Friday, November 01, 2019

How Many Trees are Planted in Canada Each Year?

I've been curious to know approximately how many trees are planted in Canada each year.  Apparently, I'm not the only one, since several other people have asked me this same question over the past month.  I'm going to try to come up with a very rough guess here, based upon what little information I can find, coupled with some semi-educated assumptions.  If anyone has any access to official data for any of the provinces, please let me know so I can update this post!

British Columbia
This one is easiest, since the Western Forestry Contractors' Association pays close attention to these numbers, and publishes charts frequently.  Their best guess for 2020 planting in BC is approximately 308 million trees.  They base their information upon a survey of sowing requests at various forest nurseries.
Source:  https://wfca.ca/2019/09/western-forestry-contractors-association-rumour-mill-roundupdate-volume-19-issue-13/

Alberta
I have 2016 data for Alberta.  That year, the province planted 57,605 Ha of the 83,786 Ha harvested (the rest was left for natural regeneration).  Assuming an average planting density of 1500 stems/Ha, which is purely a guess, I estimate approximately 86 million trees.

Saskatchewan
I have 2016 data for Saskatchewan.  That year, the province harvested 17,701 Ha.  Let's assume that they planted half of that amount, and that the average planting density was 1500 stems/Ha.  Those assumptions may be quite inaccurate, but the number of trees in Saskatchewan doesn't significantly affect the national total.  I estimate approximately 13 million trees.  Lots of room for growth in the northern boreal.

Manitoba
I have 2016 data for Manitoba, which is very similar to Saskatchewan in limitation.  Manitoba harvested 10,686 Ha in 2016, so if we again estimate that half of that area was replanted, at a density of 1500 stems/Ha, we have another 8 million trees.

Ontario
In 2016, Ontario planted 67,369 Ha of land (57% of the 117,230 Ha harvested).  If we estimate a planting density of 1500 stems/Ha, that works out to approximately 101 million trees.  Incidentally, Ontario is the only province that also seeds significant areas.  In 2016, about eleven thousand hectares were seeded throughout the province (this figure is not included in the planting totals).

Quebec
I have 2016 data for Quebec.  Quebec harvested 205,859 Ha and planted 36% of that (73,344 ha).  Incidentally, Quebec is the only province that harvests a greater land base annually than BC.  Let's again assume an average planting density of 1800 stems/Ha.  I based this on feedback from several long-term Quebec planters.  That gives us about 132 million trees planted annually in Quebec.

The Atlantic Provinces
There's a surprising amount of planting in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.  Not as much in Newfoundland, and practically none in Prince Edward Island.  It's hard to tell how much planting actually takes place, because a very large percentage of blocks in the Atlantic provinces are left for natural regen.  Despite this, I know that several hundred planters work in the very fragmented industry each year.  Perhaps the best indicator would be to get a census on total sowing at all the forest nurseries in those provinces.  I'm going to have to guess for now, in lieu of any sort of reasonable data, and say that 40 million trees are planted each year in these four provinces combined.  I did find that New Brunswick planted 17,625 Ha in 2016, Nova Scotia planted 5,024 Ha in 2016, PEI planted 317 Ha, and Newfoundland planted 3,721 Ha, for a four-province total of 22,167 hectares.
Source:  https://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/statsprofile


Totals:
308m  British Columbia
  86m  Alberta
  13m  Saskatchewan
    8m  Manitoba
101m  Ontario
132m  Quebec
  40m  Atlantic Provinces
688m  Canada-Wide





Well there you have it.  There are probably several inaccurate numbers in there, but hopefully the mistakes balance each other out to some extent so that the overall total is reasonably close.

Incidentally, I found data from Natural Resources Canada which states that 410,221 Ha were planted in 2016, Canada-wide.  Too bad that they didn't give the number of trees.  Anyway, if our estimate of 688 million trees is correct, then that would suggest that the average planting density across the country is approximately 1677 stems/Ha.


- Jonathan Clark
www.replant-environmental.ca

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Analyzing the Liberal Promise to Plant 2 Billion Trees

With the recent federal election results giving the Liberal party a win, many tree planters' minds turned to that party's election promise to ensure that Canada plants 2 billion trees in the next ten years.  Let's try to decide if that's possible, and also try to estimate how many trees are currently planted in Canada each year.

First, let's break it down into an annual number.  Two billion trees over ten years is 200 million trees per year.  Now I don't think that we're going to see 200 million extra trees flooding the market next year.  The planting industry isn't prepared for that, and the forest nurseries across the country might not even have that much spare capacity right now.  The forest nurseries in western Canada are probably operating very close to capacity, and I don't know if the nurseries elsewhere in Canada are in the same situation.  Also, if the federal government is concerned about budgets, they will probably not front-load that spending commitment.  IF they follow through on their promise, they would probably prefer to spend small amounts in the first five or six years, and then reluctantly ramp up their financial commitments near the end of that 10-year period.  That's what politicians like to do.  Of course, if they do their research, they'll learn that a gradual but consistent ramp-up would be the best way to achieve their goals in light of labour and growing constraints from industry.



