Province Paper - June 2014Five Months of Repetitive Work in Harsh Terrain can pay up to $500 a Day

Tree planter Brian Beaudry can tell you a few things about grindingly hard work. He pokes thousands of seedlings into the ground each day, fighting heat, rain, injuries, bloodthirsty bugs, crushing monotony and irritated bears.

Beaudry, 29, likes his job enough to have done it for 11 years.

But he knows nobody will believe him if he says he loves it.

“It has physical hardships,” he admits during a day off from planting in the bush near 100 Mile House. “I’m usually wet, miserable and exhausted out here.”

Beaudry claims to like being dirty and to enjoy the hormones that accompany physical exhaustion.

But he could find easier ways to get grubby and exhausted in his hometown of Vancouver.

Money is what drags him back to the bush each year to endure one of B.C.’s toughest jobs.

And Beaudry is good at tree planting – probably one of the best.

Tree planters get paid for each seedling they stuff into the ground. Beaudry plants so many trees that he makes $45,000-$50,000 for a fivemonth planting season.

“I’m getting fairly close to two million trees,” he says of his 11-year seedling total. “The more trees you plant, the more you earn.”

For a few months each year, thousands of young British Columbians throw themselves into planting to make money to underwrite school, travel or costly hobbies.

Tree planting is a gruelling but highly coveted job where applicants outnumber openings. Demand for workers may have peaked as forest companies harvest fewer trees in the wake of mountain pine beetle devastation.

This month, as B.C.’s planting season reaches full throttle, about 3,500 people are slinging seedlings into soil up and down the province.

Industry bosses expect them to plant 240 million trees in the province by the time the season ends this fall.

The green army is punching about 80 baby trees a second into the ground, says John Betts, executive director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association.

“We’re the epicentre of tree planting in Canada from a productivity and cultural standpoint,” says Betts.

“We plant more trees in B.C. than any other province does, and we’re fussy about the quality of planting.

“We have the toughest ground to plant and this is where the best planters graduate to.”

Almost a third of B.C.’s tree planters are students, Betts says.

They’re eager to turn themselves into green jackhammers to earn the sector’s lucrative median wage of $300 a day. About 40 per cent of B.C. tree planters are women – and they’re among the industry’s top earners.

“I’ve seen women walk into camp in pretty shoes and mini-skirts and they turn into tigers out there,” says author and retired planter Charlotte Gill.

New planters usually won’t make much more than minimum wage – and it takes two to three years to become proficient. But after learning the ropes, top performers can make $500 a day – far more than they could earn at seasonal or part-time jobs in the city, Betts says.

Young people also see tree planting as a way to avoid being sucked into the ranks of the 11.4 per cent of B.C. youth without a job.

“You’re busting your ass but you can do very well,” Betts says. “For many years, young people have sought out tree planting as a refuge from a lousy youth job market.”

More than being a lumberjack, oil worker or miner, tree planting is the quintessential Canadian job, says Betts, 62. A former planter himself, Betts often bumps into white-collar professionals who put in time as planters in their youth.

Tree planting’s appeal to young people is undimmed even though the per-tree rate B.C. contractors pay planters has fallen by about 30 per cent since 2000.

That’s partly a result of fewer trees being planted in B.C. The industry reached a peak when it planted about 260 million trees in 1995.

Lower bids for planting jobs in the fiercely competitive contracting community in turn mean contractors may have less money to pay per tree.

But planters have managed to keep their overall wage stable as they compensate for lower piece rates by working harder and smarter, Betts says. Better than average pay is by no means tree planting’s only draw.

Planters who go on to become crew bosses or foremen gain logistical and organizing skills that make them attractive to employers in other fields, such as the movie business or international aid work, Betts says. “Anybody in project-driven work, where employees need to improvise and be flexible and adapt to circumstances, recruits from our sector,” Betts says. “A lot of parents tell me, ‘I can’t believe the change in my daughter since she’s come back from tree planting. She’s become truly selfmotivated.'” As a training ground for other industries, tree planting is succeeding almost too well.

One of the industry’s biggest challenges is keeping experienced employees, says John Lawrence, chief operating officer with the Brinkman Group of Companies, a major reforestation outfit.

Too many inexperienced people on a crew means an employer will need a larger crew with more supervisors to get a job done on time, Lawrence says.

Brinkman tackles this problem by creating opportunities for up-andcoming supervisors, he says.

“Within our B.C. crews, the average years of experience amongst workers is declining,” Lawrence says.

“This increases the importance of having experienced project managers, forepersons and crew bosses who can efficiently train new workers and organize operations to meet safety requirements and production timelines.”

Outsiders might expect droves of new planters to quit as they reel from the hardships of the job.

But that doesn’t happen. Betts says many would-be planters get referred by existing workers in an informal screening process.

Most of Brinkman’s B.C. crews have no dropouts at all.

The dropout rate in Ontario is slightly higher, but rarely surpasses five per cent, Lawrence says.

A planter’s working season typically lasts two to five months. Planters can receive employment insurance in their off-season, providing they meet eligibility requirements.

Current and former tree planters call the job physically and mentally punishing. Work days may swell to 10 hours when hour-long commutes from camp to planting sites are included.

Strains triggered by repeating the same motions thousands of times a day have given planters a stubbornly high rate of musculoskeletal injuries, Betts says. “This has happened in spite of excellent ergonomic research and education on exercise, training, hydration, nutrition, alteration to work shift patterns,” he says.

A bad day on planting grounds can be really bad, says Kate Menzies, a Vancouver woman who planted for four years and crew-bossed for one.

“You’re in a T-shirt and it starts to sleet and you stumble over a rock and fall – everything is going wrong and you’re in pain and nothing seems to be co-operating,” Menzies says.

