A highballer (fast planter) can make from $250-500 a day, which makes this job seem appealing. It was the highest paying job I could find for the summers when in university.
But it is also one of the ten toughest jobs in the world. I once spoke with a camp cook who worked in the construction industry for some 25 years, putting up skyscrapers to laying pipelines, highways, or working on oil rigs, and he said that after harnessing a bag of trees and trying the job with his girlfriend, he concluded that all his previous construction work was a complete joke comparatively.
Now, since I help people enter the industry by sending their approach letter to 128 treeplanting companies, I want to make sure you know what you are getting into and that you can handle the job before I pair you up with them. Sure, $50 ain’t much to get your foot into the door, but it costs money to get out there and to set yourself up with all the gear. Also, the companies do not want flops who flake out after a couple of weeks, which will only cost them money and force them to look for a replacement.
Why treeplanting companies do not want flake out flops or lowballers
The industry works such that contractors (treeplanting companies) might send out one of their foremen to fly by chopper over a clearcut (a square forest area ripped of its trees and which now has to be planted), possibly land and prod the ground in random areas with their shovel, to submit a quote price per tree. This is generally double what they pay their planters and covers all the costs and profits.
The planter is then charged a “camp fee” of around $25 to cover food and other costs. This was put into place a while back because the highballers realised they are paying disproportionately more for the costs.
The contractors bid on a project and try to win many contracts so that they can have a constant stream of work during the season. Imagine you are a highballer making $250 a day. What a frustration it must be to sit around for several days between contracts, not making any money, adding up how much you are losing every day. Meanwhile, the contractor has to pay the daily wage to their foremen, for the leasing of trucks and so forth. So downtime is bad for business on all fronts.
When they bid on a contract they also specify by when they can get it done, while fines are often imposed if they are late, not to mention they might already have another contract they are meant to start. So if they are not pumping enough trees into the ground, they can lose a lot of money.
This is why they treasure the highballer, because they have the same fixed costs (the amount of food they eat, renting of trucks, hiring cooks etc), but they profit for every tree they pound into the ground. So if the highballer plants double the amount of a low baller, it is like hiring two people for the price of one, and it gives them confidence they can finish the contract on time.
Do you have what it takes to be a treeplanter?
When I was first offered this job from a friend, I imagined we’d be like little bunny rabbits, on our hands and knees over a soft grassy lawn, guided by strings as we gently kneed our way along, our little spades in hand as we scientifically and carefully inserted the tree plug into the soft soil.
HA! Couldn’t be farther from the truth!
You might get up at 5am, the piercing cold penetrating your nostrils as you peak your head out from under your warm sleeping bag, jostled from your cozy slumber by your rude alarm clock.
You change into your day clothes, which may be kept warm under your sleeping bag so the transition is not such a shock.
You hurry ahead of the crowd to get a place in the shit house, a raggedy canvas tent over a couple of holes in the ground you yourself were probably involved in digging when you set up the camp, the relentless and neverending swarm of mosquitos biting at your ass and sensitive part of your orifice as you struggle to expedite the process.
You proceed to the “mess tent”, where the cook has been busy for a few hours preparing the day’s nourishment. You sit around your groggy disgruntled piers as you chow down and prepare your lunch for the day before piling into the trucks to whisk you off to the block.
After about an hour in that, trying to squeeze in some precious moments of extra sleep among bobbing heads, you finally hit the block and compete with the highballers, who know that every second counts, before getting back to your yesterday’s piece or cutting a new one.
You fill your bags with enough trees to last you a couple of hours and shoot off into the rugged terrain, perhaps clambering up the steep slope carved by the logging road before you can even start.
As you bend over to plant your first tree, perhaps 7 mosquitos have already penetrated the double or triple lining of your clothes, injecting their itchy poison into your back through the tight fit, so you speed up to make the next planted tree less of an annoyance.
Or if not mosquitos, it can be the swarm of black flies that get into your eyes as you look for where to go next. Or the horseflies, deer flies, or the “no see’ems”, so small and practically invisible but like to collect behind your ears, sucking off the soft parts of your body.
