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Front & Center: Climate change, buyer expectations for perfection test tree grower

Wholesale nursery operator Owen Pullen and his Australian shepherd Abby share trailer space with freshly cut conifers destined for area Christmas tree lots. (Michael Guilfoil / The Spokesman-Review)
Wholesale nursery operator Owen Pullen and his Australian shepherd Abby share trailer space with freshly cut conifers destined for area Christmas tree lots. (Michael Guilfoil / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil For The Spokesman-Review

CHEWELAH – Five years after joining the U.S. Forest Service, Owen Pullen attended a training session to explore career paths.

“At the end they told me I wasn’t suited for working for a large organization,” he said, “and they were right. So I quit and went into business for myself.”

More than three decades later, Pullen’s Quartzite Mountain Nursery raises pine, spruce and fir trees on the outskirts of Chewelah and ships them to wholesale customers in Salt Lake City, Denver, Kansas City, Lake Tahoe and Alaska.

“I’m a middleman,” Pullen explained. “I’ll sell $100,000 worth of trees to a guy I’ve known for 25 years and trust. He’ll resell them to 100 clients, who then sell them to a thousand different landscapers and homeowners.

“As long as I can talk to the person whose money it is – not some big corporation – I’m comfortable shipping trees before I’m paid. I prefer that to dealing with John Q. Public, who complains when one needle is bent the wrong way. Wouldn’t you?”

Pullen’s trees are raised in the ground, then dug up with a massive, mechanical spade when he gets an order. Their survival rate is nearly 100 percent.

A 20-foot-tall blue spruce, which fetches $1,430, obviously requires heavy equipment to move and set in place. But even a 4-footer costing $77 can weigh close to 300 pounds, given its substantial root ball.

Pullen also grows and cuts a few Christmas trees for his Stevens County neighbors and pop-up tree lots around the area. “But that’s more of a hobby,” he said.

During a recent interview, Pullen discussed the recession, climate change and why there’s no such thing as a “perfect” Christmas tree.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Pullen: Rural Michigan.

S-R: What was your first job?

Pullen: Trimming Christmas trees when I was 16.

S-R: How about formal training?

Pullen: I earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry at Michigan State University, then went to work for the Forest Service in California.

S-R: Did you have a mentor?

Pullen: Several – the guy in Michigan who taught me about Christmas and a boss in the Forest Service who taught me about life.

S-R: What wisdom about Christmas trees stuck with you?

Pullen: There’s no perfect tree. Everyone’s taste is different. People will tell you one thing, and you’ll think you know what they mean. Then they’ll go pick something totally different – the ugliest, shortest, fattest, most misshapen tree on the lot. But they like it.

S-R: How does the industry define the ideal Christmas tree?

Pullen: One with a uniform, conical shape, twice or three times as tall as it is wide, with no flaws that jump out at you.

S-R: Is one species more popular than another?

Pullen: When I was a kid back in Michigan, Scotch pine was the most popular Christmas tree. Nobles are grown here, so there’s a better local supply. Back East it’s Fraser firs, which are a darker green.

S-R: How long does it take to grow a Christmas tree?

Pullen: On the coast, they can grow 6-footers in four or five years. Over here, it takes a couple of years more.

S-R: How much work is involved before a tree destined for Christmas reaches maturity?

Pullen: Lots. There’s weed, bug and disease control, plus a lot of pruning and shearing each year. And if a tree’s not straight, you have to stake it.

S-R: Did you start Quartzite Mountain Nursery from scratch?

Pullen: They were growing sod when I got here. In order to get into the tree business quicker, I went to North Idaho and contracted with other growers so I’d have big trees to sell until mine got to size. Now I have 300 acres planted in trees and we no longer go to North Idaho.

S-R: Did any skills learned in the Forest Service transfer to this career?

Pullen: I was doing a lot of the same things back then. But the biggest thing I learned from the Forest Service was money management – tracking and budgeting. That’s been really useful.

S-R: How has the business evolved since 1988?

Pullen: Generally good, although the Great Recession was brutal.

S-R: What did that teach you?

Pullen: Be cautious. Focus on servicing your customers. Don’t spend money you don’t have to.

S-R: Did other wholesale nurseries fail during the recession?

Pullen: Lots of them.

S-R: Were you able to fill the void when demand picked back up?

Pullen: To a degree. But if people aren’t buying trees, nurseries either stop planting or plant fewer trees. Now there’s a shortage of trees, and I’ve been able to raise prices. But I don’t have as many trees to sell.

S-R: Are you what some would call a “tree hugger”?

Pullen: I’m an ardent environmentalist who’s totally disgusted with the powers that be because we’re destroying the only habitable planet we have. That little gal Greta Thunberg got it exactly right. This is an emergency. Yet in the Middle East they air-condition the outdoors so people can stand to visit cafés at midnight.

S-R: Has your local microclimate changed during the past three decades?

Pullen: It has, although the change hasn’t been dramatic yet. We’ve gone up about 1 degree Fahrenheit, while Alaska has gone up 5 or 6.

S-R: Has concern about climate change affected your business?

Pullen: Yes. My clients are asking for more pine and juniper, and less spruce. But I can’t change my species mix overnight. It takes eight to 10 years. And my river-bottom ground is better suited to spruce than pine.

S-R: What other challenges do you face?

Pullen: Keeping up with the escalating minimum wage.

S-R: How would you characterize your business philosophy?

Pullen: We have customers who want perfect trees, and we manage to keep them happy. But we grow what we consider good trees, and we stand behind what we sell.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Pullen: Working for myself gives me an almost unimaginable amount of personal freedom. I don’t take orders well – haven’t since I was 5 years old. But I like to work, so I’m out here seven days a week.

S-R: What’s your least favorite part of the job?

Pullen: I don’t like equipment, and this is an equipment-heavy business. I can’t change that.

S-R: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Pullen: I would have planted fewer trees. I was expanding when the recession hit – leaning the wrong way – and we barely survived.

S-R: Are you doing OK now?

Pullen: We’re not back to where we were, but we’re fine.

S-R: If someone asked you how they could get into the wholesale nursery business, what would you recommend?

Pullen: The best way is to find some old guy who’s trying to get out of it and willing to finance the purchase.

S-R: Do you have an exit strategy?

Pullen: My son’s going to take this over, I think. But he doesn’t want the responsibility while I’m still around, and my dad lived to almost 97, so I’m in no rush.

S-R: Are there common misperceptions about wholesale nurseries?

Pullen: Some think we’re like Home Depot or Walmart, but we’re not. I’ve even had a couple of people stumble upon us in the Yellow Pages while looking for nursing help. One lady called and said her dad had just got out of the hospital after a heart attack, and she wanted advice for what to feed him. I would have loved to have said, “Give him a shot of whiskey and a steak,” but I didn’t.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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