Work and life in the clear-cut: communities of practice in the northern Ontario tree planting industry



Based on ethnography, interviews with tree planters and a survey of tree planting contractors, this article focuses on work cultures in northern Ontario tree planting camps. The compressed planting season and the relatively high yearly turnover in the workforce requires that new workers quickly learn how to plant efficiently. These features result in the development of distinctive work cultures and practices that facilitate learning and the sharing of tacit knowledge between planters. Using the concept of communities of practice, we emphasize the social practices that facilitate the integration of planters into their working communities. At one level, tree planters belong to an extensive network of practice and have a shared sense of identity, irrespective of for which contractor, in which region or in which camp, they work. However, at a finer level there are noticeable variations between camps. Both the client for whom planting is done and the operational practices of the tree planting contractor shape the communities of practice in individual camps. However, the most important factor accounting for differences between camps is the process by which communities of practice are socially produced, reproduced and transformed over time and the role, played in this process by worker turnover and retention.


Le travail et la vie dans une coupe à blanc : les communautés de pratique au sein de l'industrie de reboisement du nord de l'Ontario

Cet article se fonde sur une étude ethnographique, des entrevues menées auprès de planteurs d'arbres et une enquête sur les entrepreneurs en travaux sylvicoles. Il met l'accent sur les cultures de travail dans les camps de reboisement du nord de l'Ontario. La période de plantation limitée dans le temps et le taux annuel relativement élevé du renouvellement de la main-d'æuvre font en sorte que les nouveaux ouvriers doivent apprendre rapidement la technique de plantation pour être efficaces. C'est ainsi que se constituent des cultures de travail et des pratiques distinctes qui favorisent l'apprentissage et l'échange de connaissances tacites entre les planteurs. À l'aide du concept des communautés de pratique, nous mettons l'accent sur les pratiques sociales qui facilitent l'intégration des planteurs au sein des communautés de travail. D'un certain point de vue, les planteurs d'arbres appartiennent à un réseau étendu de pratiques tout en partageant la même identité peu importe l'entreprise pour laquelle ils travaillent, la région ou le camp. À un niveau plus précis cependant, il existe des variations notoires entre les camps. Le client pour qui le travail de plantation est réalisé et les pratiques de fonctionnement de l'entrepreneur en travaux sylvicoles servent à former les communautés de pratique dans les camps particuliers. Cependant, le facteur le plus important qui rend compte des différences entre les camps est le processus par lequel les communautés de pratique sont produites, reproduites et transformées socialement au fil du temps, ainsi que le rôle joué dans ce processus par le roulement et la rétention de la main-d'æuvre.


Thousands of young people heed the call each spring and travel hundreds of kilometres from home into devastated, clear-cut landscapes to create, en masse, a human tree planting factory. (Kuitenbrouwer 2005, R1)

If you can plant trees, you can do anything. (Anthonisen, in Cyr 1998, p. 138)

Tree planting is the last step in the process of industrial forestry, and the first step in its renewal (Braxton-Little 2001). Although the most expensive, manual tree planting is the most reliable method of forest regeneration when compared with natural regeneration or seeding by aerial or mechanical methods, one important aspect of tree planting is that, like logging, the labour process occurs in the woods rather than the mill or factory (Prudham 2005). This has important consequences for production relations and the organization and management of work in the industry. In the case of tree planting, labour demands are seasonal and discontinuous, the work sites are not spatially fixed, there is a dispersed deployment of workers at the site and both the weather and the terrain on which trees are planted can be highly variable. All these factors present challenges for labour supervision and ‘impede the predictability and rationalization of production’ (Prudham 2005, p. 31). Furthermore, the compressed planting season and the relatively high yearly turnover in the workforce means that new workers must quickly learn how to plant efficiently. They must also become accepted and integral members of their tree planting crews. These imperatives have resulted in the development of distinctive work cultures and practices that facilitate learning and the sharing of tacit knowledge between planters. In this article, we use the concept of communities of practice to analyze how these work cultures are produced and reproduced in the tree planting industry in northern Ontario.

Recognizing the importance of social relations in producing (and reproducing), spaces of production is central to our study and to the broader discipline of economic geography (Harvey 1989; Peck 1996; Herod 2001; Hudson 2001; Castree et al. 2004). Beynon and Hudson (1993) differentiate capital's use of space from labour's use of place. They see space as the domain of capital, ‘a domain which capital is constantly searching in pursuit of greater profits’ (p. 182), while place comprises the ‘meaningful situations established by labour’ (ibid.). In these places, workers are not simply reproduced as bearers of the commodity labour power, but socialized as human beings in distinct and diverse communities. In our context, Ontario's boreal forests are both the space where forest products companies and tree planting contractors pursue profits, and the places (campsites, worksites, travel routes and recreation areas) where tree planters create and reproduce distinctive work cultures and communities. 1

In Ontario, tree planting occurs mainly in May, June and August. In 2003, 132 million trees were planted in Ontario (CCFM 2006, Figure 6s), and it is estimated that there are over 2,000 tree planting jobs in Ontario every year, held primarily by post-secondary students from Southern Ontario (Sweeney 2005). Tree planting work is both physically and mentally taxing. Quit rates are high, especially during the early stages of a contract. Those who survive for a whole planting season, however, find that they have taken part in a character-building experience and have become part of a tightly knit work team with a distinctive culture of work.

