Thursday, October 25, 2018

Tent Camps versus Motel Shows

A Comparison of Accommodation Types for Tree Planting Employment

Many planters argue about what type of work is better:  planting where you’re living in a tent in a bush camp, or planting where you’re living in a motel.  I’m not going to say which is better, because it depends entirely upon the individual.  I do both types of work every year, with approximately three months doing work in a tent camp in the Interior, and approximately three months (spring/fall) doing planting on Vancouver Island’s north coast.  Admittedly, I stay in a half-condemned camper trailer when I’m in a tent camp, but let’s overlook that luxury for now.  There are pros and cons to both situations, so let me try to illustrate the differences.

There are three main areas on which to compare the two situations:  planting earnings, cost of living, and miscellaneous non-financial considerations.  Planting earnings are highly variable, and depend on the person.  This is where the majority of dissent and even outrage from readers will be generated, from people who don’t agree with my opinions.  However, when it comes to Cost of Living and Miscellaneous Non-Financial Considerations, the facts are pretty straightforward, and hard to argue.  Let’s get the most contentious part out of the way first then.

Planting Earnings

This is going to be the most contentious section of this post.  Most planters tend to defend the regions that they’re working on, because they don’t like to believe/admit that they’re not getting a good deal for themselves.  Many planters also criticize people planting for other companies and/or in other parts of western Canada, without a full understanding of how a particular company operates or what current conditions are on a particular contract.  Some companies improve, others become less professional over time, or start making mistakes that will ultimately have a negative effect upon their reputation as a good company to work for.

A lot of planters look at the western Canadian planting industry in a very simplistic sense, of north vs. south.  I’ve seen hundreds of people commenting over the years about “how it is” in the industry, and many of these people have only ever worked for one or two companies.    I’m not sure how these people can consider themselves to be experts.  Look at me:  I spend a few months each summer supervising for a large northern company, working in northern BC and Alberta, and I also spend a few months each year doing coastal planting, typically spring and fall work on the north Island.  I’ve also worked for about fifteen different companies during my career.  Despite all this, I don’t even consider myself to be an expert!  I don’t think anyone can be.  Having said that, I’m going to give you my reasoned opinions on everything.

I’ve tracked my earnings as a planter for more than a decade, at a number of companies, and dozens of contracts, in varied regions and under a huge diversity of planting styles and contract specs.  To be fair, when I’m planting for the company that I also work as a camp supervisor for, I don’t typically get a lot of planting days in a season; typically only about ten to sixteen days.  Sometimes this is an extra small contract in August that a half dozen of us do together.  Sometimes it is a few days of planting here and there in my own camp, on days off and when special missions need to be done.  For those projects, I need to make adjustments to ignore the part days (because my supervising responsibilities take priority), and I usually only consider full days, to get less biased data.  Also, if I’m planting during the season, I rarely plant full days on a regular block; that just doesn’t make sense.  If I do plant during my regular season, it’s usually because I’m dealing with scraps, holes, problems, or special missions.  So most of my planting data at that company comes from August projects, because I’ve been able to plant full-time on five the last six of those projects).

Here’s the part that will probably cause a lot of people to start arguing:  I make more money planting per day at my northern rookie mill company than I do planting on a good contact on the coast.

Now, before everyone starts screaming in disbelief, let me remind you that this statement is based upon years of spreadsheet data that I’ve collected.  My typical daily earnings on the coast are around $330 per day.  My typical daily planting earnings at the northern company are around $370 per full day.  And the interesting thing is that these numbers have been very consistent from season to season over the past decade.  I’m past the point of improving my production due to additional experience.  If that’s happening, it’s being offset by the fact that I’ve planted for so long I don’t care about numbers anymore.  Now to be fair, we usually plant for an hour longer per day up north, so my average planting time works out to about 8.5 hours per day on the coast, and up north works out to about 9.5 hours per day.  When you break my daily averages out on a hourly basis, they are almost exactly the same, no matter where I work ($38.80 to $38.90).  Even more interesting, I consistently find that I earn almost exactly the same amount per hour whether I’m planting 20 cent trees on the coast, 30 cent trees on the coast, 45 cent trees on the coast, or 11 cent trees in northern Alberta.

Please note that this is all based on data from 2010-2018 inclusive, a period of relatively stagnant earnings.  These numbers may seem outdated to readers a few years from now, if prices and earnings actually start to rise significantly with the expected demand for planting labour in 2019-2021.

Based upon my personal experience, and based upon discussions with dozens of planters, foremen, and supervisors at twenty other companies over the past few years, this is my gut feeling about prices throughout western Canada:

Northern BC & Alberta:  Earnings are decent for a planter with a few years of experience, albeit living conditions are tough.  This area takes the most criticism (sometimes deserved, sometimes not) but probably gets more than it deserves.  A lot of 5-10 year vets who move to other areas say that they made terrible money when they planted up north.  Well of course they did.  If they started between 2007 and 2012, the money WAS terrible, as the economic recession hit this region much harder than the others.  And they were much less skilled planters than they are now.

