Chop Shop

This Christmas tree wholesaler has deep roots in Vermont

by Will Lindner

molleur_lead_21218Among his many independent endeavors, Michel Molleur has grown Christmas trees on his East Hardwick farm since 1990.

There are lots of ways to ply the back roads of East Hardwick on the way to Mike Molleur and Carolyn Brown’s home on Orton Road. Some might say that East Hardwick is nothing but back roads. This is Vermont hill country, beautiful in summer, austere in winter, often muddy in the fall and spring. It’s a pretty good place to grow Christmas trees, which Molleur has done on some 12 acres of his 46-acre property since 1990 (for the first 10 years he leased the Christmas tree acreage to another grower).

But this is a part of Vermont where someone who does just one thing for a living might be, as the saying goes, considered unemployed. The sign in front of Molleur’s house describes a litany of talents. Adorned with an image of a backhoe, it reads (in part): Mike Molleur — Tree Farm; Logging & Excavation; Land Clearing, Reclaiming Farm & Forest Land, Roads, Ponds, House Sites, Topsoil, Gravel, Stone, Firewood … Member, Vermont Christmas Tree Association.

“I diversify all the time,” Molleur, a slight man of 64, with an impish grin, explains. “You have to around here.”

If he’s anything, Molleur is certainly, and thoroughly, a man from “around here,” the 11th of 15 children born to Paul and Theresa Molleur, who lived, at various times, on both sides of the U.S.-Quebec border before settling at a nearby homestead on Orton Road.

“I didn’t speak English until I went to first grade,” says Molleur. He attended the tiny Star School (one of five one-room schoolhouses in Walden), and recalls walking there each morning to start the fire, clean the outhouses, and wash the floors with linseed oil.

By stark contrast, however, from the day after Thanksgiving to the day before Christmas each year, Molleur becomes virtually an inhabitant of the hustle-bustle environs of the Berlin Mall, some 35 miles away, a self-contained shopping destination anchored by a Wal-Mart, a J.C. Penney, and a Kohl’s department store near Exit 7 on Interstate 89. Sometimes alone, sometimes with his son Luke, and on weekends with an additional helper or two, Molleur dwells in a travel trailer office amid his Christmas trees in the mall parking lot, navigating those East Hardwick dirt roads seven days a week to and from his home.

“It’s 31 days of misery!” he jokes — though it seems that, for him, misery would be not having a million things to do from dawn till dusk.

Molleur began his seasonal odyssey to Berlin in 2011. His first central Vermont location was on U.S. 302, a commercial stretch that locals call the Barre-Montpelier Road. The following year he secured a vendor’s permit, plus the mandatory licensing and insurance to move his retail operation to the mall. With this annual exposure, he has built relationships with local businesses that buy big trees for their showrooms and lobbies. Molleur mentions auto dealerships, Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s Berlin headquarters, the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier, and the Comfort Inn and Maplefields near the Interstate.

The mall’s proximity to I-89 helps even more since Molleur launched a website two years ago that attracts travelers who want to take a Vermont Christmas tree home with them. Molleur makes it easy: he or his assistants will net the tree and tie it onto the customer’s vehicle. Five years ago he began taking credit cards, along with cash and checks. It boosted his sales dramatically.

“I trust everybody,” he says. “If their card doesn’t work I say come back and pay me. And they do.”

His bread and butter, of course, is the homeowners’ returning to him yearly for trees ranging from 10 feet in height for homes with cathedral ceilings to mid-size 6- to 7-foot trees to little ones 3 feet high, and tiny tabletop Christmas trees. “Sometimes,” he says with a laugh, “that’s what they want: a twig!”

Wending his way home after dark, Molleur often sees his trees through the windows of homes and businesses along the way. “It’s nice,” says Carolyn Brown, his life and business partner, who does the bookkeeping and decorates kissing balls and wreaths made by a local crafter. “It’s rewarding.”

Convenience and service are nice, Molleur adds, but most important are the trees.

“I bring quality stuff,” he insists. “Mostly Fraser fir. And I never cut my trees until the week before [he takes them to market]. I start with 500, then cut additional trees as I go along.”

