Let's Talk About Tree Planting!

Tree Planting:  It's tough job, but somebody has to do it!

Tree planting has often been described as a Canadian "rite of passage." Each spring, tens of thousands of Canadians, mostly in their early and mid twenties, head to the bush to spend two or three months planting over half a billion trees. This annual pilgrimage takes place in every Canadian province. The vast majority of these trees are planted in May, June, and July, to take advantage of the best climatic conditions for the young seedlings.

The work is not easy. Tree planters will strap a set of planting bags onto their waist, and will load these bags with up to twenty kilograms or more of young seedlings, carrying hundreds of trees at a time. They will walk up and down mountains, through cut blocks covered in slash and brush, covering as much as twenty kilometers each day.

Some planters work out of cheap motels, but many work out of temporary bush camps, which move every three to six weeks throughout the season as work gets done in one area and the crew moves on to a new worksite. It isn't abnormal for a crew to be working in half a dozen different camp locations in a season, sometimes in more than one province.

The hours are long. Breakfast is typically underway by 6am at the latest, and in some locations, much earlier. After a short breakfast, crews will head to the cut blocks in their vehicles (usually pickup trucks), or even in unconventional transportation such as helicopters, water taxis, and tracked vehicles. Sometimes, the planters work in areas where roads can't even be built. Also, there's no such thing as a traditional weekend. Planters usually work schedules of three or four days of work, then a single day off, repeating. You may end up working on a Sunday and having Tuesday for a day off, although many planters don't really seem to pay attention to what day of the week it happens to be.

Once planters arrive at the block, they'll strap on their bags and load up with trees. The next eight to eleven hours are spent in mind-numbing drudgery, planting a tree, moving a couple meters, then planting the next tree. Keep your head down, don't think about the good life you're missing in civilization, and never, ever stop moving. After all, you're getting paid by the tree. More on that in a minute.

Planters work in almost every type of weather. At the beginning of May, there's a good chance that there are still some snow patches on the blocks, and light flurries in the air are a common occurance. A late spring snowstorm won't slow the crews down unless the snow cover on the ground gets to be more than an inch or two. Within a month or two, the hot sun that the planters were hoping for during those early snowstorms will have arrived. Except that now it's getting too hot. By the time July rolls around, blistering days of thirty degrees Celsius or hotter may have to be endured. Heat stoke is always a danger, and you'll need to bring a lot of water to keep hydrated. Of course, on other days, you'll be cold, wet, and uncomfortable while you're working in torrential rains. But misery loves company, and you'll get used to it.

Most tree planting work is based on piece-rate compensation. The harder you work, and the more trees you plant, the more money you'll make. When you're first starting out though, you'll be pretty slow, and your first several weeks will result in meager paycheques, making you question your life choices. It's true that there are minimum wage laws all over Canada, but they don't seem to be enforced in most provinces when it comes to tree planting (however, this matter is being brought to the attention of numerous employment standards board, and the situation is slowly changing). If you're motivated and you really try to become the best planter you can be, you'll eventually start earning a reasonable and perhaps even an attractive wage. Like many other things in life, the more you put into planting, the more you'll get out of it.

Even though the work itself is incredibly difficult, it can be quite rewarding for a lot of personalities. By the end of a season of tree planting, you'll be in excellent physical condition. Probably not the same sort of condition as if you were running regularly and working out in a gym, but you'll have strong legs and you'll have lost a lot of your spare body fat. You may get a good tan, although the black flies and mosquitoes and other bugs can be pretty bad at times, so you might be wise to cover up and ignore that desire to get tanned. You'll have seen some interesting places in your travels, you'll have seen impressive scenery on some of your blocks, and you'll have met some of the most fascinating people you'll ever come across.

What does a typical Canadian tree planter look like? The industry is approximately 70% male and 30% female, although the numbers are becoming more balanced every year. Although some planters are in their mid to late teens, most people are at least eighteen before they get a job. The majority of new planters start their career before the age of twenty-four, although once you become a planter, some people continue planting into their thirties or even much longer. Most planting jobs in Canada are filled by Canadians. Although it is possible for non-Canadians to get a work visa and become a Canadian planter, non-Canadians are less desirable to employers. The reason for this is not due to any type of xenophobic discrimination. In fact, it would be quite the opposite, because if there is one thing that is common in the planting workforce, it's variety. However, because most tree planting is piece work, and people get faster and better each year, companies look for employees who have the potential to keep planting trees for several years. Most non-Canadians on work visas are limited to a maximum of two years of work within Canada, which makes someone on a work visa a less desirable hire when placed beside another candidate who, with all other things being equal, will be allowed to work in Canada indefinitely.

Tree planting is certainly not a job for everyone. Planting contractors with less stellar reputations will hire people fairly indiscriminately, to try to fill empty seats, and there will be a great deal of turnover from workers who decide that planting is not for them. Even at the best contractors, with candidates who take a lot of time to research tree planting before their first day of work, a fair number of new planters will quickly decide that there are better opportunities elsewhere. However, if you make it through your first season without losing your mind and quitting, you'll have developed a skill which means that you'll easily be able to find work at dozens of companies in future seasons. After your tough "rookie" year, you may find that the financial and lifestyle rewards of being a tree planter are fairly appealing.

It seems that people who are successful at tree planting tend to be successful at just about any career they put their mind to. That shouldn't be surprising, since tree planting is one of the most physically and mentally challenging jobs in Canada. Groups like Doctors Without Borders will actively seek out experienced tree planters, because they know that successful planters will be able to transfer that skill set to some incredibly difficult humanitarian and aid work in less developed countries.

Some people who are interested in Foresty, or specifically in the field of Silviculture, will start out in jobs other than planting. However, the majority of new Silviculture workers will try at least one season of planting. It's a great way to gain some initial forestry experience, and a great way to get your foot in the door for other future job opportunities. Although many planters go on to jobs in unrelated career paths, such as becoming doctors, lawyers, financial advisors, business owners, and thousands of other options, a significant number of planters enjoy pursuing varied careers in forestry for the rest of their lives.

If you'd like to learn more about tree planting, make sure that you do as much research as possible before you start applying for jobs. Books like "Eating Dirt" and websites such as Replant.ca (especially the "camp life" page and the photo galleries) are a good starting point to learn more about this challenging work opportunity.