One man’s Christmas tree empire sprawls across the Upper Valley

  • Tutthapong Sombatboon, a seasonal laborer from Thailand, walks among several trees damaged by browsing moose while dragging cut balsams to a baler in Lyme, N.H., Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2019. Tree farmer Bill Nichols said he continues to work with the damaged trees, pruning their tops in the hopes that they can be cut for six-foot Christmas trees. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bill Nichols, 74, of Orford, started working with Christmas trees for Fred Wagner, a Lyme timberland investor, while in high school, and now grows balsam and fraser firs for wholesale on about 250 acres in Orford and Lyme. Nichols carries a Fraser fir to the truck of a customer in Orford, N.H., Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A-kachai Chuenjai, a seasonal laborer from Thailand, cuts balsam firs for Christmas trees on Bill Nichols tree farm in Lyme, N.H., Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2019. Nichols estimates that his crew will have cut 17,000 trees this season. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bill Nichols, of Orford, left, helps Adam Stockman, of Tuftonboro, N.H., load Christmas trees for resale into his truck in Orford, N.H., Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2019. It was Stockman's tenth trip to pick up trees from Nichols, having sold about 250 from his business, Spider Web Gardens, this year. "They are superior trees," he said. "People come from all over the place to get these." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 12/21/2019 10:23:29 PM
Modified: 12/21/2019 10:23:26 PM

That twinkling Christmas tree in your living room probably began and lived most of its life in a grove of evergreens much like those harvested by Bill Nichols. In fact, that grove might be where it came from.

Set deep in the woods of Lyme and 1,900 feet above sea level at the end of a rutted logging road navigable only in a pickup truck with chains on its tires, there is a 12-acre idyll of balsam fir trees that Nichols calls The Big Field.

One of five groves sprinkled across 50 acres that Nichols owns in Lyme, The Big Field echoed with the sound of chain saws last week as workers cut the trees and then dragged them to a clearing where they were pulled through a baler and neatly tied with twine before being loaded onto a flatbed trailer.

At the peak of Christmas tree harvesting season in November and December, “we need to cut 700 trees per day to meet what we need to sell,” Nichols said from the cab of his red Chevy Silverado pickup as snowfall blanketed the tree branches like a thick layer of cake frosting.

But with orders from retailers slowing in the final weeks before Christmas, last Tuesday’s harvest, hampered by the falling snow, was set at a more modest 150 trees, which Nichols hoped his two-man work crew would have wrapped up and off the hill by that afternoon.

“Cutting begins around Nov. 1, and last year we harvested right up to Dec. 23,” Nichols said. “We’re getting near the end.”

By the time the season ended last week, Nichols estimated, his work crews cut about 17,000 Christmas trees this year — the biggest haul in 12 years — and making him one of the biggest tree farmers in the Northeast.

“It goes up and down, but this year is up,” he said.

Nichols is a grower, harvester and wholesaler of Christmas trees and Christmas wreaths, selling to some 120 retailers, mostly around New England. In the Upper Valley, they include places like the Beaver Pond Farm Stand in Newport, Spring Ledge Farm in New London, Frazer’s Place in Windsor and the Hanover Co-op in Lebanon and White River Junction.

His trees are also sold at the pick-and-cut Christmas tree farm of his son Ben and Ben’s wife, Amy, on Route 10 in Lyme, and Christmas tree sales lot Bill Nichols operates in West Lebanon.

Nichols, 74, has been in the Christmas tree and wreath business since 1969, returning after a stint in the Army to Lyme, where his family owned the local hardware store. Working alongside as a partner in building the business has been his wife, Srimalai Nichols.

Despite more than five decades in business, Nichols continues to log 12-hour days and seven-day weeks over the last two months of the year, regardless of the weather. On a freezing-cold Tuesday morning last week, he lay on his back on a snow-covered, ice-slicked logging road to install, in bare hands the size of baseball mitts, chains on the rear wheels of his truck.

“The man has worked,” said his nephew, Orford businessman Scott Nichols, who adds that his uncle “also relied heavily on the tirelessness of his wife (Srimalai) and son (Ben) over the years. The three of them have never shied from labor.”

