GALWAY, N.Y. — Bob Eaton’s friends thought he was crazy to start a Christmas tree farm back in 1942. But seven decades later, his tree farm is one of the biggest in eastern New York, with tens of thousands of trees under production.
From the weekend before Thanksgiving through December, Bob’s Trees is also a destination for family outings with all kinds of activities, including live reindeer, hay wagon rides, visits from Santa and a wide variety of homemade goodies to choose from.
The Galway, N.Y., farm is now run by Eaton’s son, Bob Jr., who smiles when recalling his late father’s foresight and vision.
“My father ran a sawmill,” he said. “He felt guilty about the number of trees that were being cut down. He thought that planting Christmas trees was a good way to replenish the land. But his friends couldn’t see taking a good field and turning it into Christmas trees. They called it Eaton’s folly.”
That was in 1942. This year Bob’s Trees is celebrating its 70th anniversary.
“Today, most dairy farms here have gone by the wayside just for lack of an ability to survive,” Eaton said.
From its origins, as a simple cut-your-own operation, the site has kept adding new features that keep people coming back year after year.
“The first time they’re after a Christmas tree,” Eaton said. “Then maybe they’ll peek in the gift shop and pick up a wreath and garland. At the same time they’ll see presents and ornaments. So the next year they bring a little more money.”
And they’ll stay a little longer and have lunch at the farm’s restaurant.
“It grows on them,” Eaton said.
Of course, they tell their friends, new people visit and the process starts all over again.
The farm is a truly family-run business that includes Bob’s son, Doug; his brother, Dave; and Dave’s children, Richard, and Kathy Doyle. Together they’re continuing Bob Sr.’s legacy.
However, the farm also provides considerable employment in this rural Saratoga County town.
“About 12 to 15 families rely on us for their livelihood,” Eaton said.
In addition, the Eatons have helped other growers get started. Chip Ellms and his late father, Bud, founded Ellms Family Farm in nearby Ballston, N.Y. in 1983.
“The Eatons really helped us out and gave us a lot of good advice,” Ellms said. “We don’t look at them as competition. Our only competition is artificial trees. When somebody buys an artificial tree you’ve lost them for seven or eight years.”
Eaton agrees, which is why he works so hard to make buying a real tree a fun, rewarding experience.
Trees require almost year-round attention. In summer that means mowing, fertilizing and shearing to give each one a good shape.
“Fertilizer is what gives them a nice deep green color,” said Ellms, a chemical engineer.
Many people stop by both farms in September to tag a tree they’ll come back later to get, right before Christmas.
“There are literally thousands of trees to pick from,” Eaton said.
Also, the farms pre-cut large supplies for those who just want to buy one off the lot. Either way, balsam and Fraser fir remain the most popular choices.
“I like Fraser fir myself,” Eaton said. “It has stiffer branches, which is good for holding ornaments. They also keep their needles longer.”
Like every tree farm, Bob’s has all kinds of enemies — deer, insects, disease, high taxes and bad weather. Last year, many young stock were lost to excessive rain from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. This year, drought was a factor, and a recession that began in 2008 has taken its toll.
“But people still want a Christmas tree,” Eaton said. “They may not be the biggest and most expensive, but they’re still going to want a Christmas tree.”
For many years, Bob’s supplied a tall tree for the state capitol in Albany.
Thanksgiving weekend is one of the busiest times, as many people come home for family visits. When they leave, it’s quite often with a tree that could be headed anywhere from Maine to Virginia.
One customer has gotten their tree at Bob’s each year since 1949.
“We get just as many who tell us, Hey. This is my first tree,’ “ Doug Eaton said. “They either found us on the Internet or heard about us word-of-mouth.”
Bob’s Trees also has a thriving nursery and garden center business in spring, summer and fall. By November, however, leftover stock is tucked safely away. Beginning with Black Friday, when millions of Americans cram shopping malls, Bob’s focus is on one thing — taking care of people who would rather be outdoors.
“It’s a big date for us,” Eaton said. “Now we’re in the Christmas tree business. Away we go.”