Due to the absence of details associated with this election promise, it's not inappropriate to ask, "What did they mean by this?"  Are they saying they will plant an average of 200 million per year, or are they saying they will plant an extra 200 million per year on top of what is already being planted?  I can answer that, based upon simple logic.  Two hundred million trees per year sounds like a big number.  It isn't.  Right now, the province of BC is expected to plant slightly over 300 million trees in 2020.  In that context, we've answered our first question:  Trudeau has implied (whether intentionally or not) that these two billion trees are extra trees above what is already happening.  Otherwise, he's promising a number that would be a reduction from current levels.

I've been trying to figure out what the biggest challenges with this promise will be.  Off the top of my head, I can think of three, and I've already mentioned two of them.  Three challenges will be labour supply, growing capacity, and where to put the trees.

Labour Supply shouldn't be a problem.  It's true that a lot of people don't really want to plant trees once they find out what is involved, because the work is quite physically and mentally demanding.  But to plant an extra 200 million trees per year would require perhaps only another four thousand seasonal (summer) tree planters, if those planters average about fifty thousand trees apiece per summer.  Recruiting that many people won't be easy, but if the wages are fair, it's an achievable goal.  And for any planters who think that an average of 50,000 trees per planter per season is low, remember that I'm taking attrition into account (people quitting after a week) and also considering that some of the land may be more difficult than what most planters are currently accustomed to working on.

Growing Capacity at forest nurseries would likely be a problem if the industry ramped up to 200 million in year one.  However, that's not likely to be the case.  The forest nursery industry on Canada's west coast has dealt with growing pains (pardon the pun) for the past two years.  The record-breaking wildfire years in 2017 and 2018 made many nursery owners realize that they needed to build more greenhouse space, because otherwise, the industry wouldn't be able to grow enough trees to meet demand.  And they did expand to meet needs for the 2020 season.  Going forward, with 24 months' notice, the national forest nursery industry will be able to accommodate demand.

Finally, Where are the trees going to be planted?  There's a big difference between reforestation (replanting logged areas) versus afforestation (planting vacant land, such as old pasture land).  A lot of reforestation needs are already being taken care of by the existing patchwork of regulations in various provinces.  In those cases, either provincial governments or private industry (and public mills) are taking care of reforesting the recently logged areas.  The main opportunity then will probably come from planting three specific types of land:  forests burned by wildfire, forests ravaged by insects or diseases, and vacant land or unused farm/pasture land.  To be clear, the first two of these three options are just additional types of reforestation, even though they aim at post-disaster targets instead of post-harvest activities.

I've been told that the estimated budget for these two billion trees is three billion dollars.  If that's the case, then that works out to $1.50 per tree.  Any tree planters who are reading this probably just had their eyes light up!  But settle down, that's not the windfall that it sounds like.  Many tree planting companies are accustomed to receiving perhaps 40 to 75 cents to plant each tree, and they manage to survive.  But remember that the federal budget of perhaps $1.50 per tree will also have to cover land acquisition costs (probably averaging over 60-80 cents per tree, if the government starts buying land), seedling costs, compliance costs, and administration costs.  The government could also pay for planting on private properties (for example, by funding regional woodlot owners' associations), but then there is no guarantee that the trees won't just be cut down in 50-60 years.  If we're going to plant two billion trees to help fight climate change, we can't just cut them down in a few decades.  They need to be protected by law.

There may be some non-planters who are reading this, who think that this is a good time to start a tree planting company.  If that's the case, I would urge extreme caution.  The planting industry is much more complex than it appears on the surface.  If you're reading this post and think that you should start a planting company, and you don't have prior experience as a seasonal post-harvest tree planter in Canada, I would highly, highly recommend that you try tree planting for a few seasons to give yourself a chance to start to understand the industry.  Otherwise, you're going to lose your shirt (speaking in a financial sense).  Having said that, there may be opportunities for many experienced planters to start their own small companies over the next several years.  The greatest opportunities for these individuals will probably be in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.  BC and Alberta are quite saturated with a mature planting industry.

Incidentally, my estimate of how many trees are planted in Canada each year is 666 million.  Check out this blog post to find out how I arrived at that number.

- Jonathan Clark
www.replant-environmental.ca


Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Relationship between Target Density and Minimum Spacing

If you're a forester right now, you're probably trying to figure out how to manage your budget, considering that planting prices are trending back (somewhat) to be on par with their inflation-adjusted historical numbers from the 1990's and early 2000's.  Some foresters (mostly in the private sector) are cutting back slightly on volumes, others are dropping helicopter blocks from their programs, and some are eliminating fertilizer packs (tea-bags).

I'd like to throw out a suggestion that may be useful for a few foresters:  Take a close look at your planting specs.  To be clear, I'm not saying, "Let us plant shitty trees."

Instead, I'd like to take a close look at the science and math behind certain specs, specifically as they relate to spacing/density/excess.  I'm going to refer to the FS 704 system which is used by BC government offices, and also used by many private mills throughout the province and in Alberta.

One of the goals when the FS 704 was designed was to build in a "spacing tolerance" to allow the planter some leeway in picking the best microsite, or the best spot to plant a tree.  Yes, hitting a specific target density within a block is important, but the designers of the 704 system didn't want to be so rigid that planters would simply plant a tree at the perfect spacing every time, with no regard for how suitable that microsite was for the tree.  If there was no spacing tolerance, the benefits of hitting density would be outweighed by decreased yields and increased mortality from trees being planted in poor spots.  A planter might plant a tree in a pile of sticks or needles or chunky red rot, instead of planting in a microsite only 12 inches away that had appropriate soils.

