Planter's Exodus


Planter Shelby Leslie provides insight as to why it is so hard to retain an experienced tree planting work force.

Planting has been my primary source of income for the past eight years.  I started off a wonder-struck idealist at the tender young age of 17. I’ll admit, most of the wonder, and a good part of the idealism has been ground out in these past eight years.  Yet I come back year after year, for better or for worse.  Planting enabled me to travel the world, and fund my education.  It has provided me with the economic freedom to do as I please and for this I am truly grateful.  Yet it would seem that at age 25 and with eight years experience, I am, according the numbers, past my peak and forecasted for bodily decay and a new job.

Statistics from the 2011 Interior Contractor’s Summit (available at illustrate a decline in age and experience of the average tree planter;85% of the work force is between the age of 19 and 30. Furthermore, according to the same report, 30% of the workforce has only one year experience.  These numbers were said to be indicative of the industry’s overall trends.   What’s happened to those veteran characters who were the backbone of any tree planting camp? Here are some ideas I have to explain the exodus of experienced planters:

1.  The seasoned vets (ten years plus) normally have a litany of aches and pains requiring constant management and therapy at their own expense.  This can take a heavy toll on their average annual income of about thirty thousand (supplemented though it may be, by 22 weeks of EI).  Add to this the fact that, at this point, there’s no real hope for pension plans so they’ll have to keep it up for another 30 years.

2. They graduated from university/ college/ trades school and got a job that offered the aforementioned pension, or at the very least a much higher salary for less back-breaking work.

3. They went to the dark side (the oil fields).

4. They invested their money wisely in real estate.

5. On their 30th birthday, their mom and dad came into their basement bedroom and said, “Surprise, you’re the princess of Monaco!”

6. Things just get weirder from here.....

While some of these scenarios are more likely than others, for the majority of people, tree planting is not a sustainable lifestyle. Planters make up the base of a gigantic pyramid known as the “natural resource extraction temple-machine of Canada”.  While I accept the nature of capitalist economics and international markets, it’s hard not to feel a bit shafted.  One might imagine there’s a rapacious little weasel in a sweater vest, pinching pennies off the tops of our trees.  Of course this is not the case, but you get the point; planting isn’t as full of sunshine, rainbows and unicorns these days.

Tree prices are going down; figures from the 2011 report indicate a four cent drop from 2001 to 2010. Combined with the effects of inflation, we see a wage decrease of nearly 30%.  In spite of this, the number of trees being planted (at least in BC) is increasing.  We now have more trees being planted by less experienced planters for less money.  

On top of this, we’re told that there are too many injuries and claims in our business, most of which are related to MSI and slips, trips and falls.  When you consider the mechanics of planting thousands of trees per day on a cut block, for 3 to 6 months of the year, it’s not a surprise that these injuries are occurring. Now, however, there is an increasingly stringent methodology “fit to plant” being pressed upon planters, which demands a lifestyle adjustment to accommodate their seasonal job; an audacious idea yes, but a relatively tall and somewhat unrealistic order.

So where do we go from here?  With the volume of trees on the rise, hopefully dragging up tree prices with it, there is hope for us planters.  Over the past 40 years we have founded a strong sub-culture that has become a pillar of Canada’s natural resource industry. Having hit rock bottom, there is the potential to reinvent ourselves within the framework of the 21st century industrial standards.  How and what that will look like is still to be determined, but one thing is certain; none of these goals will be achieved without the retention of an experienced workforce.  


Shelby has been planting, crew bossing and running trees in Ontario, Alberta , interior BC and the coast for the past 8 seasons.  He writes from his home in Vancouver and can be reached at [email protected].