A Green Industry

The Christmas tree business grew on him

by Keith Morrill

thomas_paine1215Thomas Paine was only 4 when his father planted Scotch pines on a portion of his 120-acre property in Morrisville. Now Paine tends mostly Fraser firs, which he sells to businesses and individuals for the holiday season.

Thomas Paine’s Vermont roots go back four generations, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that the family set down more literal roots — specifically the kind that give rise to pine trees. That was when his father, Max, a plumber by trade, devoted a portion of his 120-acre property in Morrisville to growing Scotch pines, planting the seeds for Paine’s Christmas Trees.

Today Paine owns the land and the business, and though he is tending mostly Fraser firs these days, he continues to grow his family’s legacy of keeping Vermont in Yuletide green.

Now 61, Paine was only 4 when Max opened the farm. He grew up in the small white house that still stands on the property, and can’t recall a time when growing trees wasn’t a part of his life. The farm grew fewer trees back then, he says, recalling that it was sufficient for his father to string a rope between the two big maples that still sit roadside, and lay out a dozen or so trees at a time.

Paine worked with his father planting and tending trees and helping to sell them. “It was what I was supposed to do,” he says. “It wasn’t like I got paid or anything; I just did it.” Yet he was fond of the work and the opportunity it afforded to be outside.

Over the years, as Paine and his brother, also named Max, became more integral to the farm’s operation, and as the business increased, their father expanded into wholesale, first purchasing a property in Bakersfield in the 1960s and a few years later leasing two Wolcott properties — on East Hill Road and Town Hill Road. At the peak of their wholesale venture, they were selling around 12,000 trees a year.

Even with that sort of volume, the nature of the business allowed the Paines to pursue another means of income. Max senior, in addition to passing on a knowledge of tree farming, imparted lessons in the basics of plumbing. It’s not surprising, then, that Paine gladly followed his father’s footsteps in the trades by entering a state apprenticeship program when he was 18, completing it at age 23.

The beauty of his work at the farm, Paine says, is that for most of the year, the schedule is flexible. As long as the work gets done, it rarely matters when it gets done. This has afforded him the opportunity to run several businesses through the years: There was P&L Plumbing; a brief stint as co-owner of the Rusty Nail in the late ’70s; a number of years odd-jobbing and freelancing his plumbing skills; and then again helming his own business, Tom Paine Plumbing. The latter effort lasted for 15 years, until his clientele (much of whom had been with him since his days at P&L Plumbing) tapered off as his pool of contractors retired or passed away.

It wasn’t until his father was looking to retire in the late ’70s that Paine formally took over the Christmas tree business. He and his brother were essentially already running the business alongside their father, so the transition was easy. They split the land and the business between them, with Max assuming most of the wholesale operations. Back on the now-divided Morrisville property, they grew their trees separately, although they continued selling them together, using a tagging system to keep track of sales.

In the mid 1980s, as people were becoming increasingly interested in selecting and cutting their own trees, Paine was determined to meet the demand. He started clearing additional acreage. “Between my brother’s land and mine, I probably cleared 30, 35 acres,” he recalls. By the late ’80s he was planting new trees there. It takes eight to 10 years to get a tree to salable height, he says.

When Max retired eight years ago, Paine had no interest in taking up the wholesale side of business again. While he admits there would be more money and less work for him if he did so, he wouldn’t enjoy it nearly as much, and the two operations are mutually exclusive. “I wouldn’t have retail if I had wholesale,” he says. “All the trees would be cut and be gone by Thanksgiving.”

Instead, Thanksgiving is about the time when sales are just warming up. That’s when a lot of local businesses — restaurants, inns, and resorts — call upon Paine to provide trees, wreaths, and other items such as kissing balls to decorate their establishments for the season. The Green Mountain Inn is one such business.

“The Green Mountain Inn dresses up for the holidays and [Paine] provides all the greenery for that,” explains innkeeper Patti Clark. Paine supplies the inn with trees and decorations, including wreaths and garlands, to decorate the interior and exterior of the inn. Clark has also frequented Paine’s Christmas Trees for years to select her own tree. “When our children were smaller, we used to go and actually cut our own tree on his tree farm. Now that the kids are older, we usually select two trees that are pre-cut.”

Paine’s trees have been known to travel, ending up in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York with people who make day trips to buy them. It’s worth noting that his trees have helped decorate the Statehouse in Vermont, and every year a single tree journeys to Washington, D.C., to make the offices of Sen. Patrick Leahy a little more festive.

Paine peddles trees right up to Christmas, sometimes even the day of. Vacationing out-of-staters will stop in on Christmas, or even after, he says to buy a tree for their second homes so they can celebrate through the end the holidays.

In the off-season, Paine grows other things on the farm such as corn and pumpkins, and he runs a maple syrup operation, much of which is sold in bulk, and some of which he supplies to local restaurants. Paul “Archie” Archdeacon, owner of Gracie’s Restaurant in Stowe, says Paine supplies him with syrup and corn for the restaurant, though that may not be the most important aspect of their relationship.

Every year for about the last 35 years, Archdeacon and his wife, Susan, have gone to Paine’s farm to select a Christmas tree. “The joke is that my wife has to touch every tree in the lot and go out and look at the ones that aren’t cut yet, and decide on which one is right,” explains Archdeacon. “So I’d go out and say, ‘Tom, we’re looking for the perfect tree,’ and he’d go to some obscure row that made Susan think he was doing something special and shake off the tree, and say, ‘I think this is the nicest one we have.’ It would cut our search time in half.”

Joking aside, Archdeacon calls Paine “unflinchingly honest.”

Paine says he doesn’t do much to sell people on the trees, but tries to let the greenery do the talking. “We’ve always tried to have a good product, so hopefully the product speaks for itself,” he says. He must be doing something right, because he is able to sell trees year-round. For instance, over the past four summers, he has sold trees to L.L. Bean. Readers of the company’s Christmas catalog will notice Paine’s trees serving as backdrops for the models.

Sales usually hit their peak on the second or third weekend after Thanksgiving, when most residents are looking to set up for the holidays. That prime time will see upwards of 80 cars in the lot during business hours, bringing customers from around the state, with a few out-of-staters mixed in (although Paine says the majority of his business comes from the Champlain Valley). Aided by a crew of seasonal workers, Paine — dressed in his trademark overalls and wearing his distinctive red Paine’s Christmas Trees hat — is there to greet the crowds.

This is the part of the business he truly loves. “We’ve had some people that have been here for 30 years buying trees,” Paine says. “You develop friendships with these people.”

He is eager to discuss the generations of families who have come to him for their trees, to talk about the pleasure in seeing those families grow. It’s obvious that family and legacy are important to him.

Things have come full circle in some ways. Paine and his ex-wife, Kate, have two sons — 16-year-old Sam and 13-year-old Ben — both of whom have always lived and worked on the farm. The original house has been converted into a rental — but Paine and his sons live in another house on the property. Both boys have a knack for the work, but Sam is studying at the Lamoille Tech Center to become an electrician. The third generation is on the horizon, however, as Ben talks of nothing but taking his father’s place. •