Friday, January 26, 2024

Finding an In-Home Wifi Smart Water Monitoring Device

This week, I got a surprise with my quarterly water bill.  The bill was over $2,200.00!!  Apparently, there was a leak somewhere.

First things first ... find the problem.  However, there was no obvious leak.  Good, I don't have to worry about another high bill in a few months.  I've spoken with the municipality several times over the past few days, and they've been very helpful.  My guess is that the leak originated with a toilet that I replaced three weeks ago.  The toilet was an older model, so I replaced it with a modern low-flow toilet.  We'll probably never know if that old toilet was the cause of the problem, but the town has verified that only a few cubic metres of water have been used in the past twenty days, so at least I don't need to worry that this is an ongoing problem.

  



Looking forward, I want to prevent this kind of situation from happening again.  For one thing, I don't want to waste natural resources.  On top of that, when it comes to insurance incidents, it appears that water damage is six times more likely than fires, and eight times more likely than theft!  Once website suggested that a staggering 98% of homes on a 25-year mortgage will suffer water damage at some point.  And the average claim for an internal flood or water damage event is now up over $10,000.  Many incidents are well above $25,000+ for repairs.

Needless to say, it is VERY much worth my while to do everything possible to monitor for leaks, regardless of whether the main concern is excessive consumption or preventing water damage.

I decided to do some quick interest research.  I already have the water meter that was installed by the municipality, but my was goal was to find an additional water meter or some sort of monitoring device that would let me monitor consumption remotely in real time, ie. online or through an app, without having to wait for a report from the town.

 

Here were my requirements:

1.  Price was essentially irrelevant.  Ideally, I hoped to keep the budget under $1,000 total, but in the end, the costs of a flood are so significant that investing in a professional solution should be well worth it.  My mantra is that if you don't pay up front, you'll pay in the end.  But you'll always pay.

2.  The device needs to be able to communicate digitally through a browser or through an app.

3.  Push notifications for special events (high water flow) would be fairly important.  Emails and texts would be even better.

4.  I didn't want to exclude devices which would need to be installed professionally by a plumber.  This will be an investment for the long-term.  There's no point saving a nickel to spend a dollar.

5.  I would prefer an in-line device rather than a line piggyback device, if possible.

6.  The ability to shut off water remotely would be a good benefit.

7.  I wanted a solution that didn't have a subscription model.  I really dislike manufacturers that expect you to subscribe to their apps with a monthly or annual fee.  I understand that there are costs for maintaining apps and the back-end server infrastructure, but I think that manufacturers should build that into the cost of the sale, and try to guarantee 10 years of access.


I thought that I'd be able to find an appropriate device pretty quickly, with a basic Amazon search.  I was very wrong.  This is not a mature field.  After spending six hours digging through hundreds of web pages, this is what I've learned:

- After looking at more than a dozen options from various manufacturers, I realized that many do not come close to fitting my needs.  Only five options came reasonably close.

- Many companies offer moisture sensors.  Do not confuse moisture sensors with water monitors.

 

Moisture sensors are fairly common.  I already have some of these sensors - these are basically small devices that you place in low areas that are likely to collect water if there's a leak.  When they get wet, they sent a push notification through text or email to let the homeowner know there's water somewhere.  Ideally, you'd place these in each corner of the basement, and if a pipe breaks somewhere in the house, the water eventually gets to the basement and trips a sensor, which alerts you that there's a problem.  There are a few problems with sensors.  The main problem is that by the time a sensor is tripped, you may already have $20,000+ in damages if a pipe broke inside a wall upstairs.  Batteries can die.  Wired-in sensors need to be within reach of a receptacle, and don't work when the power is out.  Also, many homeowners put these things under a sink, looking for a leak.  Well that's fine, but it's a burst pipe that will cause the most damage.  If you're worried about your sink's P-trap leaking, just look under the sink once in a while, because that kind of leak is not going to release 20,000 gallons into the home.


Here's what I've learned in my research so far, in case anyone else follows this same path.  First, I'll share seven options that didn't appear to be suitable:

Aqua Data - No useful homeowner solutions.  They have monitors from Neptune, Siemens, and vonRoll Hydro, but they basically just offer industrial equipment that is more appropriate for utilities.

Rachio - Discontinued in-home products, now specializes in sprinklers and irrigation.

Orbit B-Hyve - Only does irrigation and moisture sensors.

Belkin Wemo - Looked promising in 2015 with their Echo technology, but now discontinued.

Eve Water Guard - Moisture sensors only.

Home Wizard - Appears to mount on top of certain types of analog water meters (a screw-on or strap-on device).  It then does a visual reading that is somehow converted to digital (AI?) and then feeds to an app.  Perhaps an option for some homeowners, but that would depend on what type of meter got put in by your utility.

David DROP - This is a hub system with lots of individual devices, mostly moisture sensors.  The company focuses mainly on water treatment systems, and their monitoring hubs look good for that sort of application, but not appropriate for a whole-home application without water treatment.

 

I eliminated all of the above options pretty quickly.  Now let's move on to the most promising five possibilities:

Water Hero - This was the most expensive option that I found, and would cost around $1500 just for equipment.  Ok, that's pricey, but I wasn't going to eliminate this option yet.  However, I tried to find more photos, write-ups, or reviews, and there was nothing.  Thankfully, YouTube had a bit of info, including one short 2-minute from the company.  But I was worried by the lack of reviews.  Also, this product requires a subscription, which really annoyed me.

Phyn Plus - Don't confuse this with the original Phyn, when you're looking for info on the internet.  The Plus model is newer and better, but there's less info online.  This was the option that I initially thought looked most promising.  However, it had a lot of negative reviews re. manufacturing quality and poor tech support.  Also, this system takes several weeks to "learn" your home's water usage, which may not be good for people with erratic consumption patterns.  You don't want the system to shut off your water when you're taking an abnormally long shower.  Also, this unit only connects to 2.4 gHz wireless networks.

Flume -  Good reviews, and a low price.  Also, you don't need to hire a plumber to install it, since it's a strap-on rather than an in-line unit.  However, since it's not in-line, there's no shutoff control, and the sensor half of the system uses a proprietary battery pack.  Many people reportedly that the batteries last less than half a year, especially in cold locations.  Finally, this model now has an annual subscription plan.

Moen Flo - This is an in-line device with some decent reviews, but a concerning number of reviewers who said that the internal valve died within 2 years and they needed to replace the entire unit.  Like the Phyn Plus, the unit needs several weeks to learn consumption, and might not be a good choice for a residence with erratic consumption.  On a positive note, the Flo does not require a subscription anymore, although it did a few years ago.

StreamLabs - They have three devices, the Scout, the Monitor, and the Control.  The Scout is just a standalone water detector, so not what I was looking for.  The Monitor is the mid-range model, a full water leak detector, which uses ultrasound and is not inline.  Still not quite what I wanted.  The Control model is the most comprehensive device.  It's not cheap (around a thousand dollars) but it seems to be well-built.  My only concern here is that they seem to prefer that the owner have a subscription.  Argh.  You can apparently use the device without a subscription, but in that situation you only get push notifications instead of push/email/text, and your data access is limited to the current period instead of the two years of historical data that are visible with a subscription.  On a positive note, if you have up to five homes (which seems ridiculous) you only need one subscription to monitor all five locations.

