When Dick and Mary Ellen Darling planted some 400 evergreen trees as a windbreak on their property nearly 40 years ago, they never dreamed it would turn into the rewarding business that it is today. At present, thousands of trees cover 15 acres of their scenic, rolling lot near Clifton Springs.
“When the trees started to mature, people would stop and ask if we’d sell them one for a Christmas tree,” recalls Dick Darling. “Then word got out and more people began to stop. Over the years I kept planting more.”
In the beginning, Dick planted all the trees himself using nothing more than a shovel. However, when annual planting grew to approximately 2,000 trees, he had to invest in some power equipment. A tractor with a tree planter is used for larger areas, and a three-wheel auger gets into the tight spots without disturbing remaining specimens.
Starting out with just Douglas Fir, Scotch Pine and Norway Spruce, the Darling’s added some new varieties about 10 years ago. New types include Frazer Fir, Balsam Fir, Grand Fir and Concolor Fir, a specialty hybrid that smells like citrus.
“You have to grow what people want, and these varieties are what they ask for,” says Dick.
More than selling trees
Both Mary Ellen and Dick grew up in farm families, so agriculture is in their blood. Dick has spent his career working in agri-business and currently works part-time for a chemical and seed company. Mary Ellen has been a lifelong educator and is active with Literacy Volunteers. As a result of their combined experience, customers get much more than just a tree. They get an education on how to care for it and make it last.
At the Darling Christmas Tree Farm, business is a real family affair. The kids and even the grandchildren, ages 1 to 5, pitch in. There is always plenty for each family member to do, no matter what their age. Everything has been planned to give customers, who are mostly families with young children, a “traditional family experience,” says Mary Ellen.
In the big, red barn behind the house, Mary Ellen has created a children’s library. There, her grandchildren help little visitors pick out books and stay warm and comfortable while the parents attend to the details of their purchase.
The experience begins the moment a customer arrives at the farm, with a personal greeting from Dick. Some would think it enough “just to sell a tree.” Not here at the Darling farm. After they are greeted, customers are offered hot cider, apples and reindeer food because, “Hey, you never know,” says Dick. Excellent customer service is the number-one goal here. If you’re not comfortable cutting your own, they’ll do it for you. After your tree is cut, it’s run through the baler where a netting material wraps it up for transport. They’ll even help secure it to your vehicle. All that’s left to do is take it home, decorate and enjoy!
Growing the business
If you’re worried about finding just the right tree during the holiday season, you can select your tree ahead of time. Customers can choose and tag a tree anytime after mid-September. The farm officially opens for cutting the weekend after Thanksgiving.
A few years ago the family began making wreaths to offer their customers. “It seemed like a good way to make use of misshapen trees or broken boughs, and it took off!” says Mary Ellen. “We now have two wreath-making machines, so we can produce more this year.”
In addition to standard round wreaths, the Darlings offer heart-shaped wreaths, kissing balls, swags and centerpieces.
When asked what the biggest challenge of this business was, Mary Ellen says, “The weather! Definitely. Last year was an especially hard year. We took a chance and planted 5,000 trees and lost nearly half because of the dry weather conditions. The greatest reward is getting to share Christmas with our customers.”
Mary Ellen believes the reason they’ve been so successful is because “people are getting back to a desire for a traditional Christmas. We help them achieve that by making their tree purchase a family affair, something they can do together. They take pictures, bring pets and have fun. Customers can look back on this all year.”
As for marketing, they advertise in the local newspapers occasionally, and run display ads to kick off the season. For the most part however, word of mouth is what keeps them going, and growing. They plan to launch a website in the future.
A military mission
The Darlings both admit they love what they do, but when an opportunity arose two years ago to participate in Trees for Troops, their passion turned into a mission. The program, sponsored by the Christmas Spirit Foundation, FedEx and the National Christmas Tree Association, was designed to provide real trees for U.S. military personnel and their families during the Christmas season.
When Trees for Troops began in 2005, the goal was to distribute 4,000 trees to military families around the world. This year the goal is to distribute approximately 17,000 trees. This is accomplished through a multi-stage process organized by volunteers.
The first step is to recruit growers to donate trees. Dick is in charge of procuring 800 trees to be sent to Fort Drum this year. He has successfully recruited several growers from all over the state to meet this goal. Volunteers around the United States repeat this process to meet the overall goal.
Trees are then delivered to designated collection points. From there they must be sent to FedEx pickup points where they are shipped, at no charge, to bases worldwide. Finally, they are distributed to the families.
“This is a great program to be involved in,” Dick says. “It just makes you feel good.”
One of those feel-good moments happened over the summer, when a family who had heard about Trees for Troops stopped by. The dad was about to be deployed to Iraq. The Darlings’ farm wouldn’t be officially open for tagging trees until September, but his wife didn’t want to pick out a tree without him. She wanted her husband to take part in this tradition.
“We took them out among the rows of trees and let them tag one. Everybody was happy knowing their tree was one that Dad helped pick out,” recalls Dick.
Another particularly memorable occasion was when a mother called to see if her son, who wouldn’t be home from Iraq until Christmas Eve, could get his tree then. The Darlings agreed to stay open until the woman’s son got his tree.
“The mom came over before then and tagged a tree for her son and his family, to be picked up on Christmas Eve,” Mary Ellen said. “The whole family showed up and we had a wonderful time sharing the moment with them. They cut the tree and took pictures and had a real celebration. Those are the times you never forget.”
by Evelyn Jansen