By Maureen Latta
Sure, it takes a strong back to be a tree planter, but there’s more to the job than physical endurance. Those in the know say anyone interested in planting trees as a career also needs to be determined and have a strong work ethic.
That’s because tree planting is piecework. You are paid by the tree, so the more trees you plant in a day, the more money you earn. If you can’t learn the ropes and get up to speed quickly, you risk going home with little cash.
Chris Akehurst, one of the owners of A+G Reforestation, says he looks for highly motivated people with some idea of what they are getting into. And it helps to know a tree planter who can recommend you.
“Our most successful hires are referrals from people who are already doing the job,” says Akehurst, who planted his first tree in 1975. “It’s very good if you know someone.”
As any recruiter will tell you, it’s hard to judge how motivated someone is during a job interview. And although some aspects of tree planting—like working outdoors amid some of the province’s most spectacular scenery—sound appealing, it is challenging work, and not just physically.
“You have to have a basic physical ability, but I would say the challenges are more mental,” says Akehurst. “The work is hard, and if you don’t get into it, you can find it kind of pointless and silly. And if you’re not making any money and you’re planting in the rain and then, the next day, there are bugs, and you’ve got long hours and you’re tired and you’re on a piece of ground that’s not very good, there’s a lot frustration. But people who work through it, do well at it. You have to motivated, you have to be prepared to be uncomfortable physically, and you have to be prepared to do hard physical labour. The people who succeed are the people who mentally decide that’s what they’re going to do.”
Those in the industry say tree planters need to be adaptable. Conditions can range from steep mountain slopes to flat plateaus, and weather, particularly in the high country, can be unpredictable. Tree planters deal with rain, snow, hail, wind, and blistering sun.
You also need to get along well with other people. Tree planters come from all walks of life and may be living in isolated camps. So it’s good to be cooperative and have a positive outlook to minimize the tensions that can occur in small groups.
Still, if you can hack it, there is money to be made.
Akehurst says an experienced tree planter can make more than $300 a day. “There are people who average over $500—not many of them, but there are people like that,” he says.
But for beginners, the returns are considerably lower—perhaps $100 to $200 per day, once you start getting the hang of the job.
“We always say it takes a season to learn how to make money, so that’s probably eight weeks of work to learn how to be successful at it,” says Akehurst.
Tree planters should apply as early as December or January for the coming season, as there are many more applicants than jobs. At A+G Reforestation, one of BC’s oldest forest service companies, hundreds of novice planters who apply are turned away each season.
It’s a business reality that in an industry based on the number of trees planted, an experienced planter makes more money for the company than a rookie.
The demand for tree planters has been fairly constant, although hiring levels can fluctuate. “The last couple of years have been pretty steady and projections are, for the next couple, it will be pretty steady, but after that there may be a decline,” says Akehurst.
That’s because the logging industry has geared up to handle vast swathes of BC Interior timberland hit by the pine beetle in recent years. Once loggers have dealt with the beetle kill, the industry expects a slowdown. Fewer trees cut means fewer trees need to be planted.
If you’re considering a career in tree planting, it’s a good idea to talk to any planters you know and also do some research online.
One good resource is the Fit to Plant program at Selkirk College, which helps planters get in shape and prevent injuries,such as tendonitis in the wrist. The program, at selkirk.ca/treeplanting, says people who follow the eight-week, pre-season program plant about 12 per cent more trees and suffer 40 per cent fewer injuries and illnesses than those who don’t.
Another good resource is Tree-Planter.com. It has information about getting into the career, along with links to companies that hire tree planters.
The website even has its own hall of fame, where people nominate each other for awesome planting feats. Bravado is part of the culture, but the reality is that keeping track of numbers and feeling good about your physical prowess can make tough, dirty work go more easily.
Another way to learn more is to check out blogs written by tree planters. Jeremy Cohen, at jeremyfcohen.com/tree-planting/ has posted lots of photos, along with practical advice about gear.
Tree planters love their war stories, whether it’s fighting exhaustion, getting caught in storms, or encountering bears. But even sunny days with temperatures over 30 Celsius have their perils, according to Cohen, a seven-year veteran. “It makes you contemplate spitting against whatever little wind there is in the hopes that it will come back and hit you in your face,” he writes. “The snow-capped mountains in the distance become objects of hatred and jealousy. We do not like the heat.”
For a more literary take on the subject, read Eating Dirt, a tree-planting memoir by local Sunshine Coast author Charlotte Gill. The book was the 2012 winner of the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and was nominated for the Hilary Weston Writers’Trust Prize, the Charles Taylor Prize, and two BC Book Prizes.