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December 17. 2012 10:00PM

Christmas trees grow on Nashua dealer


John Costa of Pelham smiles after striking a deal on a Christmas tree with Illan Kessler of North Pole Xmas Trees. (SIMN ROS PHOTO)

NASHUA - Mike Barton has been buying balsam trees at Dairy Queen for 15 years. He's one of as many as 30 million Americans who will take home a real tree this holiday season, and one of some 30,000 from North Pole Xmas Trees, a Nashua company with roots going back generations.

Although he's a loyal customer, Barton said it's different buying a tree, given the shape of the economy. "When times were good, you'd buy a tree for 65 bucks - you wouldn't bat an eye. Now it's $35 and you question it."

"I'm pretty close to (getting an artificial tree)," he said. "But this is agriculture. This keeps people busy."

Barton is right on both counts. It's agriculture, a multibillion dollar industry that keeps people very busy.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 25 million to 30 million Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. each year, with nearly 350 million currently growing on farms. Throughout the 50 states, there are close to 15,000 farms growing Christmas trees, with more than 100,000 people employed full- or part-time in the industry.

A woodworker by trade, Darin Schiavone mans the tree post at the Dairy Queen, a seasonal job he's done the last seven years. The retired U.S. Marine flies an American flag alongside the Marine Corps flag over the rows of balsam and Fraser firs.

"I've gotten a little bit better every year," he said.

Schiavone got laid off several years ago, prompting him to inquire into selling trees. He stopped in to see Christmas-tree peddler Illan Kessler at the Ground Round restaurant, who set him up to manage one of his stands for an hourly wage. He said he sells about 1,100 trees a year, at $40 a pop.

The stand at Dairy Queen is one of eight operated between Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire by North Pole Xmas Trees. Employing 40 workers, the company was formed 10 years ago by Illan Kessler, who's headquartered out of the old Building 19 parking lot on the edge of the city.

Kessler's trees come from a variety of sources, including Quebec, New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Colebrook. He get his trees over a wide geographical spread for logistical purposes. For instance, to fill an order in Florida, he would source a tree from North Carolina.

"We only have one opportunity to make our money," said Kessler, 39, standing outside the RV camper that he calls home from Black Friday until Christmas Day. "It's either make or break every year."

He works until midnight at tree central and wakes up at 6 a.m. to start the day. And when he's not selling trees, he's preparing to sell trees, a year-round task that blows up the day after Thanksgiving.

"To run eight spots and to do it right, you really got to spend the whole year working on it, because as soon as the 15th hits, it's on and there's no turning back. You're catapulted into a perfect storm of Christmas trees."

Kessler said he supplies more than 150 retailers, many of them non-profits such as churches, schools, Rotary Clubs and scout troops.

Although most of his business is local, he's also gotten overseas contracts, like one a few years ago with Apple to send two trees to its shops around the world. Though the Apple account was a one-time deal, this year he's selling a $7,000, 35-year-old, 25-foot tree to MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas.

Kessler said many people - unaware of the transplanting, shearing and "bonsai-ing" required for a robust Christmas tree - harbor many misconceptions.

"People say I could just cut that tree in my backyard. That's not true - you could never grow a tree like this in your backyard. This doesn't grow like this in the woods," he said. "There are no Keebler elves that are sitting there shearing trees in the woods."

People also say that Canadian trees are bad, something Kessler says is "utter horse feathers." "Trees don't have passports," he said. "The truth is that the majority of American trees are grown along the Canadian border, in towns like Colebrook and Pittsburg - the same exact climate."

Kessler's family was once a prodigious agricultural presence in Nashua, dairy farmers with nearly 2,000 acres between North Nashua and Merrimack. His grandfather's business ventures allowed him to forge relationships with Canadian farmers, from whom his father would get Christmas trees in the winter.

"Although we've only been selling tress for two generations, our relationships with the tree farmers go back three to four generations."

At 14, Kessler's dad let him manage his own stand at his grandmother's house on Amherst Street. In 1999 he graduated from business school and returned home to establish the company.

"I can't remember not selling trees, because my dad did it before I was born," he said.

"That's one of the reasons I love doing this. It's part of my family's tradition to not only be involved in agriculture but to do it in the same location that my grandparents were."

os@newstote.com



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