 

Right now, I'm leaning toward the StreamLabs Control device, but I haven't made up my mind yet.  At some point, once I've picked a device, I'll update this post.  And then later, once I've installed it and used it for a bit, I'll do another update.

 

Edit 1, January 29th:  I decided to try the StreamLabs Control, but they're out of stock at all the regular retailers like Home Depot, Lowes, etc.  I just ordered one direct from the company in California, so we'll see how long it takes to get here.  UPS is saying that it will arrive in three days.

Edit 2, February 5th:  It took 7 days to arrive.  Now I just have to find time to schedule in a plumber.

 

In the meantime, here's one good video that I discovered in my search:




Sunday, January 07, 2024

State of the Industry, Winter 2024

Where do I begin?  The last twelve months have been tumultuous.  We’ve had record-breaking wildfire seasons in BC and Alberta, inflationary pressures, and a provincial government in BC that is eliminating the use of bundle wrappers on more than fifty million trees.  All of these changes were obvious in retrospect, yet they have surprised us nonetheless.

 

Wildfires

The 2023 wildfire season radically changed the landscape in both BC and Alberta.  We were shocked in 2017 and 2018 by record-breaking wildfires that burned slightly over a million hectares each year.  In the years since, the industry has been busy trying to help repair the damage.  However, in 2023, nearly FIVE million hectares burned in BC and Alberta combined.  That amount of ground, if replanted at 2000 stems/Ha, would represent more trees than BC has planted in known history.  It seems unlikely that tree planters will be able to replant even a tenth of the ground that burned last year (assuming that funding became available for that type of effort).

One thing that I noticed while looking at burned ground in many parts of both provinces during the Fall viewing season was that a lot of the Alberta fires, and fires in northeastern BC, appear to have burned cold (or burned quickly).  Unlike the characteristic hot burns that we saw in the Elephant Hills fire from 2017, or a myriad of other hot fires throughout southern BC, the Alberta and northeast BC fires often didn’t completely destroy the ecosystem.  The grass was often burned away, but I also saw many wildfire sites in plantations and forests where a lot of grass or light vegetation survived.  My casual observations were not sufficiently detailed or diverse to validate any sort of reliable dataset.  However, my gut feeling is that a lot of the burns in Alberta and northern BC may be more challenging to work through than the scorched earth of southern BC.  We’ll know in a few months.

 

Eliminating Single Use Plastics

Plastic flagging tape has been banned in some regions for a few years now, especially in areas where cattle grazing leases exist.  Thankfully, these eventual bans were phased in over a period of a few years.  Initially, we were expected to use shorter piece of flagger.  After a couple years, the Cariboo-Chilcotin district banned polyethylene flagger for all BCTS contracts.  The ban on plastic flagger continues to broaden.  Unfortunately, the industry still doesn’t have a viable alternative to plastic.  Biodegradable flagger is still far too expensive, and in some cases, even biodegradable flagger is banned.

Tree chalk has been a good alternative to plastic flagger in certain circumstances.  However, at least one provincial district is concerned about the damage that this product does to the seedlings, and has banned the use of chalk.  That prohibition may also spread in the future.

Moving beyond flagging tape, the next two targets for elimination will be bundle wrappers and tree box liners.  The BC government, after several years of inaction by the industry, has taken an unexpected lead on forcing change upon the industry.  Allegedly, all of the trees being planted on all 2024 BCTS and MOF jobs throughout the province will come in boxes with no bundle wrappers.  Chaos!  Well, I admit that this decision will be good for the environment.  But at what financial cost?  Loose trees will be problematic in terms of box splits and partials, and inventory management will become more challenging both for planters and management.  During the Fall viewing season, all cries of despair by contractors were met with impassioned disdain by the government.  No pricing flexibility was given for existing long-term contracts, so a lot of option-to-renew contracts were suddenly dropped rather than renewed.

Let’s temporarily ignore the hit to production and subsequent increase in planting costs relating to unbundled trees.  That’s a problem for company owners and not for myself, so let’s think about other impacts.  The success of any plantation depends partly upon stockhandling.  I still scratch my head wondering how anyone could have ever thought that this sudden tectonic shift in packaging and processing could be good for the trees.  Granted, we plant tens of millions of unbundled seedlings on the east coast each year, and most of them seem to survive.  But there’s one key difference that I don’t think anyone in government considered … east coast seedlings [in full-size trays] are grown as "pods," not as plug stock.  Pods are enclosed in a tight mesh membrane to keep the rooting medium and seedling roots protected.  Plugs in western Canada have no such protection.  Last year, many BCTS and MOF contracts included requirements such as “don’t unwrap more than a bundle at a time, because it’s bad for the trees.”  This year, in a complete reversal of the previous mentality, we’ll be given giant bags of loose seedlings.  I assume that we’ll see a huge increase in culled trees, and a parallel increase in plantation mortality.  It makes a planter wonder.  But I guess the government can pay us to plant all the blocks again in three years, when they get identified as insufficiently stocked and need to be fill planted.  Please forgive my cynicism.

To top things off, I saw a photo this Fall showing an unbundled box being packaged.  There were no bundle wrappers, because single-use plastics are bad.  Yet the nursery was still using a plastic bag as a box liner, instead of a paper liner.  Does this mean that single-use plastics aren’t always bad?  Was this hypocrisy, or a missed opportunity?

On a positive note, we'll no longer be chastised for unwrapping too many bundles (at least not on those specific contracts).  And that IS a good thing.  Restrictions on unbundled plugs are an anachronism of the past, based upon the mentality of the time when we planted exclusively bareroot seedlings and any exposure to "the air" could legitimately dry out the fine root hairs on the stock.  If a forester wants to promote good stock-handling, they should focus on the moisture content of the plugs, not upon whether or not the seedling bundles are unwrapped.

 

Finding a Labour Force

I heard a lot of reports in 2023 from companies who found it very difficult to recruit as many workers as they had hoped.  In some cases, this led to contracts being pushed out well beyond their intended completion dates.  In a few cases, companies had to walk away from contracts entirely.  Not a good situation.

Is there a solution?  Yes, better pay and better working conditions will help.  Listening to one’s employees will help.  But a shortage of workers is not a problem that will suddenly go away.  Hiring is a challenge nation-wide, and when clients make the job more challenging (such as with the elimination of bundle wrappers), it may come back to haunt them in the end.  What will happen if a significant number of planters get fed up in 2024 and start spreading the word that the planting industry should be avoided?  That would be a disaster in 2025, just when the industry really needs to ramp up in order to start replanting the 2023 wildfires.  If we’re going to have a sufficient labour force in 2025, then 2024 needs to be stellar.

