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End of an era as Topsfield farm sells its last Christmas trees

While it won’t be selling any more trees, Nutter Farm is continuing, with a new focus on growing produce

Stina Nutter MacDougall, Ben Nutter, and Jim MacDougall in front of the red sales barn, used as the headquarters for Christmas tree sales, during their final season last month.
Stina Nutter MacDougall, Ben Nutter, and Jim MacDougall in front of the red sales barn, used as the headquarters for Christmas tree sales, during their final season last month.Eric Roth

In 1960, John and Bunny Nutter began selling Christmas trees grown on their farm off Ipswich Road in Topsfield.

So began a business that has helped bring holiday cheer to residents of Topsfield and surrounding communities for the past 60 years.

Last month, that tradition came to a close when the Nutter family ended its Christmas tree operation. Just before the holiday, the last tree was sold.

“Closing was not an easy decision emotionally because we really enjoy our interaction with customers, many of whom we have known for decades,” said Ben Nutter, a son of the late John and Bunny.

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John Nutter was about 60 when this image was taken around 1976, tree-pruning shears in hand.
John Nutter was about 60 when this image was taken around 1976, tree-pruning shears in hand. Nutter family

An architect, Ben Nutter has run the farm in recent decades with his sister, Stina Nutter MacDougall, a longtime Mass Audubon employee, and her husband, Jim MacDougall, a former land manager with Essex County Greenbelt.

“It takes eight to 10 years of growth for a Christmas tree to become harvestable. Stina and I are now in our 60s and we wondered if 10 years from now this is something we still would want to be doing,” said Nutter, noting the labor that goes into planting, fertilizing, pruning, mowing, and tree sales.

While it won’t be selling any more trees, Nutter Farm is continuing, with a new focus on growing produce.

Since 2018, the family has leased three of its 20 acres to Iron Ox Farm, an organic vegetable-growing operation run by Alex Cecchinelli and Stacey Apple. The Nutters now hope to expand crop-raising on the site, by Iron Ox or others.

“This really fits with the mission our parents had for this property when they moved out here,” Nutter said. “They wanted to see the land survive perpetually for agricultural use. It’s very comforting knowing we are continuing that legacy.”

“We will miss the annual tree customer friendships. However, many of the same families are customers of [Iron Ox Farm] and transitioning more acreage to food just makes sense,” Stina and Jim MacDougall said by e-mail.

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In the 1990s, the Nutters donated conservation restrictions to Essex County Greenbelt barring any future development of the farm.

Former Greenbelt president Ed Becker, whose family for years bought its Christmas trees at the farm, said the Nutters have long been “conservation-minded,” recalling how John Nutter handed out seedlings to students during annual Arbor Day school visits.

“It’s a transition that happens with land and families,” he said of the closing of the Christmas tree business. “But the really good thing is that this transition is leading to a next generation of farming.”

Originally from Swampscott, John Nutter worked as a mechanical engineer at General Electric in Lynn, but was interested in forestry. That and Bunny Nutter’s desire to keep horses prompted the couple to purchase the overall 30-acre Topsfield site in 1948. They started planting Christmas trees in the early 1950s, and in 1960 began selling them.

Growing up, Ben, Stina, and their brother Steve helped with the tree-growing and also raised and sold their own corn, strawberries, and pumpkins.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the farm was selling about 400 Christmas trees annually. In anticipation of one day closing, the farm gradually scaled back to about 100 trees a year in recent years.

The farm was itself reduced by 10 acres when the family in the 1990s built two homes where Nutter and the MacDougalls still live, and later a house where Bunny resided the last 15 years of her life. Steve, a contractor, lives in the family’s original farmhouse.

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Marblehead resident Don Doliber said he enjoyed the annual trips he made to Nutter Farm for a Christmas tree, a family custom that spanned three generations.

“It’s a tradition for people not only in Topsfield but in other towns such as my own,” he said. “It was a great service the Nutters provided to the community.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

HAPPY MEMORIES: Stina, Ben, and Bunny Nutter riding along one of the lanes between the Christmas trees in around 1964.
HAPPY MEMORIES: Stina, Ben, and Bunny Nutter riding along one of the lanes between the Christmas trees in around 1964.Nutter family
A classic snow scene image taken by Ben Nutter in 1973. Stina is the driver, on the Ford 9N, towing customers through heaving snow.
A classic snow scene image taken by Ben Nutter in 1973. Stina is the driver, on the Ford 9N, towing customers through heaving snow.Nutter family
Jim MacDougall (left, holding the tree) and Jonathan Winthrop, a longtime customer of Nutter Farm, taken in about 2006.
Jim MacDougall (left, holding the tree) and Jonathan Winthrop, a longtime customer of Nutter Farm, taken in about 2006. Kindra Clineff