Or maybe it is the rain, or the searing sun. Bending over thousands of times a day while carrying your heavy baggage, clambering over big stumps and massive logs left by the industry only because the tree were slightly cracked, rotted inside or curved.
We called them greenhorns. Fresh meat from the city and it was always fun watching new recruits to see if they would crack or pass the test. Usually around two weeks was the breaking point. I was once sitting with a veteran at the end of another grueling day, a newbie sitting across from us listening to our conversation, when he remarked he thought he was going crazy. “Welcome to the club!” we both exclaimed. You have to be a little crazy to survive this. Or you learn how to be crazy. This job has taught me that I can accomplish anything. Never give up and keep pounding.
Or once I saw the most extreme lowballer. He’d spend an eon making a crater large enough for a moon landing, the whole time stopping to take off his gloves, pull out a tissue and wipe his nose. Put in about 250 trees a day and earned less than back home at McDonald’s. Of course he gave up after two weeks.
I’ve seen small framed little girls and 40+ year old men with wobbling bellies pound in double the numbers of muscular young athletes. It’s all in your mind. Every second counts. Efficiency of movement is the key, and you must be as relentless as the ocean of mosquitos and bugs, rain and shine. The shine beaming down on you while you shuffle about on a “burn”, which is a clearcut they set on fire to make it easier for you to slam your shovel into the ground. But the burn has caused the entire surface to be black, which absorbs more heat, emanating up towards you as you are thickly clothed to keep out the bugs and preventing the sun from heating up the back of your red neck and causing you to faint in exhaustion (as a medic I’ve seen this many times).
But if you can overcome all this anguish, there are juicy rewards. I once saw a prison movie where one convict said to another, just before he was going to be viscously gang raped, to “go somewhere else”. As in in his mind. The foundation of mkultra and brainwashing abused children to turn them into assassins who are not even aware of what they are doing. You simply do the shit, stop complaining, and go somewhere else in your head.
Another reason why you turn a little crazy is because, after a while, once you get into the rhythm and get the hang of it, you only use towards half of your conscious mind on what you are doing. That leaves about half to wander around, exploring different thoughts, but without that normal rational mechanism. Meaning you explore ideas you would not normally, and after doing this day in and day out, your notions of reality will definitely shift.
Therefore, on the one hand, you define new limits to yourself and learn that anything is possible and it is all a trick of the mind, while you meet other crazy people, eccentrics, hardcore folks who can endure all and will probably go on to be successful in whatever they endeavour. Good bonding as well. And of course the beautiful nature and fresh air, if you are into that (if not, it will be just that much more of a hell).
Many of those who can survive and even enjoy these conditions are creative types who may have brought a musical instrument with them. So expect music around the fire at night, unless you are in a logging camp. Hard work, hard boozing, neverending stream of dope.
In spite of the pain (although each summer my body adjusted after about three months), I am grateful for this experience. It has taught me that I can accomplish anything, if I simply apply my focus in the right way. Never complaining or even contemplating about the negative points, but plough forward, always that target in mind, like a carrot dangling before a donkey: the cash prize.
If you don’t plant fast enough, your bones and muscles will ache just as much after another long, grueling day, but you will lack the rewards. Learn to push yourself on the block and make every second count, and you will end your day satisfied. Because if you are paying $25 a day in camp costs and you only make $150 a day, after you consider all the other costs, such as drinking in town on your days off, the gear, costs between contracts, it really isn’t worth it and you’re better off staying at McD’s, or perhaps painting (second best paying job I heard of for students).
But if you can overcome and earn enough to make it worthwhile, you’ll find new limits for yourself and you’ll become a better and hardier person. While making great friends and expanding your mind along the way. If you are an adventurous type willing to step out of your confined comfort box and take on the universe like a truth warrior, I’m here to help you!
We are a family operation managing private custom boat tours in the beautiful Palawan area, and are happy to help travelers with their plans through the country, having traveled a lot of it ourselves and planning to visit it all. The pages in this section concern when I was treeplanting in Canada over eight summers.