Working in the woods had always been a passion of Nichols, going back to high school in the early 1960s when he spent summers as a surveyor’s helper for the late Lyme timberland investor Fred Wagner. When Nichols asked a co-worker one day what it would take to earn a livelihood in the woods, he was told, “If you’re just going to do logging, you need 1,000 acres. But if you do Christmas trees and maple sugaring you’ll need less.”

(Nichols gave up sugaring a few years ago because, as he explained, “nobody eats breakfast anymore.”)

Today, Nichols owns 2,800 acres of timberland on eight farms in four New Hampshire towns — Lyme, Orford, Piermont and Bath — across Grafton County. He estimates his land holdings includes some 250 acres of evergreen groves — 60% balsam fir and 40% Fraser fir — with 250,000 trees in all.

“No question the largest in Grafton County. You’d have to go to Coos County to find someone of similar size. Nothing in Vermont,” he said.

Like any other kind of farming, however, there have been bad years and good years, lean times and fat times.

The past few years have been good for Nichols, although in the lag time between seedling and maturity, the present upswing is the result of a downturn a few years earlier. This season’s high wholesale demand for his trees — about double what it was five years ago — is the result of suppliers in North Carolina reducing their harvest in reaction to overproducing a few years earlier.

Generally, balsam firs and Fraser firs require six to 12 years to grow before harvesting. The wholesale price of Christmas trees varies depending on their species, grade and size; this year it ranged from $19 for a #1 grade balsam fir to $35 for a premium-grade Fraser fir. Retailers tend to sell trees at double the wholesale cost.

There is also a national shortage of trees this year because financially strapped farmers were planting fewer trees during and after the recession — trees that would be trees now ready for harvesting.

“There was a year there when I netted $35,000,” Nichols said of that not-long-ago time.

In an effort to begin winding down his business with an eventual view to retirement, Nichols stopped planting Fraser fir seedlings several years ago and instead is now relying upon his balsam groves to naturally seed themselves, which they appear to do with the relish of an enthusiastic propagator.

“Balsams grow like weeds,” said Ben Nichols, Bill Nichols’ son.

This year, Bill Nichols expects his business to have gross sales of about $600,000, of which 70% comes from wholesale tree sales and 30% from wholesale wreath sales. His $350,000 payroll eats up half of that.

For more than 20 years, Nichols has relied upon work crews hired from Thailand, where he was stationed during his time in the Army (when he learned in 1966 that he was being detailed to a base in Thailand, his commanding officer told him, “You’re one of the lucky ones”) and met his wife (they are now separated).

Initially, the Thai work crews, who work in both the wreath workshops and harvesting trees, were drawn from members of Srimalai Nichols’ family, although that mostly is no longer the case. The crews hired on H-2A temporary agriculture work visas — which reach about 20 workers at peak — begin to arrive in April when the pruning and thinning of trees gets underway.

Nichols said he spends about $25,000 a season to fly in work crews from Thailand.

Then, in May, when the green growth starts, comes fertilizing and spraying, which is followed by picking cones off the trees toward the end of the month. June is given over to weed abatement. On July 5, crews set to “shearing,” or shaping the trees with a machete-like knife into the classic cone that customers expect.

“A tree should be sheared in one minute, but a good shearer can do it in 20 seconds,” Nichols said.

Wreath workers arrive in the middle of October, and the first tree harvesting begins two weeks later on Nov. 1. At the peak of harvesting, work crews under optimal conditions can cut and haul out of the woods 4,200 trees a week, which are taken to a “tree landing” near Nichols’ home in Orford, where they are loaded onto tractor-trailers to be shipped to retailers.

One trailer load can squeeze up to 750 trees with a wholesale value of $15,000 to $20,000 per load, depending, among other things, on the grade of the tree — premium, first grade or second grade — and whether they are balsams or Fraser firs (Frasers tend to be $5 to $10 more per tree).

A couple days before Christmas, Nichols is done and the work crews have returned to Thailand. He spends January doing paperwork and preparing his H-2A visa applications for the next season’s workers. In February, he travels to Thailand for a month of vacation and finishes making arrangements on his crew hiring.

Christmastime is a sorely needed respite of quiet for Nichols, although his own home in recent years now lacks one thing many people have this time of year: a Christmas tree.

No thanks. Come Dec. 25, Nichols says he has seen enough Christmas trees for a while.

“I don’t have a tree, no,” Nichols said when asked what kind of tree he has in his house. “Why the hell would I want to see a tree?”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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