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Veteran Christmas tree farmer ready for one last season

SHOREHAM — Two decades ago, Ray Gauthier and his family were in the market for a Christmas tree. They had plenty of options, but elected to visit the Red Sled Christmas Tree Farm on Route 74 West in Shoreham.
“My in-laws lived in Shoreham, right next to the Shoreham Inn,” Gauthier recalled. “We decided to try (Red Sled) out.”
So they did. Again and again.
“It was a family thing,” Gauthier said of the experience of combing the farm’s expansive tree lot, thinking they had found the perfect one, only to check out several more before hauling their prize back to the lot and strapping it to their vehicle.
Part of the experience has been chewing the fat with Red Sled Christmas Tree Farm owner Phil Kivlin.
“I enjoyed his company,” Gauthier said. “We became pretty good friends.”
That friendship will endure — but without the annual Christmas tree pilgrimage. Kivlin is telling his faithful customers that after 33 years in the business, this is last season for choose-and-cut sales.
“I’m starting to recognize the limitations of what my body can do,” Kivlin, 72, said during an interview at the farm on Monday.
“It’s been really fun.”
Truth be told, Kivlin didn’t get into the Christmas tree growing business until relatively late in his professional life.
He studied mechanical engineering at Penn State University. Upon graduation in 1967, he was eager for adventure. He embarked on a four-year tour with the United States Navy, spending much of it off the coast of Vietnam, aboard a Navy destroyer, the USS Hoel DDG-13.
It was during the height of the Vietnam War. The Hoel, as Kivlin described it, provided protection for aircraft carriers and was called upon to fire its 5-inch guns to soften inland targets for the ground troops.
“I never had to dodge any bullets,” Kivlin said modestly, though he and the Hoel provided important service. Still that service could be rather dull and monotonous — ship maintenance, standing watch on deck and performing various administrative duties. But Kivlin got to see a lot of Asia and ports around the Pacific.
His Navy experience steered him away from his mechanical engineering background and into a new vocation: oil field diver.
“I had been skin diving in the Pacific on my days off during my Navy tour,” Kivlin said of his preparation for a career that promised “high-paid travel and adventure.”
Well, it delivered travel and adventure — but not so much the high pay. For around a dozen years, Kivlin was part of a team that would assemble and troubleshoot underwater infrastructure, including pipelines, at oil drilling platforms and other installations, mostly along the Gulf Coast.
Living in Louisiana, Kivlin and his team would work 12-hour days, though each would only spend around an hour underwater, depending on depth and required decompression time.
Pay was decent, though work was unpredictable and seasonal. He credited his “New England thrift” for helping him stay on budget during times when he didn’t have a diving paycheck coming in. Kivlin also credited his spouse, former Shoreham town treasurer Barbara Kivlin, for helping make the most of the family finances.
He decided to shed his wetsuit in 1984.
“It was a good time to quit,” he recalled. “I was starting to hurt, physically.”
At the same time, many of the Gulf Coast oil fields were drying up, the diving work along with it.
So the Kivlins looked at the compass and went in what to them was the logical direction: North, to the Shoreham farm that had been in the family of Kivlin’s mom (Laura Douglas) since the 1850s. Kivlin’s parents had stopped farming the property in order to teach at Bowling Green University in Ohio. The land was — and still is — being rented out to area farmers for growing crops.
A REVENUE STREAM
Phil built the house to which the Kivlins returned those 33 years ago. But he wasn’t ready to retire, and that meant finding a reliable revenue stream.
“You can’t take the farm out of the boy,” Kivlin said. “But I wasn’t interested in having a menagerie (of animals). I was not interested in farming, but I still had this connection to the land and growing things.”
He looked no farther than beyond his front door. There stood around 10 acres of fertile land that wasn’t being farmed, in part due to the steepness of the terrain. Then-Addison County Forester Tom Bahre was leading a workshop at the time on how to grow Christmas trees, and Kivlin decided to check it out.
The rest is history.
Kivlin initially went at it with gusto and was perhaps, in retrospect, was a little too enthusiastic.
“I planted way more than I could handle, to start with,” he said in recalling the approximately 2,500 seedlings — mostly balsam firs — that he introduced to the farm.
That early enthusiasm unfortunately out-paced his ability to sell, but he got through it. He has always stuck primarily with hearty balsam firs, though he has sprinkled in some more exotic breeds on occasion. Turkish firs and Nordmann firs, to mention a few.
A self-described do-it-yourselfer, Kivlin through the years mastered the tricks of spacing, mowing and manicuring his tree fields.
“We observed there are tree planters and there are tree growers,” he said. “It turns out the latter is much more difficult and is a much longer project.”
He has occasionally hired part-time help to get him through the busy period of late November to Christmas Eve. But customers have primarily just dealt with Kivlin. He’s an old hand at passing out saws to folks on their way into the tree lot and then passing along candy canes to children in each group who promised they were “good helpers.”
Two of his former candy cane recipients showed up recently with their own daughters, confirming Red Sled is well into its second generation of service to some families.
“What’s most fun is when families show up with extended family,” said Kivlin, who feels privileged to have provided a picturesque backdrop for many harmonious holiday moments.
He’s also proud one of his trees made some state headlines. Gov. Howard Dean plucked a Red Sled tree for his Montpelier office back in 2001.
Kivlin will miss it, but the tree work has been taxing. He wants to save his energy and health for some of his other favorite pursuits — such as tennis, traveling and cross-country skiing.
He will continue to do some wholesaling of his remaining trees, but choose-and-cut will conclude in December. And he fears other tree farmers will soon follow, noting the advanced age of many in the Christmas tree industry. Addison County once had a Christmas Tree Association, which he headed at one time.
“Christmas tree meetings tend to have a gray-haired demographic, which is true of most agriculture,” Kivlin said.
Once the last trees are removed, Kivlin will return as much of the Red Sled property to farming as possible. It’ll take a few years for the tree roots to rot before the soil is tillable for conventional crops.
It’ll also take him a while to adjust to a life that isn’t tree-centered. He really enjoyed buzzing around his tree rows aboard his trusty Kubota garden tractor, dwarfed by the gargantuan machinery working the surrounding fields.
“I enjoyed being outdoors and watching the farming scene go on around me, thinking I was a small part of it,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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