In general, depending on the region, spacing tolerances usually allow for about a meter of tolerance.  For example, if the target spacing is 2.7m between each tree (thinking in both the X/Y axis, or both "ahead" and "laterally") then a simple generalization is that a tree is considered to be good if the tree is somewhere between 1.7m and 3.7m away from all of the other trees around it.  You don't want all of them to be only 1.7m away from the others, or all of them to be 3.7m away from the others; you want a healthy mix of some closer and some further, so the overall average spacing still balances out to be pretty close to the target (2.7m in this example).  However, this variability or spacing tolerance allows the planters to feel more comfortable in looking for the best microsites for the trees, without having to worry too much that they're going to get faulted for "tree too close" or "missed spot" penalties.  Having a spacing tolerance is ultimately what's best for the plantation, as long as the planters utilize the tolerance to hit the best microsites for the trees.

We've seen an increase over the past several years in the amount of FFT (Forests For Tomorrow) funding on reforestation contracts in BC, mainly due to wildfire restoration.  Traditionally, the average target spacing on BCTS and MOF contracts within British Columbia was usually in the range of 1400-1600 stems/Ha (except on the coast).  However, a lot of FFT funding is attached to projects and blocks where the target spacing has climbed to 2000 stems/Ha or even more.  And I'm not disagreeing with this change.  A lot of the wildfire damage has come in pine stands, for multiple reasons (pine is more dominant on dried ground, mountain pine beetle has killed and dried a lot of standing pine, etc.).  Pine is a species which grows better at higher densities.  If you're going to plant one stand at 2400 stems/Ha and another at 1600 stems/Ha, and you have pine for one stand and spruce/fir for the other, you're almost certainly going to plant the pine in the high density stand.

The problem is that while densities have frequently increased from 1600 stems/Ha to 2000 stems/Ha, there hasn't always been a corresponding drop in "minimum acceptable inter-tree distances" (MITD), more casually known as "minimums."  The minimum spacing on 1600 stems was usually 2.0m between trees.  Unfortunately, the minimums on some 2000 stem target densities are still set at 2.0m.

To be clear, for non-foresters who are reading this, a 2.0m minimum means that if you plant two trees and they're 2.1m apart, that's acceptable.  If they're 2.0m apart, that's acceptable.  If they're less than 2.0m apart, one of the two trees gets faulted as a "too close" tree, which gets counted as a quality fault under the FS 704 system, and a reduction in the assessed quality of the block means a reduction in payment to the planting company.

Let's look at the TARGET spacing distances that are required to meet various densities:



Under a target density of 1600 stems/Ha, all trees are supposed to be 2.7 meters apart (on average).  This means that with a 2.0m minimum, the planter has at least 70 centimeters (on the close side) to work with.  There's also a tolerance on the "further apart" side, but the method of calculating that exact distance is complex (it relates to "missed spot" assessments).  Let's just focus on the close side.  Under a target density of 1400 stems/Ha, the trees need to be about 2.9m apart, which means that the spacing tolerance before being assessed as "too close" has increased to 90 centimeters.

Let me switch focus for a moment here, and go back to the goal of hitting the best possible microsites for the trees.  On some planting contracts, foresters ask for "obstacle planting" to come into play.  This approach asks the planters to plant seedlings beside an "obstacle" to maximize growth and/or survival.  Typically, logs and stumps are viewed as excellent obstacles (unless root diseases in stumps is a consideration).  A planter can even consider a big rock to count as an obstacle if there are no stumps or logs that are close enough.  There are different reasons why obstacle planting is useful.  In cattle country, a cow is less likely to step on a seedling if it is very close to a stump or log.  In the Alberta foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a tree planted on the correct side of an obstacle is possibly protected from chinook winter winds that lead to exposure and desiccation (snow is a good insulating blanket in the winter).  Anywhere that extreme heat is a problem, a tree planted on the northeast side of an obstacle is usually protected from the hottest afternoon sun, at least for the first couple years.  Expect obstacle planting to be useful then in both cattle country and in the most southern regions of Alberta and BC.  The relative "direction" of the obstacle (in relation to the microsite for the seedling) is important when weather-related, and unimportant when cattle-related.

If a planter is being asked to seek obstacles, the spacing tolerance comes into play.  Depending on the terrain, there may be anywhere from a few to a dozen "acceptable obstacles" in a plot.  When there are less obstacles than trees, it becomes obvious that not every tree can have an obstacle.  It also becomes obvious that the planter has to think carefully about where to put trees, in order to maximize the use of any obstacles that are available.

Let's say that there are only five useful obstacles in a given "plot" (a section of the block covering 50 square meters).  Without delving deeply into the math, you can multiply the number of obstacles in a plot by 200 to come up with the expected number of obstacles in a full hectare (because 50 square meters is 1/200th of a hectare).  So if you multiply 5 x 200 you get 1000 obstacles per hectare.  You can use the same spacing chart above to see that the obstacles, on average, are about 3.4 meters apart.

If the "perfect spacing" for your next tree puts the tree in a very specific microsite, and you have a 70 cm spacing tolerance away from that spot, what is the chance that you'll be able to utilize a good obstacle if the average spacing between obstacles is 3.4 meters?  You might be close enough to an obstacle to use it, or you might not be.  You'll certainly be able to hit some of the obstacles in your piece, but not all.  The math (and spacing rules) may make it impossible to hit all obstacles.  But a larger spacing tolerance is better than a small one.

