Harvesting the Holiday

Harvesting the Holiday

Dade City’s Ergle Christmas Tree Farm helps the holiday spirit bloom

by PAUL CATALA

For at least a decade, Tony and Tracy Sanderson have driven  roughly eight miles south for their Christmas centerpiece. 

The Trilby couple — and in the past with their now-grown son, Blain—have made Dade City’s Ergle Christmas Tree Farm their go-to annual stop for a yuletide conifer. 

“It’s more personable than just going to Walmart or a local chain. You have the same clientele every year, they come for the tradition,” says Tracy Sanderson. “You see some of the same people each year who are from the area. It’s family, it’s community and support for a local business.” 

Now in its 34th year, Ergle Christmas Tree Farm has become for some families as much of a holiday tradition as Christmas lights, dinners and presents. At any time throughout the year, there are between 15,000 and 20,000 trees growing on part of the farm’s 25 acres off U.S. Highway 301 in southeastern Hernando County. 

The tree farm was founded in 1986 by Dade City native Tony Harris and his wife Debbie Harris, a seventh-generation Floridian who moved to Dade City when she was 5. Debbie’s father, Omar Ergle – now deceased – began a tree farm in 1982 in another part of the city and when it closed in 1998, the Harrises carried on at the new location. 

“When I was young, there weren’t many Christmas tree stands in Florida,” says Debbie Harris. “My father, it wasn’t illegal or a problem then, he’d go out in the woods get a turkey, dress it and he’d have a nice cedar tree in the trunk that he had cut. That’s all I ever saw until we started the farm.”

Each holiday season, of the total tree stock, the couple has about 5,000 Christmas trees up for sale to help put some scent into the season. Debbie Harris says they regularly have customers from the Tampa Bay and Orlando areas and as far away as Fort Myers and Florida’s east coast come in to buy trees.

I think it’s the experience,” she says. “I also think it’s the freshness of the trees; we work really hard to keep them fresh, that plays into it.” 

These days, the farm consists almost entirely of Christmas trees but for a few years the Harrises—who live on the property — also cultivated blueberries and blackberries. Now, Ergle Tree Farm is divided into three fields with about 1,000 Christmas trees planted to the acre. 

“We just pulled all of that and went to Christmas trees and that’s growing every year; every year it seems like we sell a little bit more,” Harris adds.

Of Ergle’s trees, most are native to the southeastern U.S., including Florida — mostly sand pine, red cedar, Carolina Sapphire cypress and Leyland cypress. However, the Harrises also import trees from other states such as North Carolina and Michigan, which sometimes outsell the ones indigenous to the Deep South.

“We have Floridians who prefer the Florida type trees, those that are longtime Floridians,” Harris explains. “But Florida has so many transplants; there are so many Northerners moving into the state that are used to the Blue spruces, Fraser fir, Douglas fir and what have you. We have a pretty big following for those, as well.” 

The Ergle trees are trucked in fresh and kept in a 20,000-square-feet greenhouse where about 1,000 imported trees from which to choose are available.

“They grow well here. We have tried other varieties, but the bugs just eat them up,” Harris explains.

To keep the stock sprouting, Tony Harris does the majority of the farming and maintenance, although temporary part-time help is hired during the holiday season.

On the farm, the Christmas trees are also grown in pots for outside decorating, celebrating events or allowing children to plant a tree in rotation. For customers cutting a tree, saws, string and balers are supplied, and the farm’s gift store sells tree stands, ornaments, tree toppers and other decorative items.

The cost for small potted trees based on height and pot size start at $25, average $65 and go up to $85. Self-cut trees are $6 per foot between 5 and 9 feet and $7 per foot for those 10 feet and taller.  

Besides trees, Ergle Tree Farm has a small electric train, petting area and concession stand, but they’re not operating for 2020 due to the coronavirus. Harris says hand-washing stations in place on the property, and masks are required indoors while social distancing is required outside. She says the coronavirus hasn’t impacted sales and 2020 looks promising.

“Even very early we had very brisk sales. Each year, we seem to grow just a little bit, and looking at the numbers, it looks like this year we’ll also grow just a little bit and that’s always a good sign — when you’re increasing and not going down the curve,” Harris says. 

“I think it’s all about the experience of bringing out children or just an outing with friends to enjoy a few hours at the farm and to support a small business and get into the holiday spirit.”