Seeing green: Business is growing at L&W Tree Farm
"I always liked to grow things," says Norman Lobb of West Tisbury, who first got to know the Island in the 1960s when his parents rented a summer place on South Road in Chilmark. He moved here year-round in the early 70s, and has been working at Cottle's lumberyard in Lambert's Cove for 35 years.
"I got some seedlings from the [Dukes County] Extension Service to plant around my place 20 years ago or so," Mr. Lobb says. "When I got too many I gave them away. Then one year I had too many, and I thought about transplanting them."
A chance conversation with Danny Whiting,who drove the off-Island truck for Cottle's, led to a partnership that has grown steadily over the last 15 years.
"Norman and I were working together at Cottle's and we started talking, and ... it seemed like a good idea," Mr. Whiting says. "It started out as a hobby, and now it's work," he added without a trace of complaint in his voice.
"We started with 100-150 seedlings -white spruce," Mr. Lobb says.
Their business, L&W Trees, now has some 8,000 trees growing off Panhandle Road in West Tisbury on five acres of land that's been in the Whiting family for generations. Ranging from 18-inch seedlings to 10-foot adults, the crop includes four species of fir, three spruce, two arborvitae, one hemlock, one Austrian pine, and native cedars.
The business spikes this time of year, because L&W offers Island-grown Christmas trees for $8 per foot. Talk about fresh - Islanders can pick out a tree, cut it or have it cut, and set it up at home before the tree knows what hit it.
"The land wasn't being used for hayfields anymore because the sheep herd was down, after Everett died," said Mr. Whiting, referring to his father, who ran the family farm for many years. "The place was a horror story when we started - all Russian olives and cedars."
Mr. Whiting currently owns and operates Ultimate Transport - which sounds like it might carry believers off to some remote cosmic destination, but in fact hauls more temporal cargo onto the Island. "I bring the beer," he says with his characteristic warm chuckle.
"We bring in seedlings, about 18 to 24 inches, from a nursery off-Island," Mr. Lobb says. "It takes about seven years for them to get to salable size - seven or eight feet."
The cedars are truly local, being dug up here and there around the Island, where and when folks call L&W because they want to get rid of some cedars that are trying to get a foothold on their place. "So we go over and dig 'em up," Mr. Whiting says. "Works for both of us."
Most L&W customers are homeowners turned weekend landscapers. "People call up and say they need six trees, and we dig 'em and they come pick them up," Mr. Lobb says. "Most of them are used for screening - instead of a stockade fence, say."
L&W also sells live trees for Christmas, but they warn that they don't do so well in the long term. "They start outside, where it's cold this time of year," Mr. Whiting says. "People put them in the house and the trees think it's spring. Then they're outside again and pfft - they can't handle it."
Aside from the spike in activity leading up to Christmas, the busiest times are spring and fall - prime times for transplanting. "We leave the trees alone in summer," Mr. Lobb says. "Everything's putting out new buds and they don't want to be bothered."
Neither Mr. Lobb nor Mr. Whiting has any illusions about getting rich at their tree farm. But they love the work, even if it consumes much of their time off from their day jobs. "We're here about 45 weekends a year," Mr. Whiting said. "Fertilizing, shearing, mowing, irrigating, digging and filling orders."
It's plenty of work, but it's also plenty satisfying. "It's like a fishing boat," Mr. Lobb says. "You know - you never really get out of it what you put in. But I really enjoy doing it. I always say, it's a hobby that went nuts."
Mr. Whiting agrees. "It's been good, it's been fun. We enjoy seeing something agricultural over there, instead of just letting it go fallow."
L&W Tree Farm, Panhandle Road, West Tisbury. Open Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 5 & 6, 12 & 13, 19 & 20. 9 am to 2 pm. Call ahead. 508-693-3638, 508-965-5384 (cell).