Going back to the high planting densities on FFT funded work (usually 2000 stems/Ha), the planters don't have a lot to work with in cases where the minimum has not be adjusted downward.  For 2000 stem density, the average spacing is 2.4m.  If the minimum is 2.0m, the planters only have 40 centimeters to work with.  Look down at the ground (or floor) right now, and imagine that.  If you put an "X" on a specific spot, you have only a little over fifteen inches of flexibility that you can use to move the tree from that "X" and still be within your tolerance.  What's the chance that you'll be able to find an acceptable obstacle in that very small area?

If the MITD does not allow for sufficient spacing tolerance, it leads to planters planting in bad microsites, rather than encouraging good microsites.

My camp planted a BCTS contract last year with target spacing of 2000 stems/Ha, a minimum of 2.0m, and a requirement to try to utilize obstacles.  It was terrible.  The science made it almost impossible for the planters to meet all three requirements simultaneously.  They made a valiant effort.  When I said that 2000 stems/Ha was the priority, they could do it.  When I said that no trees could be closer together than 2.0m, they could do it.  And when I said that they should try to hit obstacles, they did it.  In fact, they could even do any two of those three things simultaneously, with no problems.  But doing all three simultaneously was almost impossible.  My solution was to ask the forester what should be sacrificed.  There wasn't much movement on minimums, and I was told that obstacles were really important, so I said that my only solution would be to tell the planters not to worry much about the density.  I told them to consider obstacles and minimums to be very important.  Although a density of 2000 stems/ha was requested, there were no penalties in the contract for planting a lower density.  However, there were penalties for planting trees too close (B1, a quality fault) or not utilizing the obstacles.  In the end, we ended up having tons of trees left over after we finished planting all the regular blocks on the contract, and we had to scramble to find a number of overflow blocks to accommodate the rest of the trees.  This was a challenge, both for us and for the foresters.  But in the end, it was the inevitable choice.

I see that a lot of contracts this year, in one region in particular, are once again asking for that difficult combination of 2000 density, obstacle planting, and a 2.0m minimum.  That's unfortunate.  I would think that the industry would realize that this is a big mistake, and these specs are very problematic for planters.  And "problematic" leads to higher bid prices.  The problem could be mitigated by reducing the MITD down to 1.6m as acceptable.  Foresters would be more likely to achieve their planned densities, and there would be better utilization of obstacles.  In many other regions, minimum spacing ranges from 1.5m down to as low as 1.0m.

For this year, I've asked my employer to bid especially high on those contracts, because I don't want my camp to work there.  For foresters who are trying to manage their budgets, a bit of flexibility on these specs would lead to more competitive bidding.  In the past, I've really enjoyed working with the foresters in the region that I'm referring to.  But in the end, I have to think about the best interests' of my planters, and seek to work elsewhere.


If you want to follow public bid results on tree planting contracts within British Columbia, visit this link:


Monday, October 07, 2019

About Replant.ca Environmental

Earlier this year, I "started" a new company.  The goal was to plant trees, on a volunteer basis, to help fight against climate change.  I had already been planting a small number of volunteer trees each year for the past several years, but I wanted to make it more official.  I also believed that I could plant trees for environmental reasons on a much larger scale if I formalized the company.  After all, I had been receiving dozens of inquiries about this type of work every year.  Also, I've been working as a professional tree planter for a couple decades, so I figured that my extensive field experience would be invaluable in building out a large planting organization.

I decided to call the company Replant.ca Environmental.
 


Now I knew that using this name had the potential to be confusing.  After all, the original Replant.ca website has been the most well-known tree planting site in Canada since I started it in 1998.  It hosts thousands of photos, music, videos, training materials, a message board, and much more.  During its tenure, the website has been visited a few million times, and it has been the reason, directly or indirectly, that tens of thousands of university/college students have found summer jobs as tree planters across the country.  But the name also has incredibly strong brand recognition, and I felt that was going to be helpful in establishing the new company.

The only drawback to my main industry experience is that my regular job as a professional tree planter is just that ... a job.  The tree planting that I normally perform is intended to fill empty cut-blocks after logging companies cut down part of a forest.  To be clear, I don't work for the logging companies directly.  I work (on a seasonal basis) for a few different companies that specialize in tree planting, and those companies are hired by the logging companies or by the government.  I refer to this work as commercial or industrial "post-harvest" reforestation, because we rebuild forests after commercial harvesting.  This is the kind of work that is done seasonally by tens of thousands of Canadians.  It's the work that Replant.ca focuses upon.  To learn more, go to this link:



When I started Replant.ca Environmental, my goal was to become more involved with a different and "better" type of reforestation.  I wanted to plant trees that wouldn't be cut down in the future by logging companies.  Replant.ca Environmental meets that goal.  Our long-term plan is to acquire land, plant trees, and build community forests that the public is allowed to visit and enjoy.  In fact, the public is welcome to visit any of our properties right now!  We're still early in the process of building our first community forests, next month (November 2019), we'll start creating complex trail systems on our first property, to enhance recreational enjoyment for the public.  These trails will be open to recreational users for year-round hiking (and cross-country skiiing during the winter).  Our goal is to have three community forest properties completely developed within three years, with each individual property being over 100 acres in size.

