Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Two blueberry farmers from Pennsylvania make a yearly trip to peddle firs in New York.
Each week in December, we’ll be profiling a different seasonal job. This is the second installment. The first followed a day in the life of a department store elf.
It’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and the Christmas tree business isn’t booming. Hundreds of firs lean against stacked wooden pallets that form the wall of Greenwood Park, a gas station-turned-pub on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn, tucked between the expressway and one of the city’s largest cemeteries.
Sarah Newsome, 25, and Mark Speicher, 26, are waiting for customers underneath a canopy of colorful twinkle lights. Speicher’s wavy brown hair is shoved up under a ratty Santa hat. Newsome shifts her weight from one foot to the other, trying to stay warm.
It’s quiet right now, but at this outpost of Greg’s Trees, selling is a 24/7 operation. If someone does want to buy a Frasier fir in the middle of the night, they can; Each seller works three or four night-shifts a week. A hand-scrawled sign taped to a wooden A-frame reads: Want a tree? Please knock on trailer or silver van.
Speicher and Newsome may be dozing on the mattress they shoved into her Honda Odyssey. (In an RV parked around the corner, they’ve got two hot plates and a coffee maker. They don’t have a shower.) One of them will shake off sleep and help you pick out a tree.
The stand sells 10 types of trees grown in New York, North Carolina, and Oregon. The Noble fir, Nordmann fir, and Grand firs are about $10 more than other varieties, Speicher explains, because they’ve traveled the longest distance. A five- or six-foot Balsam runs about $60.
As far as NYC trees go, that’s not a bad price. DNAinfo recently charted the going rate for trees throughout the city’s neighborhoods. The tonier spots tended to see the highest prices. Large trees command up to $400 in SoHo; in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a stand was selling six-foot Frasiers for $70.
Across the country, consumers spend an average of $39.50 for real trees and $63.60 for fake ones, according to 2014 data from the National Christmas Tree Association. The group estimates that Americans purchased more than 26 million farm-grown evergreens last holiday season.
From May to September, Speicher and Newsome are blueberry farmers, tending 4,000 bushes on family land in rural Pennsylvania. They find short-term seasonal work for the rest of the year. This is Speicher’s fourth year selling trees. He says he’s paid at the end the selling period. Once they pack up, the two find other gigs on Craigslist, and travel to Sundance to shuttle festival-goers to events. “That’s lots of money—really quickly, too,” says Speicher.
Of their nomadic lifestyle, Newsome says, “It’s kind of like a gamble, but it’s a good gamble.” Speicher chimes in. “We’re big snowboarders, rock climbers, mountaineers. When we’re not here, we’re hunting the adrenaline, for sure.” When they have a break in farming duties over the summer, they work as whitewater rafting guides on the Lehigh River, slicing through the Poconos. In the month between the end of tree season and the start of their chauffeur gigs at Sundance, the two are planning to go snowboarding out west.
Sometimes, when a customer arrives with a small budget and outsized expectations, things can veer away from holiday cheer. Speicher says that interactions with pushy customers “can tumble downhill quickly—the snowball can grow.” Usually, though, he adds, customer interactions are festive. “It’s cool to see New York through Christmas eyes.”
“You kind of feel like you’re part of the neighborhood,” Newsome says. She adds that people from the apartment building across the street sometimes come over and say hi or bring them a snack when they look cold.
No one stops to buy a tree while I’m chatting with them, but Speicher and Newsome exchange hellos with a few neighbors who are waddling to the bus stop on the corner, bundled in long, puffy coats.