Northern Coastal work:  Earnings are decent, albeit you need quite a few years of experience to get a job.  Planting is very difficult, but you don’t have to stay in a camp.  If you can get remote work with one of the top companies (Rainforest, Stephen, some of the other small operators), earnings can be stellar.

South/Central Island Coastal:  Prices have been under a LOT of pressure over the past decade.  My daily earnings always drop when I get down to Campbell River, Courtney, Comox, or further south.  This may be due to a large number of planters who live at home in those areas.  Labour supply goes up, prices decrease.  This is probably the worst area to work.

Southern Interior BC:  Prices at most of the smaller companies are quite good.  There’s still great money to be made here.  Living in motels is great, especially once you’ve been planting for several years and the tenting lifestyle no longer appeals to you.  The only real drawback (which is not a drawback to some people) is that the seasons down there are much shorter than northern BC or Alberta.

Of course, all of the above considerations are very general observations.  Certainly, experiences can vary tremendously from company to company, and from contract to contract.

It always amuses me to hear 20-year coastal vets saying that they don’t like working up north because they don’t want to have to bend over 3000 times in a day.  I can respect that.  But then I hear dozens of 2nd and 3rd year vets, who have only ever worked at one or two companies, parroting the same line.  Personally, I don’t mind bending over 3000 (or 4000) times in a day.  What I hate is climbing up steep hills and over giant carpets of slash.  I’m not saying that someone who doesn’t like bending over 3000 times is wrong.  I’m just saying that everyone can have their own opinion that matches what their body prefers.  There is no right or wrong.  If some of those northern planters spent a day on some of the tough coastal blocks that I’ve worked on, they might quickly run back to their Alberta farm fields.  I’ve worked on many coastal blocks where I’ve thought how much easier it would be to plant five Alberta trees at 11 cents each than it would be to plant one coastal tree at 35 cents.

Anyway, the point of this section is that planting earnings can vary widely depending on where you’re working.  Prices are generally much higher in the Southern Interior and on the coast than they are in northern BC or in Alberta.  Despite this, higher prices do not necessarily translate to higher earnings.  In the end, it is my daily earnings that matter the most to me.  I do believe that earnings can generally be higher in the Southern Interior than in northern BC or Alberta.  But I also believe that most people need at least four to five years of experience before they’re truly ready for the more technical ground that many small Southern Interior companies specialize in.

Cost of Living

I’ve addressed this issue before, in other discussions on Replant, but it’s an important consideration.  In a camp, you typically pay camp costs of $25 per day (usually $27 to $34 per day if you work in Alberta).  You usually only pay those on planting days, when meals are provided.  On days off, you are responsible for feeding yourself, in town, at your own expense.

When working on a motel contract, you typically pay $25 per day in ‘camp costs’ to cover a portion of the cost of your motel room (the employer subsidizes the rest).  This cost is incurred every night, regardless of whether or not it is a work day.  In addition, you have to pay for your own food.  My experience, based upon a decade of tracking personal food costs for groceries while working on the coast, has been that I need to budget about $20/day to feed myself (that’s under a cost-conscious regime where I don’t eat fast food or eat meals at restaurants).  That expense, naturally, also needs to be paid regardless of whether or not it is a work day.

Let’s compare these costs under the assumption of a 3&1 shift schedule.  In a bush camp in BC, you’d pay $25/day for three days (camp costs) and $20/day on the fourth day (food in town), which works out to a total of about $95 for the shift.  This breaks down to $23.75 per calendar day for living expenses.  If you wisely account for this against your planting earnings, this cost of $95/shift, set against three days of planting, means that the first $31.67 of each day’s planting earnings go towards your cost of living.

In a motel, you’ll be paying $45 per day for the first three days ($25 motel plus $20 food), and then exactly the same thing on the day off.  The total is therefore $180 for the shift.  This breaks down to $45.00 per calendar day for living expenses (as opposed to $23.75 in a camp).  If you wisely account for this against your planting earnings, this cost of $180/shift, set against your three days of planting, means that the first $60.00 of each day’s planting earnings go towards your cost of living (as opposed to $31.67 in a camp).

Obviously, surrendering your first $60.00 of each day’s earnings to your cost of living is a pretty steep price to pay for being a tree planter.  By living in a camp, you can save yourself approximately $28.33 per day.  This is one reason why daily earnings MUST be higher for motel jobs; because your cost of living is also higher.