Thankfully, I've had some help from a few of my professional tree planting friends, including Laura, Karla, and Jon.  Although they also work for part of each year in post-harvest reforestation, they too share my goal of building permanent forests that won't be cut down in the future.

To really learn more about our company, you should visit our new website.  We launched it officially at the start of September, but we're adding new content every week as we finish building it out.  Here's the link:



Here are three quick facts:

1.  The Replant.ca Environmental company does NOT work for or with logging companies.

2.  We aim for biodiversity.  We do not plant monocultures.  We planted five different species in 2019, and are aiming for twelve species in 2020.

3.  Our three-year goal includes planting over 100,000 trees in 2020, and developing three complete Community Forest properties in Atlantic Canada by the fall of 2022.


If you want to support us, share the link to our website! Thanks for reading...

  - Jonathan Clark








Tuesday, September 24, 2019

State Of The Industry (2019): BC Tree Planting

A year ago, I wrote a post about the state of the BC reforestation industry.  It gained a lot more traction than I expected (7000 views in 48 hours) and spurred a lot of discussion between foresters and our industry.  Here's a link to that post if you'd like to re-read it:

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

To recap, I mentioned that tree planters were receiving piece-rate compensation that was the worst in more than a decade, and that, with inflation, prices should be about twenty percent higher than in 2006-2007.  I suggested that the industry was at a cross-roads.  With the demand for planters about to suddenly exceed supply (due partly to significant wildfire seasons in 2017 and 2018), I also suggested that if prices didn't increase significantly for 2019, the industry would have major problems meeting obligations.  Let's take a look at where things stand just twelve months later.


What Happened in 2019?

As a whole, industry prices rose in 2019.  The majority of planters would agree to that statement.  Of course, there is no way of determining exactly how much, because even planters themselves rarely know what their exact average tree price was for the season (except those very few that track their production using Excel spreadsheets, or using an app like Numbies).  Is it fair to say that planter prices probably rose about 12-15% industry-wide compared to 2018?  I'm not sure, but I think that this estimate is in the ball park so I'm going to go with it.

Is there a way of determining how much prices rose at the contractor level?  Well, not exactly, but let's take a look at public data.  The following numbers are based upon publicly-tendered work by government offices such as BC Timber Sales and the BC Ministry of Forests:


2018 overall average bid price:  53.7 cents/tree
2017 overall average bid price:  38.9 cents/tree
  Year-to-Year Increase of:          38%

These numbers were based upon known public tenders totalling approximately 59.72 million trees in BC.  Will those bid prices continue to rise this fall, or will they flat-line?

Unfortunately, public data is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to an overall understanding of tree planting pricing.  BC was expected to plant approximately 270 million trees in 2019.  Alberta was expected to plant perhaps another 80 million.  These numbers were estimates, but were good enough for the point I’m about to make.  Considering that we only had public data on approximately 60 million of 350 million trees total, it’s obvious that public bid pricing represented only approximately twenty percent of the total market.

As there is no reliable source of data for private work we have to rely on anecdotal accounts.  Based on what I heard in the past twelve months, there was a wide range of reaction to the increases in public pricing.  Some licensees were receptive and sympathetic to the needs of industry.  Others were less forthcoming in approving rate increases.  Keep this dichotomy in mind, because it will become relevant in the near future.  It’s not hard to figure out who will be at the highest risk for non-completion of contracts.  We know that the labour force will follow the money.  Contractors who plant for licensees that aren't paying market prices will find it challenging to attract and retain sufficient workers.

Before we talk more specifically about the planting industry, let's look at a macro view of BC's forest sector as a whole (and current problems with fiber pricing).



BC's Forest Sector

A lot of tree planters don't pay much attention to what's happening in the forestry sector in general, which is unfortunate.  I get it.  For many, tree planting is just a short-term summer job.

Right now, BC's logging industry is not particularly healthy. Here are a couple of links:

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/mill-workers-forest-industry-staff-reactions-closures-1.5283821

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/b-c-mill-workers-quesnel-tolko-1.5250013

Pay close attention especially to that second article.  It has an interactive map of BC that shows the status of a number of mills that are currently operating with reduced shifts, or are in temporary shutdown or bankruptcy.

Look at the 3-year chart lumber pricing, to get a better understanding of the present situation:



Some planters have wondered if the mill closures will have a significant impact upon tree planting in 2020.  The answer is:  Yes and No.

In theory, silviculture obligations are exactly that:  obligations.  Even if a mill is not harvesting wood, they are still obligated under BC laws to reforest the lands that they harvested in the past.  So in that sense, trees still need to be planted.

Of course, there will be some exceptions.  In some cases, mills are going bankrupt, and simply don't have funds to plant trees.  In other cases, silviculture obligations can be legally deferred for a short window of a few years (although it becomes costly to catch up).  Importantly, if a mill isn't harvesting wood right now, that means that they aren't creating new blocks for us to plant two years from now.

So yes, this is definitely going to have some short-term and medium-term impact on the planting industry.  Even this past July (a few months ago), one planting contractor suddenly had more than 4 million trees pulled away from them a few days before their contract was supposed to start.  That mill could only move forward with a fraction of their planned summer planting program due to their financial situation (the rest of the trees were either sold or put into cold storage until 2020).

