To most, pinecones simply litter the forest floor, feeding wildlife and propagating new trees as the years turn to decades.
For Monty Marengo of Polson, however, pinecones are a valuable commodity, a source of income created annually by Mother Nature and conveniently dropped on the ground, just waiting to be picked up and sold for several pennies each. Over the last 30 years, he has built a business that allows him to make a comfortable living as a part-time cone broker.
“A lot of people think this is a joke. Who buys cones?” Marengo asks. “Well, start with Martha Stewart.”
Martha Stewart Inc. has purchased thousands of pinecones from Marengo, a fact he recounts to people to bolster the legitimacy of his trade. He even keeps the invoices attached to the back of a framed picture of her hanging in his living room.
The pinecone business has brought Marengo across the country, from Pensacola, Florida, up the eastern seaboard and to Oregon on the West Coast. He doesn’t pick much himself these days, but instead coordinates contract pickers to fill the orders.
In some cases he ships them through his home on Rocky Point Road in Polson, so he can inspect them, but often he has them sent directly from the source to the buyer. He works primarily with potpourri companies, but also with wreath, candle and floral companies across the United States.
“Even though they are byproducts sitting in the woods, there are lots of uses for them,” Marengo said. “This is a multimillion dollar business.”
Marengo collects a variety of pinecone species from Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas and Florida to go along with international species from Canada and India.
“I’ve sold probably 50 different species,” Marengo said.
Similar to other agricultural industries, some years bring a bumper crop that help him endure dry spells. Cones will keep for several years after collection if he stores them in a cool, dry space like his garage. He can buy extra when the product and pickers are available and sell his excess stashes over the next couple of years.
He said the type of permit needed to collect pinecones on a commercial level varies by state, but requirements generally aren’t particularly stringent and some states require no license at all.
MARENGO BUYS and sells cones in quantities as large as millions of cones totaling hundreds of thousands of pounds, but will also buy them in quantities as small as a bag picked by a neighbor boy near his home in Polson.
“I always tell people, clean, dry and open,” Marengo said.
On average, cones fetch between four and six cents each, he said, though certain varieties are more valuable than others. Austrica pinecones, which come from a tree native to Austria, northern Italy and the former Yugoslavia, have recently been fetching nearly a quarter per cone from floral companies that include them as decorative additions to fancier bouquets.
“If I was 20 years younger I would buy 10 acres and grow Austrica pine,” Marengo said.
He can also up the price by adding an additional decorative element to the cones before he sells them. A common touch is to paint the tips white, which he said can double the going price to nine to 10 cents per cone.
He has a crew of four people in Polson that he calls on when he wants to spend a day painting cones, a process Marengo said he has honed to the point of near perfect efficiency.
“They can paint 3,000 cones in an hour. I’ve got it down to a science,” Marengo said. “My biggest year was a quarter million in sales,” Marengo said.
IT’S TAKEN time for Marengo to build his business. He got into pinecone brokering when he was working at the local nursery owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, of which Marengo is a member.
They were harvesting seeds from the cones and then driving the cones to the landfill. Marengo realized there was a market for what they were throwing away; when his manager said he didn’t want to deal with it, Marengo decided to bring the cones to the market on his own time.
After about 20 years his business has developed to the point where he is trying to limit its growth rather than snapping up every contract available. He still works for the nursery for part of the year and spends the rest of the year traveling, sometimes for business but mostly for pleasure, and fielding calls and emails necessary to fill orders. Now, Marengo enjoys net profits of about 30 percent and turns down calls regularly because he values the time to enjoy the life he’s worked for.
“The last 10 years, life has been so beautiful that I don’t want to work full time,” Marengo said. “Too much is too bad in my opinion. You can work yourself to death.”
The day before he spoke with the Daily Inter Lake, Marengo said he received an order for 1.5 million pinecones from a company in North Carolina. He was busy figuring out where the cones would come from and how many pickers he would enlist to help.
He knows how many of each variety of cones fit in a standard bag his pickers use, how many bags fit on their pickup truck and trailer, and how many of those loads fit on a semi-truck. He uses that knowledge to form his decisions and rally the ingredients necessary to get millions of cones from a forest floor in Oregon to a factory in North Carolina.
Marengo’s garage is full of cones, but also of things that he was able to buy because of them. A sport enthusiast, he keeps signed memorabilia hanging from racks and shelves, and has a sort of museum in the attic above a sports car parked in the garage bay.
“It’s amazing, the beauty of creation,” Marengo said. “Look at all you can get from a tree.”
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or email@example.com.