Monthly Archives: July 2013

Always Be Planting: The People You Meet

When people find out you are a tree planter, they often seem to mentally classify you as some sort of new age environmentalist hippy. A common first reaction is along the lines of “Oh, it’s great that you do that for the planet.” But people who know the industry understand that it is only an eco-friendly job in the most indirect of ways, and that the people who do this job are more likely to be well educated and athletic than dreadlocked dumpster divers. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with living off the grid, but rather that tree planters are a diverse tribe of people and can’t be generalized as easily as others may think.

Ranging in age from as young as 17 to well into their 30’s, tree planters find their way to this iconic Canadian summer job in different ways and with different motivations. Ironically, those who take the job with the intention of trying to help the environment are usually some of the least productive and often the first to quit. Likewise, people who come tree planting in pursuit of some sort of life changing “experience” are usually among the least successful. The very best planters are more akin to competitive athletes and are motivated by money – whether for school, for travel, or for debts.

Tree planting is unique in the sense that it has a white collar work force – mostly middle class and university educated – performing the most blue collar of jobs. Not many other labour intensive industries in the developed world require workers to sleep on the ground, carry out a multitude of unpaid tasks each day, and demands that they provide all their own equipment. Most tree planters would also, strangely, refuse most other resource related jobs (such as oil field work or mining, for example), even if they were higher paying. There is something special about the combination of hard work, good money, and remote living that brings these groups of people together each summer. Regardless of their motivations, tree planters are more than a stereotype.

A planter on day off wearing a newly purchased thrift store dress. She studies outdoor recreation.

A planter on day off wearing a newly purchased thrift store dress. She studies outdoor recreation in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

A planter's face and eyes are swollen from insect bites. Before coming tree planting, this 28-year-old worked as a social media marketer.

A planter’s face and eyes are swollen from insect bites. Before coming tree planting, this 28-year-old worked as a social media marketer.

A foreman enters his crews numbers into a notebook so the camp supervisor knows how much each planter should be paid. He is a university graduate who returns to Toronto to live an urban lifestyle during the winter months.

A foreman enters his crews numbers into a notebook so the camp supervisor knows how much each planter should be paid. He is a university graduate who returns to Toronto to live an urban lifestyle during the winter months.

A planter smokes a cigarette in camp. In the off season, he studies neuroscience.

A planter smokes a cigarette in camp. In the off season, he studies neuroscience and has  around 8 more years of school before reaching his goal of  becoming a doctor.

A planter sits at the end of a work day, waiting for dinner. Between this season and the last he drove through the Southern U.S. and Mexico, living out of a car with his girlfriend.

A planter sits at the end of a work day, waiting for dinner. Between this season and the last he drove through the southern United States and Mexico, living out of a car with his girlfriend.

A planter sits in a "crummy", a large personnel box mounted to the back of a pickup truck. She is a graduate of environmental science and travels when not planting.

A planter sits in a “crummy”, a large personnel box mounted to the back of a pickup truck. She holds a degree in environmental science and travels when not planting.

A planter sits on the steps of a rural Alberta church, taking a break from a long drive. He is midways through a commerce degree and will leave for a semester abroad in Sweden when the season is finished.

A planter sits on the steps of a rural Alberta church, taking a break from a long drive. He is midways through a commerce degree and will leave for a semester abroad in Sweden when the season is finished.

For the complete collection of posts about tree planting, click here.

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Always Be Planting: The Mid-Season Grind

A single production day of tree planting is a tiring experience, with some university studies estimating that a male planter can burn up to 8000 calories during a 10 hour day. While most people could struggle their way through one day on a cut block, a “professional” tree planter works five to six days a week for the entire summer. As the days and shifts pass, the rugged living and intense physical exertion can wear down even the most motivated people. A good tree planter needs to be able to keep up a rigorous pace of work for not just a day, or a week, but for several months.

Over time injuries and equipment failures increase in frequency. Personality clashes in the camp can escalate. First year planters can get frustrated and quit. Once the excitement of starting a new season wears off, tree planting can become a battle of attrition.