On a positive note, the very large corporations (Canfor, West Fraser, Tolko) are in the industry for the long-haul, and know that they have to sustain some operations despite the low lumber prices.  And of course, the government branches (MOFLNRO, BCTS, and projects funded by FCI and FFT) are going to, for the most part, eat up as many trees as possible, since the west coast forest nursery industry is currently at capacity. 

Speaking of Canfor, their September contractors' newsletter points out that BC is the only province which is currently suffering from the lumber pricing situation.  The newsletter looked at shipments to the United States in the first half of 2019, and noted that production curtailments in BC were mostly offset by gains in other provinces.  While BC lost 304 million board feet (MMfbm) or a drop of 9%, three other provinces did relatively well:  Alberta increased by 49 MMbfm (up 6%), Ontario increased by 61 MMbfm (up 9%), and Quebec increased by 78 MMfbm (up 8%).  So in other words, although the mills in BC are in a bad state, the situation is not mirrored across the rest of Canada.


Annual Volume Predictions for British Columbia

Again, the WFCA comes to the rescue (for my research and rhetoric) with some annual volume predictions in their September 20th issue of the Rumour Mill RoundUp.  To be more specific, check out this graphic:




We can see that there are opportunities and challenges for BC's planting industry.

The opportunity, obviously, is that there is a lot of work coming down the pipeline.  Of course, if company's aren't able to attract a workforce for 2020, this will be irrelevant, and we'll have another "trees in the dump" story at the end of the season.

Aside from the obvious challenge of trying to plant forty million extra trees, there's a less obvious challenge:  Why are all of the additional trees being scheduled for the Spring plant?  Perhaps BC's foresters should have a "Timing Summit" to coordinate their planning, because this is not the best way to attack a production bulge.

To give credit to MOFLNRO, they have already extended the spring planting window by ten days.  A number of contracts will have June 30th as the required completion date (rather than June 21st).  That's a great step in the right direction.

However, the Spring Bulge is still a problem.  If you look at all the major players in the industry, they are almost without exception involved in summer planting too.  A lot of this planting typically starts almost as soon as the "Spring" (over-wintered) trees are complete.  A few companies commonly have a short "break week" at the end of June, or a gap between the end of over-wintered stock and the start of hot-lifted summer trees.  MOFLNRO was smart to recognize this and be flexible with their deadlines, as this definitely takes some pressure off some contracts.  However, for the industry as a whole, pushing spring deadlines back by a week and a half doesn't address the need to plant 40 million extra trees.  It's like squeezing extra groceries into a shopping bag.  The bag can only hold so much before it splits.

For 2021 and beyond it would be helpful for foresters to consider moving some of their trees from spring to summer.  After all, they might get slightly better prices, because there are still some contractors out there who are full all spring, but hungry for [additional] summer work for their planters.

Also, although this may sound crazy, why aren't BC foresters planting a lot more trees in the Fall?  In the Maritimes, a huge amount of planting is done in September and October.  When I spoke to one nursery representative there a few weeks ago, he mentioned that mortality in August and November was significant.  The mortality was high in August due to heat.  In November the roots didn't have time to prepare for winter.  However, he said that the survival rates were excellent in September and October.  Quebec also has a significant Fall planting program.  Maybe some parts of BC should consider trying the same approach.

A fall plant would serve several purposes.  For one, it would take away trees from the spring bulge.  Also, it would mean that companies doing the fall contracts would be more likely to have longer-term planters doing the work, since many of the seasonal summer planters would be in school.  It's always beneficial to have a more-experienced workforce planting your trees.  I know that many of my own experienced planters who are no longer in university would be quite interested in fall planting work.  In the long term, if we could start offering longer seasons (say 100 days per year instead of 70), the workforce would be more likely to stick with planting for additional years.

If ten million trees were moved from spring scheduling to fall planting, it would solve a LOT of problems.  Those ten million trees would reduce the required size of BC's annual workforce by perhaps as many as 300 planters.  If you're wondering where I got that number, 4% less trees in the spring probably means 6% fewer planters, because inexperienced candidates would be the ones to be sacrificed (on an estimated work force size of about five thousand planters).  I think that both foresters and company owners would agree that reducing the annual hiring needs by 300 rookies would be very beneficial.  A moderate fall planting program in the appropriate areas of the province would help us build a better workforce, resulting in less incidents and accidents by new and young workers, and reduced seedling mortality thanks to a more experienced workforce.



Problems Specific to the Tree Planting Industry

On the one hand contractors are dealing with problems that include high fuel prices, high WorkSafe contribution rates, high health taxes, significant jumps in minimum wage, and general inflation on a wide range of goods and services.  All the while, they are struggling with the best ways to attract and retain a competent workforce.

Planters, on the other hand, have been dealing with stagnant wages for almost a decade (if you ignore 2019 wages).  While that kind of financial oppression might be palatable to some individuals for a few years, there comes a time when too much pressure has built up.

Tree planting, whether as a summer job or as a professional career, is simply not attractive to today’s job seekers.  Although the 2019 season was better than most in the past, many Canadians have heard through friends about the physical and emotional hardships associated with planting.  They’ve also heard horror stories from hundreds or even thousands of former planters who bring up issues with companies that don’t pay properly, that cut corners on health and safety, and that generally give the impression of not caring about their employees.  Decent-paying jobs are widely available in the city.  Annual take-home pay for tree planting is less than stellar.  Is there any wonder that the number of applicants has been dropping industry-wide?