 

Pricing

What can planters expect from 2024?  I don’t have a crystal ball, and I’m reluctant to speculate at this point.  However, I do know that bid prices in BC (to planting companies) actually dropped slightly from 2021 to 2023.  This was followed by a large increase for 2024 government projects (in BC).  Keep in mind that public (government) work in BC only represents roughly 20% of all planting within the province.  Private work accounts for the other 80%, and the big increases that we’ve seen in the public sector are not always matched equally by price increases in the private sector.  Things are moving in the right direction though.  Many private contracts are also going up in price.  This is good for planting companies, at least on the surface.  There is no way to calculate the exact increase on an industry-wide basis of both public and private work, but my guess is that contractors’ prices are up approximately 10-12% overall from 2023 to 2024.

A 10-12% increase sounds great for planting companies.  But is it?  Let's look at more than just the past twelve months.  We saw that bid prices decreased slightly from 2021 to 2023.  Therefore, if we zoom out and looking at the full period from 2021 to 2024, bid prices to planting companies have only increased by maybe 8-10% over a three-year span.  In light of significant increases in almost every category of operational expense over the past three years, this is not enough.  Planting contractors, on average, are in a more challenging financial environment than they were three years ago, despite the recent price increases.

Let’s focus on planter pricing instead of company pricing for a moment.  Planters generally seemed to see better prices in 2023 than in 2022 (which only seems fair in light of the inflation that we all experienced) but those increases basically came out of owner’s pockets, not from clients.  Will there be further planter price increases in 2024?  Probably yes.

It seems like it’s a tough time to be a planting company owner.  They’ve been hit with numerous cost increases in the past few years, bid prices were stagnant until this past Fall, it’s getting increasingly difficult to recruit a labour force, and clients have been trying to cut away at the bottom line.

I think we’re in a bit of a do-or-die situation for contractors in 2024.  Prices need to go up.  In many cases, bid prices have gone up recently, but that won’t necessarily translate into an equivalent increase in planter prices, as most companies are trying to dig themselves out of a hole from the past few years.  Regardless, I believe that planter prices need to increase in 2024 to account for inflation and, in some cases, to reflect the challenges that we’re going to face with unbundled trees.  Even if planter prices increase by another 5% this year (on top of the planter price increases that we’ve seen over the past couple years), it may be tough for some companies to find enough planters to complete the 2024 season.

If any foresters are reading this and don’t think that planting companies are struggling, let me remind you that some contracts did not get completed in 2023.  Nobody likes to talk about this, as nobody like to hear about a contract failure, but hundreds of thousands of trees were mulched or taken to landfills.  I’m aware of at least one company that has simply decided that 2023 was their last year for planting.  I’m also aware of two other major companies that are scaling back significantly.  Are these companies the so-called canaries in the coal mine?

 

Bears, and Safety in General

Our industry is small enough that when there’s a major safety incident, everyone sits up and takes notice.  Unfortunately, one company had such an incident in early July, when a planter was attacked by a bear while planting near Tumbler Ridge.  Thankfully, she survived.

The previous year, the helicopter company that I was using had one of their staff attacked by a bear at a staging site close to where I was working.  That person was doing logistical support work for another planting company at the time.  Sadly, she didn’t survive.

We didn’t sign up for planting with the expectation of getting hurt or becoming a fatality.  We like to spend our summers thinking about what we’re going to do with our money in the Fall and winter.  We deserve to enjoy our earnings after the season is safely over.

There are a lot of safety topics that some planters see as a remote threat – like having a tree fall on you, getting hit by lightning, or being attacked by a bear.  Sure, it’s possible, but it’s not likely to happen to you, right?  Yet I’ve personally known planters who have been victims in all three of those types of situations.  Remember, if anything can go wrong while planting trees, it eventually will.  Don’t put aside common sense thinking that something is unlikely to happen to you.  It seems that the planters in all of these situations did absolutely nothing “wrong” to bring about the incidents that they were involved in, but playing by the rules doesn’t mean that external events can’t work against you.

I’ve sometimes said, “Maybe you should slow down a bit,” to a driver on a gravel road.  And sometimes they respond, “But I’m not even going the speed limit, and I’m in control.”  Sure you are, until nature throws a curve ball at you and a deer jumps out in front of the truck, or until you hit some washboard and the truck goes sideways.  Expect the unexpected, no matter what you’re doing.  The hardest part of my job as a supervisor is thinking about all the things that can wrong every day, and how easy it is for someone to get hurt.

It may be beneficial for more crews to have bear spray available at the truck in protected Pelican cases, or in a Kozy Tote.  A lot of planters don't have an interest in back-bagging a canister of bear spray, and there are real risks based on accidental discharge, but a protected canister that is stored at the truck with the first aid gear may come in handy.  Expect WorkSafeBC to be asking more companies what their bear deterrent plans are in 2024.

Let’s move on to some more cheerful topics.

 

Starlink Internet and … Cell Phones?

I’m certainly not a Musk fanboy, but I’m impressed with Starlink.  I’ve used their systems for a couple years now, and while they’re still not ideal in a camp situation with several dozen simultaneous users, they’re a huge step up from previous options such as Xplornet.

Within two years, we may see something even more useful.  Starlink is working on satellite-to-cell technology which would allow cell users in any part of the globe to remain connected for SMS, voice, and data, even when traditional cell service is not available.  The drawback is that Rogers is the first company they’ve partnered with in Canada.  I say that’s a drawback because Rogers currently seems to be one of the least reliable networks in rural British Columbia.  Or maybe that means that Rogers will be a great fit.  Either way, the good thing is that once the system is operational, we allegedly won’t need to trade in our phones for a special Starlink phone.  The system is supposed to work with all existing 4G and 5G phones.

Let’s hope that this technology doesn’t fail like a few of Musk’s other projects.  I’ve been following this story for about half a year, and the first six of Starlink’s direct-to-cell satellites were launched just 48 hours ago, which will allow initial testing of wide-scale operational viability.  Widespread satellite connectivity for cells phones would be a huge positive development for the planting industry, if they pull it off.

 

“The Cache”

There’s a new website available for the planting industry:   www.cachelife.ca

It’s still in the development phase, but the goal is to make it a very rich resource for planters and other industry stakeholders.  If you want to check it out, I’d recommend starting with the “Culture” or “In The Field” sections under the Explore tab.

 

Kerri Dunsmore

Kerri is an Athletic Therapist.  She was a planter for several years, and she’s long been a frequent and welcome presence on planting-related social media.

Kerri is based in Williams Lake, but her outreach extends well beyond that thanks to some of the pre-season training programs that she has put together for planters.

Kerri deserves a shout out, so here’s a link to her website:  www.kdathletictherapy.ca

If you’re working anywhere near Williams Lake and have any issues, reach out to her.

 

Future Changes to the Industry

We’ve heard some rumours about upcoming changes to the industry.  There is going to be a complete overhaul of how we classify workplaces and assign first aid.  This all comes into effect in November of this year, so it won't affect the upcoming planting season.  However, it will matter for next year.

Hi Vis – High vis clothing may eventually be required for all planters working in British Columbia.

