BC Summer Planting Winding Up/Down After Some Delays and Strains

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In the thicket of it. A planter works through some growth as part of this summer’s sometimes challenging 60-million seedling July hot-lift planting season.

It’s the nature of nursery tree seedlings that their biological systems are indifferent to the operational logistics necessary to plant them. Each year we test that maxim with the summer planting program in BC. Last January we sowed an estimated 60 million summer seedlings in nurseries in this province and Alberta.  

We grew them until the end of June, started lifting them this month and now are busy planting all of them before August. Even when the seedlings harden off on time, planting crews stand ready, nursery “hot-lifts” coordinate well, the weather cooperates, sites are accessible, and the ground still pliable, successfully planting live seedlings in July is a remarkable logistical feat. 

Just add in a misstep or delay to that just-in-time sequence and disruptive downstream effects start cascading and compounding. Transport trucks can start to line up at nursery gates, planting crews wait for trees, seedlings suffer, and the available planting window shortens. There is little point trying to plant seedlings in August. They won’t make it.

As we near the end of this year’s summer planting program, which concludes almost all of 2022’s ~280 million trees, save for a handful this fall, early reports are more impressionistic than conclusive. But it’s obvious in some parts planting and nursery crews had to strain to keep things on the rails. 

A cooler than normal spring slowed many seedlings from hardening off by the end of June, which we typically expect. That delay into early July compressed this summer’s planting season by a few days to a week in some cases. Divide 60-million seedlings by, say, a normal work month of 25 work days and we have daily demand at the collective nursery gate of at least 2.5 million seedlings. 

These need to be transported to hundreds of planting sites, handled carefully there and planted within days. Compress the season, as happened this year, and the pent-up demand increases, stress-testing the system and everyone in it. In the worst cases we heard from contractors faced with the dilemma of having crews but no trees. They ended up sending their planters to lift their own stock. This improvisation seems to have worked, but at some cost to crews and contractors. 

Meanwhile, in the background contractors had to manage transporting their perishable seedlings from various nurseries across BC and Alberta to widely dispersed projects. This has become an increasingly bewildering logistical accomplishment. How did we wind up shipping trees, for instance, from Medicine Hat, Alberta to Fort St. John, B.C? It used to be northern nurseries grew seedlings for northern projects. 

Southern nurseries grew seedlings for the south. We have drifted into a fractured summer seedling supply setting where contractors have to coordinate their crews with on-time shipments from numerous nurseries across western Canada on a block-by-block basis. Nobody would design a system like this. But it has devolved through unintended consequences of the tendering process, nursery interest in bidding, and poor planning in some cases.

The summer planting season this year has not crashed, of course. But summer will play an increasing role in any expansion to our reforestation program. This unusual year has exposed some systemic weaknesses. Early next month Chief Forester Shane Berg will reconvene the Seedling Capacity Working Group a planning consortium of government, licensee, nursery, and planting contractors. Figuring how to make the summer season a little more rational and efficient will be on their agenda. 

Repriinted from WFCA Round-Up 2023 with permission