What would a series of articles about summer jobs for students be without looking at one of the most stereotypical jobs of them all – tree planting. If you grew up in a rural area perhaps you’re already familiar with this summer phenomenon. You may have seen the groups of sun-burnt individuals, with clothing that was more dirt than material, and tightly wound muscle from days spent doing manual labour under rough conditions. I remember these groups of rugged young people always looking extremely happy whenever they rolled through our town, and yet I don’t remember ever wanting a part of the reality they were “enjoying” at the time.
Just to put my statements into a little context, I didn’t grow up in an overly coddled environment. My dad harvested trees for a living (yes, he was a lumberjack dressed in red plaid) so I knew my way around the forest and manual labour. I have camped under the stars in almost every conceivable type of climate that the North American interior can throw at you. I’ve been on several canoe trips, know how to make a fire with a flint, and would be fine to “live off the land” in most places for a couple of weeks or so.
All of that being said – I still don’t think I’m near tough enough to be a tree planter!
Every year from May to September dozens of Canadian and American companies hire post-secondary students to do the unenviable task of planting hundreds of millions of tree saplings into the ground across our continent. Most people don’t realize that when guys like my dad cut trees down, it isn’t like Fern Gully. Instead, my dad harvests mature forests (that would eventually die anyway) in a sustainable manner, and then pays fees to the government. These fees then go towards paying adventurous souls to plant the trees that forest harvesters will be cutting down in 30-40 years. As long as we keep producing starving undergraduates who are looking to push their limits, the system should remain stable and environmentally balanced.
Who Signs Your Cheque
The people who hire students to do tree planting belong in two main categories – private and provincial governments. If you want a job with either group it is important to start looking early. These guys want to hit the ground running ASAP when the school semester ends, so yanking your head out of the sand in late April isn’t going to cut it. Look around job boards in December and January to get an idea of some of the options out there. One website I found that looked like a particularly great source of information is http://www.tree-planter.com/. It has job boards, as well as several tips and interesting insights about tree planting (some of which I blatantly stole for this article).
So You Wanna Be a Fighter Tree Planter?!
First things first, everyone knows they’re tough enough to handle whatever a boss and nature can throw at them, but is it worth your time? In short – yes, but only if you can hack it. Tree planting is piecework. This means you get paid by the tree you plant. If you’re already thinking about how you could dig a hole and throw 100 trees saplings in it, consider how many students have done this job – do you really think you’re the first one to dream this up? The truth is that there are fairly high quality standards that companies are forced to meet, and you will be given detailed instructions on exactly how to plant a tree. How many trees do most people plant in a day you might ask? This hugely varies on the person doing the talking. Many rookies who are struggling to build callouses and develop their technique are lucky to get 500-1,000 trees in the ground on a given day. At the other end of the spectrum, every tree planting crew has a legend about a few Hall of Fame planters that could get upwards of 10,000-12,000 trees in the ground on perfect days. The most consistent numbers I’ve come across for most planters are about 2,500-3,000 trees per day in decent conditions. The amount per sapling can vary from $0.08 – $0.25. Most estimates will predict daily earnings of $200 – $300 per day – IF you can survive that is.
Your Daily Routine
As you may have gathered from my rambling introduction, putting tree saplings in the ground is not for the faint of heart. Putting 10 saplings in the ground isn’t that hard. Even most 5th graders could put 100 saplings in the ground properly. The grinding aspect of the job revolves around the repetitive nature of doing the same thing 3,000, working in conditions that can border on cruel and unusual and living in fairly isolated areas all summer. The average day for most tree planters involves getting up at 6 in the morning and having shovel in hand by 7 AM if not earlier. The idea is not only to maximize working time, but to take advantage of the relatively cool part of the day before suffering under the heat that is sure to come in the afternoon. After wearing your tree bag or tree satchel all day, and thousands and thousands of calories (most tree planters report losing all of their body fat during a season no matter what size they start out) you report back to your isolated camp for a few brief hours of sustenance and leisure before falling into an exhausted sleep before waking with the sun to do it all again the next day. This can go on for weeks without the extended breaks that most people call “weekends”. Camps are often a community of tents in isolated areas (some tree planters are brought in by helicopter), but some are fortunate enough to be located next to small towns like the own I grew up in. Hot showers are considered a luxury worth killing for.
Money, Money, Money – Got To Have It
If you can handle the bugs, the exposure to the elements, the back-breaking labour, and the strings of long-days away from home, you can claim your prize – double or triple the earnings most post-secondary students can expect to earn in a summer. The principles of supply and demand virtually guarantee that this high rate of pay will continue since I can’t imagine there ever being an over-supply of people that can do this job for four-month stretches.
Want to Meet Other Adventurous Souls?
One cool thing that I heard from several firsthand sources and read repeatedly on message boards is that tree planting is a great way to meet cool/unique people. I’m sure the intense labour process is a great way to filter out anyone that is not “real” or who is kind of a jerk. I don’t think it’s possible to be pretentious in most tree-planting camps for this very reason. I would be willing to bet that you could forge some pretty sweet bonds with some pretty cool amigos in those tough conditions. Certainly they wouldn’t be the bland “average” person you’d bump into on a daily basis.
Related: Are You Using Linkedin?
I could see myself trying my hand at tree planting for 6 weeks or so, but after that the gruelling lack of hot showers and a roof over my head would start to get to me. While I’d appreciate the weight loss benefits (some companies even market this as a key hiring point), people my size (6’2, 240) generally aren’t as durable as our smaller brethren, so this would probably hamper me at some point as well. If you think this sounds like a picnic, I challenge you to go for out for a single, solitary afternoon when the mercury has risen to unbearable levels, the black flies are unrelenting, and the soil is thick and clay-like. Now carry around a 50 pound sack in your back while stabbing a shovel into the ground 3,000 times. If you’re still smiling at the end of the day (with visions of fat sacks dancing in your head), you might make into the chosen group – the few, the proud, the tree planters.
We’d love to hear from some real veterans of tree-planting expeditions. Did you rake in a haul of $25,000-$30,000 in a summer? What were camp conditions like? At the end of the day who would you recommend the experience to if you would recommend it at all?
image courtesy of Tree-Planter.com