ETV’s – Current rules (simplified) dictate that if there are 16 or more persons working on a planting site, an ETV is required.  That threshold will be reduced such that crews of 10 persons will be required to have an ETV.  This requirement would also be triggered by two six-pack crews working near each other.  Related to this, ERP's will need to be improved.  The industry may have to reconfigure fleets quite radically for 2025, and this will be a very expensive situation (a single new crew cab pickup with ETV capabilities can cost more than $160,000). 

OFA3’s – Not only may the number of ETV’s eventually need to be increased, we may also need more crew members trained with the full OFA level 3 first aid certification.  To be honest, this is a fabulous course, and having more OFA3’s available would be good for the industry.  For the November 2024 changes, it looks more likely that there will need to be more Intermediate first aiders in our workplaces (formerly OFA2), and the duration of the Intermediate course is also being shortened.

Injury Management - There will be changes in how injury management is conducted (Bill 41), with greater responsibilities placed on both workers and employers to cooperate in helping people recover from injuries.  This will likely increase the workload of OHS coordinators, although it also has the potential to help save money on claims.

If there are any further developments on any of these issues, we can rest assured that Jordan Tesluk, our official industry Safety Advocate, will share the information widely.

 

Artificial Intelligence

AI is an odd topic for a tree planting article.  Or is it?

Many people will think I’m a bit crazy here, but I believe that AI presents an opportunity for significant improvements to the planting industry.  I’m not talking about AI robots designed to plant trees, or AI-powered drone planting (yet), or anything futuristic and hi-tech like that.  I’m talking about more mundane administrative stuff.

I’ve been paying very close attention to this field for almost a year now, and the change of pace is stunning.  The AI field has evolved more in the past six months alone than the planting industry has evolved in forty years, and that’s saying something.  Artificial Intelligence offers a lot of risks, and it offers incredible opportunities.

So far, I’ve thought of about a dozen areas where AI’s can assist management at planting companies.  To generalize, small companies will probably see the most benefits from being able to leverage knowledge that they don’t possess in-house.  Large companies will probably see benefits from extremely powerful data analysis.

Don’t worry, AI won’t take away our jobs.  But AI’s, LLM’s (large language models), and ML (machine learning) will have the potential to improve a lot of things that we take for granted.  We’re going to see improvements in everything from weather forecasting to delivery logistics to mapping.  Or maybe we won’t even notice.

 

Conclusions

Ok, that’s enough for now.  Get some rest.  It’s already 2024.  The planting season will be here before you know it …

 

 


Links to Previous "State Of The Industry" Posts:

Fall 2022:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2022/10/state-of-industry-fall-2022-tree.html

Fall 2021:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2021/10/state-of-industry-fall-2021-bc-tree.html

Spring 2021:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2021/04/state-of-industry-2021.html

Fall 2019:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2019/09/state-of-industry-2019-bc-tree-planting.html

Fall 2018:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2018/09/state-of-industry-british-columbia-tree.html

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Terrafibre Vegetation Competition Mats

I was recently given a couple packages of Terrafibre vegetation competition mats to review.  I received two packages, with five pads each.  Here's a photo of the packaging:


The intent of these products is to set on the ground around a newly planted seedling.  For the next few years, the mat will prevent competing grasses and vegetation from growing immediately adjacent to the young tree.  This will reduce competition for scarce resources such as water and sub-surface nutrients, which should accelerate the growth of the planted seedling.

I opened these packages in early December, and I didn't have any planting projects happening at the time.  However, I had just recently transplanted some conifer seedlings and some slightly larger deciduous juveniles into my backyard, and they were in a section of the yard which usually has waist-high grass and bushes by the time Fall rolls around, if I don't knock the vegetation down during the summer.  So I figured that this area would be a perfect test area for the competition mats.  I placed them all around deciduous seedlings, as you can see in the following photos:




I don't know the pricing on these products, and I suspect that they're going to be much too expensive for large scale reforestation projects (they're probably many times the cost of an individual seedling).  However, I've used brush mats on large projects in the past, and at the time, they were made out of plastic.  These Terrafibre products are much better for the environment, since they're not plastic.  Also, their fibrous composition means that moisture will seep through them and be better able to nourish the tree.

I have a feeling that these are going to work very well.  They might be very useful for large scale reclamation projects on highly sensitive sites.

I'll update this post in 12-24 months, once I have a better idea of how the products worked out!!

 - Scooter

www.replant.ca


Monday, October 17, 2022

State Of The Industry, Fall 2022 (Tree Planting in Western Canada)

“Conflicting Economic Data.”  That seems to be the current theme of Canada’s financial reality.  And the same phrase may perfectly describe the situation that western Canada’s planting industry currently finds itself in.  Bear with me for couple paragraphs of economic commentary, before I go more directly into the outlook for the 2023 planting season.  Economic analysis matters, because I believe that a major recession is coming our way like an oncoming freight train.

Around the globe, inflation is running rampant.  It doesn’t really matter how you define inflation, because all indicators are on the rise:  Food, fuel, other energy, consumer goods, services, etc.  Economists could argue for weeks about the current reasons for inflation, but the basic pressures are heavily rooted in energy supply shocks and a couple years of barely-restrained printing of money by various nations’ central banks (mostly to support global economies during Covid).  The current consumer price index inflation numbers are running at slightly over 7% annually in Canada.  As a result, the Bank of Canada has been pushing up the interbank lending rate, which causes banks to increase their prime rates and all other interest rates.

Higher interest rates generally cause people to pay down debt, rather than spending their earnings on fun things.  Therefore, the goal of higher interest rates is to cut down on consumer spending, which reduces demand for goods and services.  In turn, reduced demand normally puts downward pressure on prices for goods and services.  But higher interest rates also hurt a lot of people, because most of Canada’s population has mortgages, credit cards, and/or loans of various types.  We’re getting attacked from both sides, paying more at the pump, more at the grocery store, more for other goods and services, AND dealing with higher interest rates on top of that.  Sure, the higher interest rates will eventually stop prices from rising so quickly, but as I mentioned earlier, I believe that we’re in for a lot of short-term pain over the next 12-24 months.

In terms of wages, the economy is still quite strong, and there are more job opportunities than there are people to fill them.  The current unemployment rate in Canada is pretty low when compared with historical data.  When unemployment is low, employers need to compete harder to attract employees, so wages go up.  Although there are various ways of measuring this, it is likely safe to say that by year-end, wages in Canada will have increased by at least four percent compared to last year.  Unfortunately, a four percent increase in your wages doesn’t seem so great when everything that you buy costs ten percent more than it did a year ago.

The planting industry’s economic health varies from year to year according to many factors, but usually the most significant impact depends on the basic supply/demand of planting contracts, ie. how many trees the industry needs to plant each year.  When overall industry numbers go up (as they did a few years ago, after the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons in BC), tree prices go up at a company level.  And sometimes this trickles down to a corresponding increase in planter prices.  When industry volumes go down, companies bid aggressively to chase a diminishing amount of work, and prices go down.  We saw that happen these past twelve months.  The “boom & bust” periods are especially visible in public government work, which accounts for roughly 20% of the trees planted in BC each year.  However, work for private clients makes up the other 80% of industry volume.  Private client pricing (mills, logging operations) is more stable than public tenders, because a lot of that work is based upon multi-year agreements between mills and planting contractors who work together year after year.

