Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Meet Bill Nichols of Nichols Tree Farm in West Lebanon and Lyme

Bill Nichols and his wife, Srimalai, of Nichols Tree Farm have been growing Christmas trees for 40 years. They planted their first trees in 1969 on a 76-acre property they purchased after Bill got out of the Army. He was stationed for a time in Thailand, where he met Srimalai.
The Nichols’ operation now encompasses some 2,700 acres, a retail Christmas tree location in West Lebanon and a choose-and-cut outfit in Lyme, maple sugar operation, and firewood and timber production. We caught up with Bill in early October, as he was gearing up for the tree selling season. Here’s what he had to say.

How did you get started growing Christmas trees?

“It was kind of a high school age dream. I used to work in the woods when I was in high school. I recall having a discussion with one of the guys that I was working under, running survey lines out in the woods on some of the property that I now own, and I asked, ‘If you want to work out in the woods and make a living, how much land do you need?’ He said you probably need about 1,000 acres. I asked, ‘What’s the best way to get money off that?’ And he said Christmas trees and maple syrup, probably.”

That sounds like a lot of work.
“Oh, yeah. You can’t say I don’t work.”

Do you still do the maple sugaring, too?
“Yeah, I do a little bit of that. We sell a fair amount. We do 200-400 gallons a year.”

How much land did you start with?
“The house that we bought in ’69, there was 76 acres with the house. Cost me $23,000. I got my money back on that property. Actually, I’ve gotten my money back on most all the property I’ve bought. But most of it has been sweat equity. A lot of firewood. I work pretty late a lot of nights splitting firewood. The original property that we had, I sold off 50 acres of that. I had my sugarhouse there, which I kept, along with 26 acres of that property. There’s just a few Christmas trees on that.”

What kinds of Christmas trees do you grow?
“Mostly balsam and Fraser fir. We used to grow some of the other – spruces, Scotch pine, a little bit of Douglas fir – but all of those other things have not been profitable. They used to sell a lot better than they do now. We’ve got about 10 different farms. Some of them aren’t too big. Others are fairly good sized. The smallest acreage of Christmas trees is probably a couple of acres, and the largest would be about 60 acres of Christmas trees.”

How many trees do you sell in a typical year?
“There really isn’t a typical year. We planted land as it became available or we made it available. Right now we’re at a fairly low production. We’ll probably only do about 8,000 or so this year. Three years ago we did about 14,000. Three years from now we’ll be up around 20,000. We’ve planted a lot of trees in the last five years, so we have a lot of stuff coming in. We’re going to start scaling back. Next year will be the last year that we plan on doing much planting. I’m getting a little old – I’m 63. It’ll take 10 years to get those trees we plant next year.”

How many people do you have working there?

“A lot of my wife’s relatives from Thailand work as legal non-immigrant farm labor. We normally start bringing them in in April for planting, and they go home in December.”

What’s been most enjoyable in your work?
“I find it very rewarding when everything is going good, which is mostly dependent on labor issues. Anybody that’s running a business will tell you that one of the biggest headaches is managing your people and getting good production out of them. And when everything goes good, it’s nice. The business if fun when everything goes smoothly.”

What is something your customers might not know about growing Christmas trees?
“Most people don’t realize the work that goes in it. They think you just stick a tree in the ground and a few years later you cut it and sell it. But you have to take care of every tree every year – fertilize, weed control, mow the grass, shear the trees, watch out for insects, drought, disease.”

Do you ever have any time off?
“I do a little fishing sometimes. I used to do a little hunting, but the hunting conflicts with the harvest season. I relax when I have the time I guess.”