Planters and management unload trees from a refrigerated transport truck, known as a "reefer". Since planters are in peak production shape, trees must be brought in continuously to keep up.

Planters and management unload trees from a refrigerated transport truck, known as a “reefer”. Since planters are in peak production shape, trees must be brought in continuously to keep up.

A planter works along a ridgeline on a rain day.

A planter works along a ridgeline on a rain day. The summer of 2013 has been one of the wettest in Alberta’s recent history, forcing evacuations in the province’s biggest city, Calgary.

A planter uses duct tape to protect his fingers.

A planter uses duct tape to protect his fingers.

A planter works an especially good piece of land and will go on to make over $700 in one day. As the season progresses and planters will push themselves to make as much money as possible before the contract finishes.

A planter works an especially good piece of land and will go on to make over $700 in one day. As the season progresses planters will push themselves to make as much money as possible before the contract finishes.

A planter falls asleep with a cigarette in his mouth, exhausted from a late night.

A planter falls asleep with a cigarette in his mouth, exhausted from a late night.

Planters push their crew van out of soft sand.

Planters push their crew van out of soft sand.

The camp's tree runner replaces a flat tire. Equipment is used relentlessly and as the season progresses things break frequestly. The tree runners act as the camp's technicians, and are the ones who typically fix things.

The camp’s tree runner replaces a flat tire. Equipment is used relentlessly and as the season progresses things break frequestly. The tree runners act as the camp’s technicians, and are the ones who typically fix things.

A foreman takes a break in from loading boxes into a trailer for disposal. Each folded box held 270 trees and these empty boxes represent the trees the camp has planted on this contract.

A foreman takes a break from loading boxes into a trailer for disposal. Each folded box held 270 trees and these empty boxes represent the trees the camp has planted on this contract.

A planter falls asleep in his car at the end of a work day. As the season draws on, the fatigue builds.

A planter falls asleep in his car at the end of a work day. As the season draws on, the fatigue builds.

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Always Be Planting: Hurry Up and Wait

One of the most attractive aspects of a tree planter’s job is the fact that, other than physically planting the trees, they have virtually no responsibilities. Logistical problems fall under the purview of the supervisor and tree runners, daily transportation and block management are handled by the crew bosses, and camp cooks make sure there is always food ready. At the end of a work day a planter needs to make no decisions more complicated than whether or not to eat a second helping of dinner.

With little responsibility, however, comes a loss of control over their lives. Everything from the prices they will be paid per tree to the items in the breakfast buffet is determined by someone else. Planters often have little to no information about big picture issues, such as when a contract will end or when they will have a day off. So when there are no trees to plant and no one is telling them what is happening, planters have no choice but to wait. Sometimes they wait angrily, sometimes happily, or sometimes introspectively, but in the end they are simply sitting idle until someone tells them otherwise. A good management team can minimize this unprofitable down time, but ultimately patience must be among the virtues of a  good tree planter. When confronted with delays, the best planters will simply wait harder.

Planters try to get some extra minutes of sleep on the ride to work. Tree planters wake up at 6am most days, and sleep is precious.

Planters try to get some extra minutes of sleep on the ride to work. Tree planters wake up at 6am most days, and sleep is precious.

A planter puts her feet up at the end of a work day.

A planter puts her feet up at the end of a work day.

A planter waits with Jasper, a camp dog.

A planter waits with Jasper, a camp dog.

A planter waits for his crew's vehicle to leave for the blocks in the morning.

A planter waits for his crew’s vehicle to leave for the blocks in the morning.

Planters nap on each other on a delayed morning start.

Planters nap on each other on a delayed morning start.

Planters wait outside a Walmart. Much of a tree planter's day off is dedicated to running minor errands, such as laundry and picking up essential items like bug spray and cigarettes.

Planters wait outside a Walmart. Much of a tree planter’s day off is dedicated to running minor errands, such as laundry and picking up essential items like bug spray and cigarettes.

Planters tage refuge from the rain inside their crew's vehicle.

Planters take refuge from the rain inside their crew vehicle.

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