Going into 2023, industry volumes are decreasing.  In 2022, we think that BC planted about 286 million trees.  The estimate for 2023 is roughly 262 million trees.  Planting contractors are therefore competing for a piece of a smaller pie.  Supply/demand economics dictate that public bid prices would normally decrease during the Viewing Season (for 2023 projects), which is just starting to ramp up.  But a drop in prices is the last thing that we need right now.

Company owners have numerous expense items to worry about.  Fuel has obviously jumped significantly in the past 12 months.  Buying a truck is more expensive.  Truck rental costs are rising significantly right now for 2023.  Prices for parts are higher, and maintenance/repair costs are way up.  For companies that have a Business Line of Credit or Payroll Credit Facility, interest rates are now double what they were six months ago.  Employer contributions on CPP and EI are also increasing, by 4.38% and 5.56% respectively (which of course is compounded if labour costs are increasing).

Food costs are much higher than a year ago.  The kitchen team from my camp did a comparison study of invoice prices from GFS for 2022 vs. 2021, using a basket of approximately thirty commonly purchased items, and the average price increase was 35.5%.  That’s stunning.  The only people that benefit from this are planters who work out of camp-based operations with kitchens, because they are shielded from these food cost increases (except when buying their own food in town on days off).  But these higher food costs are certainly hurting the companies that run camps.

There may be significant other challenges that companies have to navigate.  I’m a bit out-of-the-loop on this right now, but there were rumours of enhanced requirements for on-site dressing stations in 2023, and also for more ETV’s spread throughout the workforce.  Having more first aid gear available is unquestionably a benefit for workers.  But who is going to pay for this?  The workers?  If company owners don’t recognize and budget for these potential costs, and bid accordingly, that’s exactly what might happen.

Commercial regs for flight crew fatigue are changing for small operators in mid-December (large operators had to implement these same changes 24 months earlier).  Although the exact rules are quite complex, a general starting point is that the maximum length of a pilot’s "duty day" is being cut from 14 hours to roughly 12 hours per day (the exact length will vary based on certain criteria).  This means that if a pilot arrives at the hanger to start pre-flight planning at 5am, they have to be home with the machine parked and flight plans closed by 5pm, which of course means that they will have to leave the field worksite earlier than most of us are accustomed to.  The maximum hours of daily "flight hours" is also being cut, to 8 hours per day, although this won’t have significant impact since the machine isn't usually running that many hours in a day (except maybe up in High Level).  However, the minimum length for the "rest period" from night to morning is being raised from 10 hours to 12 hours.  It thus becomes essentially impossible for a pilot to fly trees out to stock up a block in the evening, then to return early the next morning to move crews. 

Going back to the length of duty day, the 12 hour day is a best-case scenario.  The exact regs are very complex, and depend on things such as the number of flights per day (that's the number of start/stop cycles of the machine's engine, not take-offs and landings).  The duty day length will also depend on the start time in the morning.  When a pilot starts especially early in the morning, their duty day becomes shorter.  So for example, a pilot doing seven or fewer flights in a single duty day, whose flight cycles are typically between 30 and 50 minutes duration, can only have 11 hours for duty day if they start at 5:59am or earlier.  Let's say that you need a pilot on site at 7am to start slinging trees before the planters arrive, but the ferry time from the airfield to Staging is 1hr.  The pilot will need to start their duty day with the pre-flight inspection and filing of flight plan no later than 5:30am in order to get in the air by 6am, and even that is optimistic because most rotary wing operators will budget a full hour from start time to being airborne.  Because the official start of the duty day is earlier than 6am, the pilot is now only allowed to have a duty day length of 11 hours.  So that could mean that the duty day runs from 5:30am to 4:30pm.  But since the pilot needs an hour of ferry time after planting to get back to the airport, AND time for post-flight and closing the flight plan, they really need to start flying home at 3pm.  Which means that planters might need to fly out of the block starting at 2:15pm.

One solution would be to run two pilots with each machine, to give planters a longer day, but helicopter companies would be reluctant to do this because it would double their labour costs.  Machine costs would also increase significantly if a helicopter needed to return to the airfield mid-day for a crew swap.  And on top of that, the industry doesn't have enough high-hour qualified pilots to make that scenario to work on a broad basis.

There are slight variations and allowances to these changes for certain situations, and a commercial pilot will have a better understanding.  Some details are available here, but again, the CARS regs are very complex.  The bottom line is that these changes will probably impact almost all planting operations that use helicopters extensively, so Project Managers need to contact their preferred helicopter providers and get a full understanding of these potential changes, before putting together any more heli budgets.  Helicopter use may become increasingly associated with constrained production.

There is also a good chance that minimum wage will jump significantly before next summer.  That’s great for workers in many underpaid industries.  It’s also good for tree planters, because companies that hire first-time workers must pay everyone at least the equivalent of minimum wage (including overtime) if their piece-rate earnings are not sufficient.  Will companies that hire large numbers of first-time planters have the foresight to plan for this possibility, and adjust bid prices upward?  A rising tide floats all boats.

Let’s go back to the lower industry volumes.  Can anything be done about this?  A few years ago, we thought that volumes would be historically strong for the next several years.  Part of that was based on the assumption of strong growth of federal tree planting projects, from programs such as the federal “2 Billion Trees” initiative.  But the 2BT program is struggling to scale up quickly, which isn’t a real surprise.  I’m quite familiar with the program, having acted as a project lead proponent for small projects both this year and last year, but my work (on the east coast) has been with very small numbers of seedlings.  For 2BT to work, big players need to design projects that will result in tens of millions of trees being planted, and there are a lot of challenges associated with designing such a project (especially in figuring out where to plant the trees).

In a perfect world, several of the dozen largest planting contractors would each purposefully plan to scale back operations in 2023 by retiring a camp.  I know of at least one major contractor that has already made a conscious decision to do exactly that.  If several companies planned to downsize this way, there would be less concern about the limited number of trees that are available for 2023.  But wait, why should we expect just the biggest companies to save the day?  If every company (regardless of size) downsized by just 8.3%, then the overall 2023 volume would be appropriate for the slightly smaller planting industry.  In such a scenario, supply-based downward pricing pressure would disappear, and bid prices would undoubtedly jump significantly.  Company owners AND their workforces would benefit.  Our industry is nimble enough to do this, but do company owners have the resolve?  Again, it’s the company owners that are hurting themselves if they don’t understand the need for every company to scale back slightly.

Planters expect wages to increase in 2023.  They know that wages are increasing in just about every other sector, and they know that workers are scarce.  What will happen if bid prices decline this fall, and owners have to tell planters after Christmas that planter prices are staying the same?  How many planters will seek employment elsewhere?  Will planting companies be able to hire enough people to get through 2023?  A lot of companies struggled to get their trees planted last year due to hiring challenges, and million of “spring” trees didn’t get planted until July.  Hiring will likely be even harder this year, considering the general labour market situation, so why risk chasing too many trees?  It’s better for companies to aim to scale back.