“People want a fresh tree,” Brown says. “They don’t want the mess of needles falling off.”

This formula worked wonderfully last year for Jack and Molly Thompson of Chelsea. While shopping at Wal-Mart in December, they spied Molleur’s display in the parking lot and went to take a look.

“Mike’s son helped us pick out this fabulous tree,” Molly recalls. “We’re in our mid-60s and both have back issues, so he loaded it for us. I don’t think we realized until we got it home how beautiful it was. It was the biggest, bushiest tree we’d ever had. We left it up until we were going away in mid-January, and it barely dropped any needles. And the price was very reasonable; it was the best $50 we’ve ever spent on a Christmas tree.”

After paying with a credit card, they found an ATM, withdrew some cash for a tip, and went to the Molleurs’ trailer.

“Mike took it and gave it to his son,” Molly recalls. “Both of them were exceptionally nice.

“Our tree,” she continues, “is always dog-themed.” (The Thompsons have three Bouviers and a golden retriever.) “The ornaments are white bones made out of cornstarch and baking soda, with the names of all the dogs we’ve owned and our friends’ and relatives’ dogs, and a fire hydrant at the top with a light inside. The tree supported all these ornaments. It was a very houndly tree!”

The Thompsons were so pleased they sent the Molleurs an email expressing their appreciation. They’ll be return customers this year.

A savvy businessperson, Molleur keeps track of the factors going into his costs and revenues. Transplants — saplings to replace harvested trees — cost $1 each; paying labor in the spring to help him plant 1,500 of them brings his costs per tree to $2.50. Then (like the traditional Vermont calculation about firewood) it comes down to how often he touches each tree before it’s sold: weeding (“the worst part about tree farming,” he says), de-coning, sheering, fertilizing, harvesting, stacking, loading, unloading, and selling.

It takes eight to 10 years to grow a Christmas tree, so handling each one three or four times a year could add up to 40 “handlings” before he sees his return.

His costs and labor are less for trees he wholesales. (So, of course, are his revenues.) These customers come to the farm and often do the harvesting themselves. Wholesaling accounts for about 25 percent of annual sales.

Some of the trees go to Connecticut. In Vermont, one of Molleur’s wholesale customers is Bernie Lussier of Craftsbury a former logger who is well-known as a founding member of the celebrated, now-retired, country band the Craftsbury Vibrations. Lussier supplies several tree stands, including in St. Albans and the Agway stores in Montpelier and Burlington.

“We all work together,” Lussier says of the growers and sellers in northeastern Vermont. “We’re supposedly in competition, but we’re not. There’s always a new disease coming up, so you have to know every tree company [to ensure your supply].

“Mike and I have known each other all our lives. Our families go way back together. When Mike started trees and got out on his own, the first year they were big enough I bought all his trees to help him out.”

In the recent few years Lussier has purchased “blocks” of 200 trees from Molleur.

“I cut ’em, and bale ’em, and haul ’em out. It saves him from having to do that.”

Molleur and Brown met and began dating 22 years ago. She owned Peck’s Flower Shop in Morrisville, which she had purchased with her mother. Both had sons from previous marriages. Molleur’s include Eric, a mechanic and mail carrier, and Ben, a truck driver, in addition to Luke, a laborer who works part time for his father. Brown’s son, Kevin, is currently in Georgia with the National Guard.

Brown moved to the farm on Orton Road 17 years ago to help when Molleur took in one of his grandchildren during a family emergency. They’ve been partners ever since.

Molleur doesn’t plan on ending his Christmas tree business anytime soon. Logging could be another matter. He’s a 16-year board member of the Vermont Forest Products Association (“The only logger on the board,” he says), but he doesn’t want to continue much longer. Characteristically, he’s been thinking about other ways to carve out a living from his land.

“I’ve prepared 10 acres for growing hemp,” he says. “Or it might be barley for beer. I’ve tilled the land and planted it in oats to stabilize the soil. I’ll wait to see if a market develops and what other people experience.”

Who knows? Hemp or barley could be the next big thing. Right now, though, Christmas is the thing, and with a stable second home at the Berlin Mall, Molleur’s Fraser firs and Carolyn Brown’s wreaths and kissing balls will command his full attention. •