Let’s look at contractors and planters separately …


Planting Contractors

Some people assume that the planting companies (contractors) are the ones who drive the industry and who dictate what happens.  In some ways that’s a fa├žade.  Contractors are subject to the rules and regulations of government and licensees.  They’re subject to the whims and vagaries of their workforces.  This, coupled with the slowly mounting financial pressures from 2008 onward, has created a situation where some major contractors had their backs up against the wall.  Frankly, I’m quite surprised that no planting contractors went out of business in 2017 or 2018.

For some time, say from around 2007 to 2017, the general opinion within the industry was that it might be healthy to all other companies if one major company became insolvent.  During that period, an insolvency would arguably eliminate some bid price competition, and possibly allow all other companies to become slightly healthier as the weak were weeded out.  Today's industry has a very different mindset.  Company owners know that there is enough work in the next few years to keep everyone busy.  Furthermore, some believe that the insolvency of any one significant company might actually be counterproductive to everyone else.  Contractors want to reassure their clients that the work can get done as long as prices are fair.  If industry perceives that this is no longer possible and that alternate solutions must be sought out, external factors might come into play that aren’t favorable to the long-term health of the industry.  It is better for companies to act for the collective good.  A rising tide floats all boats.


Planters

Today’s workforce is generally younger and less experienced than it has been in some time.  This is a trend that has been coalescing slowly over the past several years.  As the industry becomes less attractive to participants they move on to other forms of employment.  On the coast, planters with more than ten years of experience become less common with every passing year.  In the Interior, they're as rare as rocking horse manure.  This especially affects contractors in more technical regions, who must learn to deal with a less experienced workforce.

On the other hand, social media means that today’s planters are more connected and informed than ever before.  And it’s not just due to sites like Replant.ca and Facebook groups – these are the tip of the iceberg.  Planters are connecting and sharing information on a dozen other types of social media too.  This erodes loyalty to specific companies and creates a situation where the workforce is more transient, always searching for greener pastures.


Improving Recruitment & Retention

The 2020 season is going to be record-breaking.  How can we ensure that the industry can attract sufficient labour to satisfy demand?  Recruitment of new employees is important, but holding onto experienced employees is critical.

Let’s look at ways that contractors can improve retention first.  I’ll address three separate ideas:

1.      Increase Prices – Unquestionably, this will help.  Whether current prices are too high, just right, or not high enough is the subject that always causes a great deal of controversy any time a room full of silviculture foresters get together.  Let me put it in terms that are none too gentle:  It doesn’t matter what foresters think.  It matters what planters think.  This is what will either motivate them to keep planting, or encourage them to walk away from the industry.

2.      Camp Costs – For a lot of planters, camp costs are an oft-mentioned issue when it comes to dissatisfaction.  However, there is a bit of a divide on this issue, between planters who understand the economic implications of the camp cost system vs those who don’t.  To be honest, it would be easy for a company to eliminate camp costs.  They would only need to lower tree prices slightly to compensate and keep their income statements balanced.  Planters would be “happy.”  But they’d be no further ahead.  This is why I’m fairly indifferent about whether or not the camp cost system should be eliminated, and I don't see it as a priority.  Overall, it would have no net economic impact upon the workforce.  The money has to come from somewhere.  All that the elimination of camp costs would result in would be a minor economic redistribution of wealth between various groups of planters.  You can read more about the economic theory behind camp costs at this link:  replant.ca/campcosts

3.      Treat Employees Better – There are several key pillars to this approach.  Top-up your first-year planters to minimum wage during their initial learning period.  Pay people their full wages on a regular bi-weekly or twice-monthly schedule.  Pay people for “extra” labour, such as camp setups and breakdowns, and reefer unloadings.  Ensure that their vehicles, equipment, and camps or motels are properly maintained and/or meet reasonable standards.  And most importantly, remember that your company depends on your planters, so just treat them with respect in general.  The companies that don’t will always find many of their employees migrating to competitors, or leaving the industry permanently.


The Kamloops Business & Market Summit

It's impossible to predict what to expect going forward.  The Western Forestry Contractors' Association is hosting a Business & Market Summit in Kamloops this week.  Many foresters and planting company owners will attend.  This annual summit typically addresses topics as diverse as supply/demand of labour, treatment of workers, seasonal scheduling, viewing practices, and much more.

My thought is that there will be an unspoken undercurrent of expectation that the 2019 public bid prices will be treated as a new baseline rather than a lucky anomaly.  While summit attendees cannot talk about pricing (because that would be collusion), they will agree in general terms that the improvements that we saw during the Fall 2018 viewing season were a stepping stone.  Due to the record-breaking provincial production requirements in 2020, prices may have to increase again this year.  My sense is that an additional five to ten percent increase for 2020 would put the industry at a sustainable level that would enable it to meet Clients' expectations for the next three years.  And I'll also be quick to point out that I'm not trying to be greedy.  We're just dealing with basic supply/demand economics.  Looking at the provincial sowing requirements for the few years after 2020, I suspect that prices will stabilize for a few years starting in 2020, and I believe that's also fair.  Note that right now I'm currently referring only to public bid pricing as the private sector still has some catching up to do.  And this will be problematic considering the financial crisis that is currently hitting most mills.

