SOUTH ABINGTON TWP – The quarters are cramped inside the wooden shack that serves as the office and shelter for Simoncelli Farms, which sells Christmas trees. Wired for electricity, the little building has a microwave, a radio, a heater and assorted chairs.
“This is plush,” Joe Simoncelli said with a laugh as he reached past a visitor with a 16-inch Homelite electric chainsaw and handed it to a man at the door. He is the founder and owner of the business. “This is the corporate headquarters, here.”
It was 8:30 a.m. last Saturday, Simoncelli Farms had just opened and the first sale of the day had been made.
The saw was needed so the man, one of Simoncelli’s employees, could trim the tree picked out by a customer from the more than 200 evergreens on the lot. After trimming, the tree would then be baled and tied to the roof of the family’s minivan.
Simoncelli Farms operates from a 1.5-acre parcel on the eastern side of U.S. routes 6 and 11, between the former Wellington’s Pub & Eatery and a Valero gas station. When asked for directions, the owner gives potential customers these landmarks for guidance instead of a numbered street address.
“I have no mailing address here, particularly,” Simoncelli said.
The business opened for the season on the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, and will offer trees until Dec. 21 or earlier, if the stock sells out. Simoncelli expects most of the trees will be sold during the 9-day stretch comprised of last weekend, this week and this weekend.
“These are normally the busiest weekends,” Simoncelli said. “We’ll do the majority of our business now. After that, it’ll be steady but not as intense as it is this week.”
Simoncelli, 74 and a Dalton native, is retired from Penn State Worthington Scranton, in Dunmore, where he was the athletic director. In December 1986, he took some trees from his farm in Clifford, to New York City and offered them for sale.
“It started off as a hobby,” he recalled.
The following year, Simoncelli rented a plot of land on Lackawanna Trail near his present location and has been selling Christmas trees here every December since. He later bought the lot on which he operates the November-December enterprise.
Looking back over 30 years, Simoncelli said business had remained surprisingly constant. Sales of Christmas trees, unlike those of automobiles and houses, have seemingly been unaffected by economic cycles.
“I’ll bet 90 percent are return customers,” he said, “and I pick up new customers every year.” Having about 180 feet of frontage on a busy road makes it easier to attract passersby to the hundreds of cut trees.
Simoncelli normally buys a few trees from other local growers, but the majority of the trees he sells were raised on his 74-acre farm. He estimates he has 5,000 to 6,000 trees in the ground at his place in Clifford.
Being a tree grower requires forward thinking.
“It takes 8 to 10 years to grow a tree,” he said.
Prices range from $15 for the smaller trees, to $100, for examples that stand up to 18 feet off the ground. Some of the taller trees, Simoncelli said, were planted as far back as 1993.
The main types of evergreens harvested by Simoncelli are Douglas fir, Fraser fir, concolor fir, blue spruce, and Canaan fir.
Most customers choose a tree for how it looks, but some are more interested in its structural integrity.
“The blue spruce is popular with people that want a really stiff branch, because they have heavy ornaments,” Simoncelli said. Every season, a few customers will ask if he carries white pines – but problems with diseases and the need to apply many pesticides caused him to abandon that type of tree.
Seven part-time employees are hired every November to work on the lot. A few have been coming back for 25 years, and there is a common link to the owner’s previous occupation.
“Most of my workers are former Penn State students of mine,” Simoncelli said.
He opens the lot at 10 a.m. on weekdays, and closes it at 8 p.m. On Saturday and Sunday, he opens at 8:30 in the morning, and closes at 8 p.m. on Saturday, and 5:30 p.m. on Sunday.
“This started out as a hobby years ago,” Simoncelli said. “And it’s still fun.”