What else can planters (and companies) expect from 2023?  Well, from what I’ve seen so far, there are a few challenges to look forward to:

-        Head Protection:  WorkSafe has mandated the use of head protection on ALL understory planting in BC from now on.  While a hardhat may not protect you if an entire tree falls onto you, it could make a difference if you get hit by a dead branch.  Of course, hard hats bring their own separate problems, and planters hate wearing them.  Incidentally, we’re also seeing an increase in expectations for due diligence with more detailed DTA assessments.

-        Wildfire Planting:  There has been a LOT of wildfire restoration work in BC in the past four years.  Probably more than twenty companies have worked in the Elephant Hill fire alone since 2018.  Planting continues there, but so does grass encroachment.  As the grass spreads each year, the difficulty increases.

-        Plastic Ribbon:  The Cariboo-Chilcotin region (ranchland) banned the dropping of plastic flagger this past year, to protect cattle from eating plastic.  The full impact of this change was not felt in 2022, as a lot of multi-year contracts were still in progress.  But several multi-year contracts just ended, and the flagger ban throughout this region will be more ubiquitous in 2023.  Couple this with thicker grass in the burns, and we’re going to see a lot of double plants in 2023.  The industry MUST find a cost-effective supply of biodegradable ribbon soon, or loosen up spacing rules.  There are now a limited number of 500' rolls of corn starch ribbon available from Motion for $2.87 per roll, which is approximately three times the cost of polyethylene plastic flagger.  But if everyone bidding on no-flagger contracts were to add another 1.0 cents per tree to their bid price, that would be enough to purchase one roll of biodegradable flagger for roughly every one box of trees planted.  Bidders can pass the cost of this product on to clients!  We just need to make sure that every bidder factors that cost into their bid prices.  Easier said than done, of course.  Also, that price might eventually come down some, if the industry starts buying the corn starch product in large quantities.

-        Unwrapped Trees:  Again on the theme of saving plastic, more planters may see boxes being shipped this year without bundle wrappers.  It’s a great concept.  Single-use plastic is no good for anyone.  If western Canada plants 400 million trees per year including the prairies, that’s probably 30 million bundle wrappers per year that end up in landfills and occasionally scattered across blocks.  And aside from the plastic, if it takes 5 seconds to unwrap each bundle, that’s costing planters 2.5 million minutes each year.  I’m all for reducing plastic, and I’m quite familiar with planting trays of unwrapped trees on the east coast.  But when planters have to share boxes and each person has to do a count of their share of the box, unwrapped trees become a challenge.  We've also discovered that some nursery packing crews can’t count, resulting in boxes that don't have the correct number of seedlings in them.  When boxes are overfilled, it hurts the nursery, it hurts the planters, and it indirectly hurts the planting companies.  Nobody benefits except the Clients, who get free trees.  Nurseries that are moving in this direction need to implement working quality control systems BEFORE unwrapped trees become more widespread.  Perhaps it would help to tie the bundles with twine?  Or even better, wrap them in a band of light kraft paper or wax paper with a small piece of masking tape to seal the wrapper.  That would continue to protect the plugs better than a box of loose trees, which the forestry clients would prefer.  And it would allow for better monitoring of counts (both on the planter side and the nursery side), while still eliminating plastic wrappers.

-        Vehicle Safety:  I'll cautiously comment that vehicle safety seems to be improving slightly throughout the industry in the past few years.  Yes, I'm aware of some exceptions, and some accidents.  But we're generally seeing more common sense.  I have to give a shout out to ABBA here.  My crews meet a lot of other companies on the road, and this year, ABBA wins my award for the most professional radio use and cautious driving, at least when we worked in the same area back in April/May.  There seems to more of a safety-driven impetus from some Clients recently, a few of whom are asking for GPS trackers and/or dash cams (audio off) in their contractors' vehicles.  These devices probably make some people drive more cautiously, which is good.  A side note:  For anyone working in the Sparks wildfire area in 2023, be careful.  Some of those roads are going to be pretty sketchy when they're wet.

-        Access:  I’ll focus again on the regions where wildfire planting has been happening for the past few years.  It’s safe to say that in those regions, the low-hanging fruit has been plucked.  Each year, the blocks become more difficult to access.  Helicopter work is becoming more common.  And that brings up a good point.  What happens if someone gets hurt on a block where it’s impossible to extract a seriously injured patient without a helicopter?  Do companies have helicopters on standby for emergency situations such as this?  This is a good time to put in a plug for the services of the TEAAM helicopter recovery service for remote workers.

In terms of fire activity, as of October 17th there were still 202 active wildfires burning in BC.  That's crazy.  I've never seen so much active smoke during a Viewing Season.  Many of these fires will impact our industry in 2024 and beyond.

This year’s Viewing Season is really just getting under way in earnest in the past two weeks, and companies are on the edge of their seat about what will happen.  Will we see lower prices, due to decreased industry volumes?  Will we see higher prices, due to a recognition of how inflation is significantly affecting the cost of running a company?  We’re in the middle of an economic tug-of-war.  Now you see why I started off with the phrase, “Conflicting economic data.”  If company owners are smart, most of them will downsize slightly.  If that happens, bid prices will increase this year DESPITE the lower industry volumes, and companies will be able to react appropriately to general wage and inflation trends.

Considering what we had to deal with for the last three years, it seems crazy to say that 2023 may be the most challenging year that the industry has seen in decades.  But this time, the challenge will be economic rather than a global health pandemic.  Let’s hope, in the coming weeks, that company owners will bid appropriately …

 

Jonathan “Scooter” Clark 

www.replant.ca

 

Comment, December 15th - Many companies chased volume, and bid prices are down overall (sometimes significantly) from the levels of two years ago.  I'll put together a full report by the time the WFCA Conference happens at the end of January, and I'll link that here.

 


 

 

Links to Previous "State Of The Industry" Posts:

Fall 2021:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2021/10/state-of-industry-fall-2021-bc-tree.html

Spring 2021:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2021/04/state-of-industry-2021.html

Fall 2019:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2019/09/state-of-industry-2019-bc-tree-planting.html

Fall 2018:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2018/09/state-of-industry-british-columbia-tree.html



 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

How Does Canada Plant So Many Trees?

Almost every Canadian has heard about the importance of tree planting.  And many Canadians know that a very large number of trees are planted in Canada each year.  Current estimates are that over 700 Million trees are planted each year across the country!  Some of these are planted after logging companies harvest timber for lumber or pulp & paper, and some are planted because it's just good for the environment.

 


Recently, Canada's federal government promised that they would help ensure that an extra TWO BILLION trees would be planted in Canada over the next ten years.  That's an extra 200 million trees per year, on top of the 700 million trees already being planted.  That brings the total to just under a billion trees per year!  Canadians should be proud.