It's important to remember that changes in planter prices do not necessarily correlate directly to changes in bid prices.  Public bid prices increased significantly in 2019.  Private sector bid prices also increased in 2019 (although less significantly).  But even though planter prices also improved somewhat in 2019, they are still well below what prices were twelve to fifteen years ago, adjusted for inflation.  Last year was a step in the right direction, but there need to be additional hikes to put planter earnings on par with fair historical levels.  Over the past twenty years, the average hourly wage (non-planting) in BC rose when compared to increases in the Consumer Price Index.  Yet despite last year's bump in pricing, planting wages have declined against the CPI through that entire period.  In other words, planter wages have decreased significantly over the past twenty years when compared to both inflation, and to wage rates for other employment in the province as a whole.

To be honest, I'm not sure if the industry can plant the extra 40 million trees this year, without somehow lengthening the spring season significantly.  That's difficult to do though, because many of the largest BC contractors are also tied into work in Alberta in late June through early August, and can't just abandon their commitments there.  But money talks.  If prices in BC are significantly better than in Alberta, the Alberta projects will be the ones that get delayed and suffer.


Where Do We Go From Here?

If you’re a forester, it will be in your best interests to secure a partnership with a long-term contractor, and to focus beyond the "low price" paradigm.  Many foresters with market foresight have already seen the advantages of paying a few more cents on the bottom line in return for avoiding contract-completion headaches in the field.

It appears that production requirements within BC are going to remain high for the next few years.  We may see more multi-year contracts than we've seen in the past, despite the fact that "locking in" a purchase price at the high point of an economic cycle is typically not good advice.  However, working with a specific contractor year after year tends to have a lot of advantages for a forester.

This year, many foresters have realized this year that there are benefits to getting tender packages out early.  An early tender takes advantage of the late summer weather, and lets a forester secure commitments before planting contractors grow weary of time spent on the viewing trail.  Of course, the private sector was much more nimble than the public sector, as usual, so many of the private mills in Alberta have been significantly ahead of the curve this season with respect to early tenders.  The entrenched guard using BC Bid will still be putting viewing packages together in October and scratching their head wondering why so few contractors are submitting late-season bids.

Incidentally, the WFCA put out a good list of suggestions for foresters in one of their recent Rumour Mill Roundup newsletters.  Check out their list at this link:


If you’re a company owner, it would be in your best interests to remember the successes of the public viewing last fall.  Public bids are a barometer which private industry studies closely.  Putting in a poorly thought-out bid on a public job may seem like a silo'd event, but the repercussions on the industry and on your own company reach further than you think.

Also, if you're a company owner, think about how much more smoothly the 2019 season went than 2018.  Reflect upon the value of your work force.  Pay them fairly, and more importantly, treat them fairly.  You need them to get through 2020.  If you're able to let them know that there will be further price increases in 2020 compared to this recent season you will have an easier time of holding on to experienced employees.


If you’re a planter, it will be in your best interests to pay attention to what's happening that will affect your wages.  Take time to understand how the public bidding system works in BC because those bids have a profound effect upon the economics of our industry.  Critically, these bids are one barometer used by the private sector in their negotiations with contractors.  Bookmark this link to see how bidding unfolds through October and November:  2020 Public Bid Results

Pay attention to your legal and regulatory rights and stand up for them.  If your company is contravening employment standards legislation, walk away.  Vote with your feet.  You will be able to get a job elsewhere.

I hear constant complaints from planters who think that we need a union to improve our situation.  I disagree.  There's an easier way.  You saw how tree prices improved this past season, right?  It happened because of the perceived supply/demand imbalance in the labour force.  Some company owners were petrified (after multiple non-completion fiascos in 2018) that they wouldn't be able to complete their seasons unless they were able to offer better wages in 2019.  This led directly to better tree prices.  If you want to maintain that pressure on owners, stop telling all of your friends and random people that you meet in bars that tree planting is a wonderful career and a life-changing experience.  It's this illogical idolization of planting culture that allows the worst companies to continue to find new cannon fodder employees.  I swear, sometimes I think that we're our own worst enemies.

Planters don't need a union; they need to act in unison.  Use word-of-mouth to let everyone know that there are much better jobs out there than being a tree planter for the summer.  This will lead to fewer applicants.  A shortfall in planting applications will hit the bottom feeder companies the hardest.  Scarcity creates value, and if there are less applicants, experienced planters become more valuable.  If you're a vet, it is in your best interests to stop telling your friends and acquaintances that they should become tree planters.


Wrap Up

I assume that I'll write a State Of The Industry post in the fall of 2020 too.  In that one, I hope I'll be talking mostly about general industry issues (safety, problems with quad access on deactivated roads, the need for affordable biodegradable flagging tape, etc.) rather than having such a strong focus on declining long-term wages and industry economics.

I think that's all that I have to say right now.  I'm currently finishing up the fall plant on the BC coast and simultaneously doing some planning work with Replant.ca Environmental, a new tree planting company that I'm running in Atlantic Canada.  I've also been thinking about putting together a compilation album this fall of songs about tree planting, by tree planters (please email me if you want to participate).  But mostly, I'm looking forward to seeing the upcoming bidding results on BC Bid ...




Be careful when you work.  Even professionals make mistakes sometimes.