RIDGE MANOR -
It has been a family tree-buying tradition for roughly a decade.
Each year, Julie Wolfe of Bradenton and her daughters, Kimberly, 24, and Erin, 25, drive nearly two hours north to the Pasco-Hernando county border for a visit to the Ergle Family Christmas Tree Farm.
"They have the best trees," Julie Wolfe said, as if that was sufficient to explain the annual 180-mile round-trip odyssey.
Actually, it might be sufficient for tree farm owner Tony Harris, who wouldn't be that surprised.
The Ergle Christmas Tree Farm has many customers who travel from far-flung locales such as St. Petersburg, Sarasota and, on at least one occasion, Fort Lauderdale, to experience the farm, its pre-cut and cut-your-own trees and the small train that provides rides around the property.
Wolfe isn't sure how her family first caught onto the tree-farm excitement. She believes she saw a newspaper advertisement about 10 years ago.
Regardless, the Wolfes were spurred to take action, and after that first visit, they kept coming.
"We usually stop and eat on the way," Kimberly Wolfe said.
Most years, the Wolfes choose a Fraser fir, but Friday they were entranced by a 10-foot noble fir.
In 10 years, there have been no mishaps on the return trip to Bradenton with a tree tied atop the family vehicle.
"We just go slow in the slow lane," Julie Wolfe said.
The farm allows customers to cut their own trees if they want – even providing saws – but much of the clientele has roots in Northern states. They prefer Fraser firs, Scotch pines or other Christmas trees they grew up with, rather than Florida-grown sand pines and Southern red cedars.
Harris keeps a rich supply of pre-cut trees shipped in from North Carolina and Michigan.
"The Northern trees have a better fragrance," he acknowledged. "They hold the ornaments longer and last longer."
Harris tries to provide every tree variety his customers want. Happy customers tend to spread the word about the farm, and soon he has even more business, he said.
The Ergle Christmas Tree Farm was founded in 1980 by Harris' father-in-law, Omar Ergle, who once taught agriculture at Pasco High and also was a provost at Pasco-Hernando Community College. Ergle, who died in 1997, once owned orange groves, but a freeze put an end to his orange trees.
Ergle noted that Christmas trees didn't freeze, so he shifted his area of tree-growing concentration.
The original Ergle Christmas Tree Farm was in Blanton, but a second location opened about eight miles north of Dade City, just over the Hernando County line. That is where Tony and Debra Harris keep the Ergle tradition alive.
Nearly two years ago they added the farm dog, Lazy Lucy, a mixed-breed stray who wandered onto the property.
"We gave her a Burger King Whopper, and she hasn't left since," Harris said. "She's so sweet, and she loves everybody. She's sweet to all the customers."
Although most Ergle customers choose pre-cut trees, some families still grab a saw and march out to where the Florida trees grow.
Avery and Carol Borah of Lakeland — recent transplants from South Dakota — were determined to have such a tree-cutting experience for their four children, Ellie, 12, Miriam, 10, Charlotte, 7, and Wyatt, 4.
"We weren't expecting there to be a Christmas tree farm in Florida," Avery Borah said.
His wife, though, researched the Ergle farm online before they left South Dakota about nine months ago. They made their first visit before Halloween, when the farm had pumpkins.
After the Borahs found their perfect tree Friday, each child took a turn with the saw. Then dad finished cutting the tree, and the children cheered as it fell.
The family marveled at Florida's version of Christmas weather.
"In South Dakota, we just stayed in the van because it was freezing," Carol Borah said. "He hopped out and got the tree."
IF YOU GO
The Ergle Christmas Tree Farm is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through the Christmas season. For more information, go to www.ergletrees.com.