“Those moments can really suck. It kind of takes you to your edge.”

Brad Neufeldt, a librarian at St. Mary’s University College in Calgary, planted trees for six seasons between the ages of 22 and 32. Neufeldt says planters see each other at their best and worst after living in close quarters for months on end. “I nearly beat up a junior foreman once,” Neufeldt recalls. “He was spitting on me and being abusive.

“I used to train planters and I told them that if anyone comes into the ground you’re given and plants trees you have a right to brain them with your shovel.

I was only half-joking,” he says. “If they plant bad trees on your ground, you’re responsible.”

Experienced planters say it’s impossible to predict which new planters will thrive, and which will flee in the midst of their first season. Physical size is no guarantee of success.

“I’ve seen very athletic young men quit quickly and I’ve seen very small women who are not terribly athletic excel because they have the mental capacity to deal with the job,” Beaudry says.

Tree planting will have a future in B.C. for as long as there are forest companies obliged by law to replant logged-over timber licences. But it may need a smaller workforce down the road as logging levels drop in the wake of the mountain pine beetle’s onslaught in the Interior.

If B.C.’s forest sector continues on its current path – and setting aside the possibility of huge forest fires – the number of seedlings to be replanted annually could drop to 200 million in five years, Betts says. The planting workforce would not take an equivalent hit in that scenario – but it would shrink. “The provincial forecast looking out 10 years is that the planting workforce may shrink 15 per cent along with the expected harvest reductions,” Betts says.

Other planters may envy Beaudry not only for his planting prowess but for his romantic fortune. He and his partner, a school teacher, met at a tree planting camp. They took different paths before meeting up again a few years later.

“As a former tree planter, she has more empathy for the lifestyle than someone else would,” Beaudry says. During the seven months he’s not planting, Beaudry’s pursuits range from doing renovation jobs to co-producing a weekly co-op radio show to mucking about in a community garden plot.

“It’s nice to be able to work with plants without the stress of piece work,” Beaudry explains.

However much money they make, however much they enjoy the outdoors, few tree planters would say they’ve died and gone to heaven. But Betts knows one man who told him planting convinced him there’s an afterlife. This planter’s crew had to rise at 3 a.m. and finish work by noon due to the heat.

“He told me that if I can get up at 3 a.m. and fight off heat and bugs and come back to a tent to sleep in the middle of the afternoon I can sure as hell survive something as easy as dropping dead.” ‘We lie to ourselves’: How to survive planting’s rigours

All tree planters are liars, Brad Neufeldt says.

They don’t lie to others, says Neufeldt, who planted for six seasons in B.C. and Ontario. They need only lie to themselves.

Softening the truth of the job’s rigours is the only way they can keep doing it year after year, he says.

“We lie to ourselves because we need to forget how bad that last season was when we’re getting ready to go out again,” says Neufeldt, 48, now a librarian in Calgary.

Planters also lie to themselves on the job to get through the rain, the heat and the bugs, he says.

“I would be planting in the morning and convince myself that I was 200 trees off my pace,” Neufeldt says. “You play a psychic game on yourself.”

Powell River resident Charlotte Gill planted trees for 17 years and wrote an award-winning book called Eating Dirt about the experience.

Gill says planters learn to put mind over matter to avoid being overwhelmed by the job’s hardships.

“A lot of people have told me after they retire that if you can plant trees, you can do anything,” says Gill, 43. “It’s one of the toughest things I’ve done.”

She says planters reap a daily harvest of physical insults issued by two irresistible forces: Gravity and the weather.

In coastal B.C., the ground is steep, slippery and covered in logging debris, she says.

“It’s common to fall multiple times a day,” Gill says. “You get snowed on. There’s always something uncomfortable out there.

“I think most people who make good money planting trees are in some kind of pain every single day, even if it’s just fatigue.”

Most planters eventually hurt knees, shoulders, wrists, ankles or backs after doing the same motions thousands of times a day, she says.

Some planters – Gill was one – enjoy working alone without being micro-managed. Others hate the isolation. The worst moments for Gill came in the morning in bed.

“I’d open my eyes and overnight I’d forgotten where I was,” she says. “Then I’d realize I had to put my wet boots on and do it again on a day when it was raining and hailing.

“I’d feel this mortal dread. That sentiment is not uncommon.”

Retired planter and crew boss Kate Menzies says a few months of planting provided a nice change from the intellectual toil of university the rest of the year.

“It’s a parallel universe,” Menzies says. “Someone cooks for you and your only job is to work hard and plant trees.”

Ace tree planter Brian Beaudry, who is currently planting for the Brinkman Group near 100 Mile House, cites northern Ontario’s “heinous” black flies as a particular challenge. But other parts of the job bring him great satisfaction.

“You’re rewarded for your work on a oneto-one ratio,” he says. “It’s somewhat difficult to find such a direct form of meritocracy.” As for the dirt that coats tree planters each day, Beaudry claims it’s a relief after spending seven months in the city, where cosmetic presentation is so valued. “Here, everyone is filthy and everyone is covered in mud,” he says.

“It’s the last thing on your mind. All you want to do is eat dinner.”

Planting Facts

60 per cent of B.C.’s tree plant-ers are under the age of 26.

40 per cent of the province’s tree planters are women.

A tree planter burns up to 5,000-6,000 calories during a 10-hour work day, estimates personal trainer and Province fitness columnist Rob Williams.

Eating Dirt author Charlotte Gill’s pay ranged between six cents and about a dollar for each seedling planted during her 17 years as a tree planter.

B.C. planted its seven billionth seedling last year.

The sector’s median pay rate is $300 a day.

Source: The Province, Page A08, 01-Jun-2014