Some of the trees are planted in what is known as "reforestation."  This is when a previously forested area gets planted again, to bring back a forest that is no longer there.  There are various reasons for replanting areas.  Most people immediately recognize that "replanting" occurs after logging.  But the truth is that it's a lot bigger than that.  Wildfires and insects typically kill far more trees than the logging industry, so there's always a lot of work funded by government or NGO's to fix problems after forest fires, and after tree beetle outbreaks.

Some tree planting projects focus on "afforestation."  This is when people plant trees in areas that have not had any trees recently.  If a farm has old pastureland that is not used anymore for livestock or growing food, the farmers will sometimes decide to turn it back into a forest.  And sometimes, grasslands that don't contain habitat for at-risk species will be planted, to build a new forest.

  


Trees are planted all over the country.  The majority are planted in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario, but every single province has its own tree planting programs.

Who plants the trees?  Typically, the spring and summer months are the easiest months to plant trees, because the weather is good and the ground isn't covered with snow.  Because of this, a lot of university students spend their summers planting.  But tree planting also takes place in the fall.  Some tree planting is done by large companies.  Some is done by small companies.  And some is done by NGO's and volunteers.  The variety and diversity of people who plant trees is quite incredible.

There's also a lot of variety in the types of trees that are planted.  Typically, the majority of trees planted are coniferous.  This means that they're "cone bearing" trees.  Most Canadians are familiar with these species:  pine, spruce, fir, cedar, and a few other less common species.  Most of these coniferous trees keep their needles over the winter, so they stay green year-round.

 

 

 Some people also plant "deciduous" trees.  This refers to trees with leaves that drop off the tree each winter.  You're familiar with different types of deciduous trees:  oak, birch, elms, chestnuts, and of course our favorite, the maple tree.

All told, more than forty different species of tree are planted across Canada each year!

In these uncertain times for the environment, I'm glad that Canadians place so much importance on tree planting.

If you'd like to learn more about tree planting in Canada, please visit the educational tree planting site at:

  www.replant.ca

 

Maybe you'll want to go out to your backyard this summer, and plant a tree!


- Jonathan "Scooter" Clark
Professional Tree Planter
 



Friday, October 08, 2021

State of the Industry, Fall 2021 (BC Tree Planting)

Here we go again.  Viewing season has started in western Canada, with companies looking at contracts for 2022, and submitting bids.  What better time than now to comment on the state of the Canadian reforestation industry?

There are half a dozen main issues that I should comment upon:  Safety, inflation, industry volumes for 2022, tree prices, Covid, forest fires, and the 2021 Heat Wave.

 

Health & Safety

I could write an entire essay just about health & safety, but in the interests of keeping things short, I’ll summarize.  And I’ll address Covid separately.

Fatigue continues to be a problem for the industry.  This is especially apparent at the management level.  While a planter’s day is usually done at dinner, this is rarely the case for management at any level.  Company owners and upper-level managers need to continue trying to avoid letting camp and crew leaders work themselves to exhaustion.

Bear safety has been a regular tailgate topic for many years, but the issue really came into the spotlight at the end of July when a support staff working with a helicopter crew near Whitecourt was killed by a black bear who dragged her away from the staging area during planting operations.  Even though some types of accidents are incredibly rare (such as those relating to danger trees, wildlife attacks, and lightning), the risks cannot be ignored.

New OH&S reg are about to be released in British Columbia.  This may increase the number of OFA3’s that are required in the workplace.  However, this hasn’t been finalized.  If more OFA3's are required, this course will become an increasingly valuable addition to one's resume.

It appears that many companies are putting an increased emphasis on acknowledging mental health issues in the workplace.  Psychological first aid training courses are becoming more common, as is access to professional counselling.  I hope that such resources and initiatives continue to become more common.

 

Inflation

If you hadn’t paid attention, inflation is running hot these days.  You’re probably noticing this at the gas pumps if you’re a driver.  I was seeing prices of over $1.60 per liter in southern BC this week.  Imagine what prices will be next summer, considering that oil prices are expected to continue to rise.  Compare the price per liter with what fuel cost in the 2020 planting season, and you’ll see that fuel costs are going to have jumped by as much as 50% to 80% in a two-year period (admittedly, the prices in 2020 were a bit low due to Covid).  We certainly may see gasoline and diesel at $2/liter or more by the time next year’s planting season rolls around.  The global energy crisis is just starting to be felt in Canada.

Look at food costs.  The global food price indices are up around 30% year-over-year right now, based upon basic food commodity pricing.  But what does that translate to at the grocery store?  Well, various sources are suggesting that grocery prices in Canada are up by about 4-7% overall in 2021, compared to 2020.  And that upward trend is expected to continue.

Supply chain issues are also becoming more of a problem by the month, thanks to dozens of industries either underestimating or overestimating global consumption patterns when Covid was ramping up in 2020.  Right now, it’s almost impossible to buy new ATV’s, side-by-sides, or full-sized pickups.  I bought a new Jeep Wrangler (base model) in 2017 for $26k.  It now has forty thousand kilometers on it, and I could currently sell it for $35k.  One major truck rental agency recently sold all of it’s 2019 trucks.  Why?  Because after renting them in 2019, 2020, and 2021, they were able to sell them for fifteen percent more than they paid for them originally.  A lot of truck parts are also becoming very hard to find, including basics like air filters.  If a truck develops mechanical problems in 2022, it might be stuck at a repair shop for the remainder of the season.  Will planting companies have spare trucks to keep their fleets running?  Anything short of a 350 doesn’t have enough power to carry anything more than crew and a quad.  This is a flashback to the 90’s, but some planters may end up losing days of work due to vehicle downtime.  Vehicle costs (above and beyond fuel costs) are going to rise dramatically in 2022.

Real estate prices are up (not that many planters can afford to buy houses).  Tuition prices are up.  Retail prices are up.  If you’re an Amazon customer, go into your past orders and look at something that you bought 12-24 months ago, and check the current selling price.  Three-quarters of the things that I bought on Amazon in 2019 and 2020 have increased in price by 20-30%.

Wages need to rise to follow inflation.  Will planting companies bid higher this fall?  It’s hard to say.  Many companies that I’ve spoken to hope to factor 5% price increases into bids.  But will they have the resolve to do that?  I guess we’ll know in two months.

 

Industry Volumes for 2022

The Western Forestry Contractors’ Association recently held on online Market Summit.  I was flying at the time, and didn’t have the opportunity to watch the presentations in real time.  However, some of the presentations are online now.  Visit this page to find them:

   https://wfca.ca/2021/10/wfca-rumour-mill-roundupdate-volume-21-issue-12/

British Columbia is allegedly going to have a slight drop in overall planting numbers for 2022, with the total number of trees decreasing by about twenty million seedlings.  This isn’t entirely a bad thing.  It will let the industry catch its breath compared to two back-to-back record years in 2019 and 2020 (which were slightly more than 300 million trees each year).

A decrease of twenty million trees seems like a lot.  However, that’s only a decrease of about 7% from the levels of the past two years.  And considering that there were a number of significant contract extensions this year, and some non-completions, it’s obvious that the industry is still running very much near capacity.  On top of this, the numbers above don’t reflect additional planting that is coming on-stream from other non-traditional sources, such as oil&gas and environmental projects.

