
He cited a slowdown in planting eight years ago of the Fraser fur, the Christmas tree most in demand. To grow one to eight feet takes eight to ten years.
“So planting was down,” he said. “The other factor is land values. Some farms are selling half their property to capture high prices. Also, the next generation doesn’t want to do the work. It’s very labor intensive.
“Plus the Canadian market is way down because of wild fires,” he added. “That market is not flooding the US with Canadian product. And labor issues are such that growers in Pennsylvania and Delaware are scaling own.”
In a normal Christmas season, the Shipmans would buy three tractor-trailer loads of trees, with some 600 to 800 trees per trailer. Along with their own farm-grown trees, a season might see the sale of 4,500 trees to thousands of customers who drive out from far up west to enjoy the Shamrock experience.
“We are shutting down this year,” Mr. Shipman said. “Next year this farm will look the best it can. We will make next Christmas the most enjoyable for everyone. We won’t sit here and say ‘woe is me.’”
As he stood on his Mattituck farm, Mr. Shipman said his shutting down for this season would have a profound ripple effect through the community. The family has had a long practice of letting local kids earn tips tying trees onto the tops of cars after a customer has made a purchase.
Plus, for example, if an older couple wanted help bringing a tree into their home and setting it up, Mr. Shipman said one of the local kids would accompany them to their house to help them.
“That’s how we did business,” he said. “But many, many businesses were involved in everything we did here, and now they won’t be working.”
He said his closure will push more traffic to the nearby Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm in Cutchogue, which has limited parking and will be overwhelmed with people wanting to buy a tree.
Southold officials said they will work out a traffic plan for the expected crowds – and the extra that would normally have gone to Shamrock – that will come to Santa’s right after Thanksgiving.
The Soloviev Group owns both Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm and the nearby Peconic Bay Vineyards. “The winery will provide overflow parking and a shuttle to take families over to Santa’s,” Ken Cereola, general manager of Peconic Bay Vineyards, said in a statement Thursday morning. “We will also provide additional pre-cut Christmas trees and wreath sales at Peconic Bay.”
Toni Sinning, Santa’s Tree Farm manager, said she was “fully aware” that larger numbers of people will come to the farm looking for a tree. Like others, she said she has found it almost impossible to find a source of quality cut trees. She said they have about 1,800 in the field of their own that people can chose and cut.
“We have reached out to the police department for help,” she said. “We know this will be very busy. We will come up with a plan.”