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