In this analysis, I’ve neglected the impact of income taxes.  Your planting earnings are taxed, but your food and camp cost expenditures are deducted from after-tax income, which skews the numbers even more in favor of tent camps and against motel accommodations.  Luckily, in some cases, planters are able to used T2200’s or Remote Work Allowance (RWA) to negate the taxation implications.

In this analysis, I’ve neglected the impact of slightly higher camp costs in Alberta (which are due to food costs being higher in Alberta).  Of course, some of the companies working in Alberta are more likely to have 4&1 work shifts, which counterbalances the higher camp costs.  Also, my daily food costs may be higher or lower than your own circumstances.  I admittedly do eat a lot, but again, I stay away from restaurants and other high-cost food items in order to stretch my food budget.  Rice and pasta help in that respect.

Bottom line, anyone reading this that wants more accurate numbers could re-do my calculations based upon the precise camp costs at your own company, based upon your own eating/cooking habits, and based upon your personal tax situation.

Sample Analysis Assessing Earnings and Cost of Living

Now that you have an understanding of how earnings and cost of living can vary, let’s do a sample analysis.  Let’s say that you’re a moderately decent third-year planter, working for a northern BC company, and you usually average about $275/day in a 66 day season, with shifts of 4&1.  Let’s say that you think you could average $350 per day if you worked for a high-end Southern Interior company for their spring season, but you’d be living in a motel and working 3&1’s.  You expect that you’d get about 44 planting days at that company (because they start April 26th and have work until June 21st, which is common for those companies).

Northern Company:
66 Planting Days @ $275 = $18,150
Less Camp Costs of 66 Planting Days @ $25 = -$1,650
Less Food on Days off (24 @ $20) = -$480  (allowing for some extra days off on camp moves)
  Total NET earnings for Season:  $16,020

Southern Company:
44 Planting Days @ $350 = $15,400
Less Motel Costs of 58 Calendar Days @ $25 = -$1,450
Less Food Costs for 58 Calendar Days @ $20 = -$1,160
  Total NET earnings for Season:  $12,790

In these two examples, it’s obvious that although your average daily earnings are higher at the Southern company, your total season earnings are higher at the Northern company.  This is common.  However, this doesn’t factor in the non-financial benefit of having five extra weeks off in late June and July.  For university students, the total earnings are usually the most important consideration.  For non-students, who often work in the early spring too, the appeal of planting in July is not a big selling point.

Now that you have a good understanding of how to consider all of the financial ramifications of various options, let’s look at the non-financial considerations.  For some planters, these are the points that are the most important.  It’s not always all about the money, even though your earnings are important.

Miscellaneous Non-Financial Considerations

For some people, money is not the most important deciding factor.  If you’ve ever studied Organizational Behaviour (or a few dozen other academic subjects), you’ve probably read about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  There are safety, behavioural, self-esteem, and self-actualization needs that can be considered in your decision:

Tent Camp Advantages
-        More active social life
-        Having meals cooked for you
-        Some people really enjoy camping
-        Can sometimes be situated quite close to the blocks (contract dependent)
-        Usually fairly good gender balance
-        And as mentioned above, lower cost of living and longer work days

Tent Camp Disadvantages
-        Living in a tent sucks during bad weather
-        Camp moves are painful (although so are moves to a new motel)
-        Less privacy, unless your tent is far away from everyone else
-        Hard to sleep on the night off, if everyone is partying
-        Less likely to shower on a daily basis

Motel Advantages
-        Showering nightly, with no lineup
-        Get to choose your own diet
-        More privacy, and easier to sleep on the night off
-        A dry bed during poor weather conditions
-        And as mentioned above, shorter work days

Motel Disadvantages
-        Really sucks if you don’t like to cook, or aren’t good at cooking
-        Drives to the blocks tend to be longer, on average
-        Social activities are unlikely to involve the whole crew
-        Gender balance frequently skewed towards heavily male dominated
-        And as mentioned above, you pay for your food and motel, 7 days per week


The strength of our industry is the diversity.  There is no “best” type of accommodation or planting solution, otherwise, every single company would adopt that.  The industry needs the high priced motel shows and highly technical planting that attract highly experienced planters.  The industry needs the large tent camps full of planters with less than three or four years of experience, who can quickly learn to plant well on easy ground.  The industry needs small shoulder seasons of work in February/March/April and again in the fall on the coast, to retain highly experienced planters in the industry.  The industry needs the vast majority of the work to be easier ground that falls into the May/June/July window, so it can be performed by college and university students seeking temporary summer employment, but who generally have no interest or desire in a long-term career as a planter.  In short, the industry needs to have as much variety as possible, because tree planters’ needs and motivations are so varied.

So there you have it.  There is no universal “best situation” that fits all users.  Tree planters are diverse, tree planting contracts are diverse, tree planting companies are diverse, and peoples’ desires are diverse.  You should make a decision about what is best for you based on your own desires, not based upon what other people tell you is best.

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