I don't want to appear to contradict the WFCA's analysis of future volumes, but they are obliged to rely on solid verifiable data, and that's a weakness.  Their analysis shows a slow decline in volumes for the next several years.  This is understandable, considering the data that they have to work with.  However, I think they're currently forced to neglect two major factors in their analysis:  2021 Wildfires, and the 2021 Heat Wave.  More on these subjects below.

I expect the industry drop in volume for 2022 to be temporary.  Demand will be pushing the limits again in 2023.


Tree Prices

What can planters expect for tree prices in 2022?  Well, in theory, we’d like to see slight increases, to counter the effects of general price inflation.  Unfortunately though, I think we’ll see that pricing will remain stagnant.  I’d like to think otherwise, but I’m being realistic here.

Most of the industry participants (planting company owners and upper management) understand the need to increase bid prices due to inflation.  Most participants know that Covid costs are not included in this year’s numbers, and unlike last year, needed to be added on top of bid prices.  Most participants are involved in broad discussions (such as the recent WFCA Market Summit), and know that they as a group are responsible for the fiscal health of the entire planting industry.

In 2021, the average bid price on all of the “easy” northern Interior government contracts last year was 48.73 cents per tree.  But there was also an automatic 8.6% added onto these [camp-based] contracts for Covid costs, so the true bid price was around 52.92 cents per tree.  If 5% inflation (and a component for Covid) is added this year, then one would hope that the winning bids for northern Interior work average out to around 55.4 cents.  If bids are lower than this, the bottom line at the planting companies will be what suffers the most.  The ball is in the contractors' court here.  If a company tries to low-ball a few bids then drop planter prices to maintain profitability, they will lose planters to competitors.  The labour market is very tight these days.

 

Covid

I can say with complete certainty that we’re all getting pretty sick of hearing about Covid by now.  And yet, people are still dying, so we can’t ignore it.  In the coming months, company owners will have to make tough decisions about operating parameters for 2022.  For the past two seasons, the camp-based companies made the decision to keep planters in camp on days off, but also to provide meals and laundry services on those days.  Will companies continue to absorb those costs if bid prices don’t support the cost?  Or will planters be free to go to town again?  And if that’s the case, how many cases of Covid will come back to the camps with them?  At least three major companies started to let their planters travel into the local communities in July of this year, and subsequently had to deal with Covid cases among their crews (this was in addition to the two other companies that had Covid outbreaks in the spring).  We want our freedom, but we also want safety.  Where is the balance?

Vaccinations will also be a hot topic in the coming months.  Company owners have also been discussing this issue.  My belief is that a lot of companies will require all employees to be double-vaccinated in 2022 as a condition of employment.  The vast majority of planters are already vaccinated anyway, so this mandate wouldn’t bother most people in that subset of the workforce.  Many planters have said that they’d prefer for their workforces to be 100% vaccinated, because that will presumably grant greater freedoms.

Planters who are not and do not wish to be vaccinated will be vocal in their frustration about these policies.  Some planting companies may specifically decide against vaccination policies, in hopes of capturing a larger group of [non-vaccinated] experienced planters who are looking for new homes.  It will be interesting to see what happens.  Considering that the majority of current cases are among unvaccinated people, will any vaccinated planter want to work at a company that doesn’t require vaccinations?  In theory, the risk of Covid outbreaks will be significantly higher at those companies.

 

Forest Fires

The wildfire season is essentially over.  After two record-breaking fire years in 2017 and 2018, British Columbia saw two very quiet years in 2019 and 2020.  But 2021 was another bad year.  By September 30th, approximately 868,000 hectares had burned throughout the province, which is more than twenty times the wildfire land base of the previous two years put together (2019 and 2020 combined only saw 36,000 Ha burned).

The past few years have seen improvements for tree planters in comparison to historical earnings from the previous decade.  This was solely due to the 2017/2018 wildfire activity.  There was strong demand for planters, as the forest industry and the province tried to fix some of the damage from the massive wildfires of those two years.  That work will continue in 2022 and beyond.

Many people assume that planting of areas burned by wildfires can happen within days or weeks.  That’s not the case.  Post-fire reforestation is very complicated, with complex timelines.  For the next several months, foresters are going to be assessing the damage in their regions.  Long-term planning starts to happen.  Budget decisions need to happen, to figure out where to find money to restore burned forests.  A lot of that funding originates from government, which typically doesn’t move as fast as industry.  However, there is one other significant delay – procurement of seedlings.  Canada’s nurseries are operating near capacity.  Even when nurseries have space to grow trees, seed must be allocated, and then the seedlings need to be grown.  All of this takes a lot of time.  Although a bit of 2021’s burned ground will undoubtedly be planted in 2022, most of the planting really won’t start in earnest until the spring of 2023.  I expect to see record-breaking volumes in 2023, if the nurseries can supply enough seedlings.

 

Heat Wave

This is a story that hasn't been discussed widely as of late, perhaps because it's such a sad story.  The heat wave appears to have caused widespread seedling mortality.  Actually, "widespread mortality" is a strong understatement.  The western Canadian heat wave in late June and early July killed an incredible number of seedlings throughout BC and Alberta.  I've visited several plantations this week where not a single [2021] seedling survived, not even the trees hidden in the shade.  There was nothing wrong with the stock or with the planting quality.  The heat (and several weeks without appreciable moisture in the soil) just toasted them.  I'll post a photo at the bottom of this essay to show an example of a fir seedling that was perfectly planted behind a large obstacle (northeast side), and perfectly protected from the hot southwest afternoon sun.  However, it didn't survive.  Nor did any of the hundreds of thousands of other trees (multiple species) on the same block.

I'm hearing similar reports from several parts of BC and even into northern Alberta.  I've never seen anything like this.  It's incredibly disheartening.  I don't think the industry has ever experienced anything like this.  I hope I'm overestimating, but it may be that more than 25% of the trees planted this year have experienced cataclysmic failure.  With over 400 million seedlings planted in Western Canada this year, more than a hundred million may have died in the heat wave.  It's going to take years for some regions to recover from this.  And again, depending on funding, this is one more reason why the industry will need to run at full speed in 2023 and beyond.

 

Conclusions

After two record-setting years, it probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing to have a “normal” busy year.  Fatigue continues to be an issue for the industry (especially on the management side), and a lot of owners and camp supervisors would be happy to have a less challenging season in 2022.  Despite this, the number of trees to be planted is still very high by historical standards.  Let’s hope that everyone gets a lot of rest this winter.

I'll update this post in February 2022, to reflect upon the results of the fall 2021 bidding season.

- Scooter





Links to Previous "State Of The Industry" Posts:

Spring 2021:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2021/04/state-of-industry-2021.html

Fall 2019:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2019/09/state-of-industry-2019-bc-tree-planting.html

Fall 2018:  https://jonathan-scooter-clark.blogspot.com/2018/09/state-of-industry-british-columbia-tree.html