Tree planting, as an industry and as an occupation, has been under-researched. There is an extensive scientific and technical literature on silviculture and the role of reforestation in forest management (see Smith et al. 1997; Wagner and Colombo 2001). There are also a number of popular practical guides written for aspiring novice tree planters (see Goerz 1996; Cathro 1998). Additionally, the artistic community and the popular media have shown a recent interest in tree planting. 2 However, little scholarly writing addresses the organizational structure and competitive dynamics of the tree planting industry or the occupational cultures associated with tree planting. In most comprehensive studies of the forest products industry, there are only passing references to tree planting (see Armson 2001; Brown 2000; Armson et al. 2001; Mann 2001; Prudham 2005). One exception is the recent work by Casanova and McDaniel (2005; McDaniel and Casanova 2003, 2005) and Sarathy (2007) who analyze the nature of the contract tree planting industry in the southeastern and western US, respectively, focusing on the networks through which Latino migrant workers are hired to work. The most comprehensive study of the culture of work within tree planting is Bodner's (1998) unpublished ethnographic and occupational folk-life study of a planting season in one tree planting camp in Northwestern Ontario.

Tree planting communities of practice are distinctive in that unlike most other occupations there is little division between work and social life outside of work. Even when they return to camp from the worksite and on rare days off, tree planters are still ‘at tree planting’ (Sweeney forthcoming). The specific structuring of tree planting communities of practice assists the efficient transfer of tacit knowledge between workers. We argue that while each tree planting camp develops its own specific community of practice, these are ‘nested’ within what Brown and Duguid (2000) have termed a ‘network of practice’. We also find that communities of practice in the tree planting industry develop over much shorter and more intense timeframes and undergo more frequent partial transformations than do most previously analyzed communities of practice.

We begin by introducing the concept of communities of practice and emphasize the importance of the transfer of tacit knowledge amongst members of such communities. This is followed by a brief description of the methodology employed in our study. Following an overview of the development and organizational structure of the tree planting industry, the core of the article explores factors affecting the formation of, and variations in, communities of practice in tree planting camps in northern Ontario.

Learning, Tacit Knowledge and Communities of Practice

Discussions of learning, innovation and the transfer of knowledge have become commonplace in contemporary economic geography (Amin and Cohendet 1999, 2004; Malmberg and Maskell 1999; Maskell and Malmberg 1999; Benner 2003; Bathelt et al. 2004; Reiffenstein 2006; Rutherford and Holmes 2007). The extensive literature on industrial districts, clusters and learning regions emphasizes that place-based learning plays a critical role in determining the competitiveness of firms. Drawing on Polanyi's (1966) conceptual distinction between codified and tacit knowledge, many writers argue that since codified knowledge is thought to be increasingly ubiquitous it is tacit knowledge that makes places special (Reiffenstein 2006). Tacit knowledge involves learning and skill that is very difficult or impossible to codify and can only be transmitted through training or gained through personal experience. With regard to work, such as tree planting, tacit knowledge is the knowledge embedded in the work culture that is difficult to share with people not involved directly in the work. Although much of the literature on tacit learning and innovation focuses on so-called ‘high-tech’ industries, Benner (2003) points out that innovation and learning can be equally important in low-tech industries and in a range of ‘routine’ activities.

Ontario's tree planting industry thrives on the manual and operational efficiency of its workforce, and the development and transfer of tacit knowledge is critical to the success of contractors and individual planters. The act of planting a single tree is not complicated. However, coordinating and training teams of workers within a highly compressed planting season and over hundreds of thousand of hectares, as well as managing the relations with clients and the time-management of seedling deliveries from nurseries and other suppliers is extremely challenging. Tree planters and their contractors are constantly searching for innovative ways to increase output. These innovations, no matter how small they seem, are extremely important for tree planters because their pay is directly linked to their output. Incremental innovation and an efficient transfer of tacit knowledge between workers are crucial to the financial success of tree planting contractors. It is in the everyday and routine activities of tree planting that cost-efficiency and labour productivity are improved through the development and transfer of tacit knowledge.

To those working in the industry, tree planting is as much a lifestyle as it is an occupation. The intense and seasonal nature of the industry requires tree planters to become immersed in their occupational lifestyles. Work and social life become inextricably intertwined. The communities formed in tree planting camps help facilitate the transfer of knowledge—tacit or otherwise—and the diffusion of social norms and expectations that are essential to the successful operation of a camp. Thus, our analysis requires a conceptual framework that recognizes the social as well as the practical nature of tree planting work. The concept of communities of practice provides such a framework.

Wenger and a number of his colleagues developed the concept of communities of practice to understand how newcomers learned and were integrated into the social order in a variety of workplace apprenticeship settings (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998; Wenger et al. 2002). As Smith (2003) notes:

… a community of practice involves much more than the technical knowledge or skill associated with undertaking some task. For a community of practice to function it needs to generate and appropriate a shared repertoire of ideas, commitments and memories. It also needs to develop various resources such as tools, documents, routines, vocabulary and symbols that in some way carry the accumulated knowledge of the community. In other words, it involves practice: ways of doing and approaching things that are shared to some significant extent among members.

Thus, members of a community of practice share a concern or passion for something that they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. They also develop personal relationships, established ways of interacting and often a common sense of identity. In summary, the development of a community of practice involves ‘… a historically constructed, ongoing, conflicting, synergistic structuring of activity and relationships among practitioners’ (Lave and Wenger 1991, p. 56).

As communities of practice grow and become sub-divided by geographic region, subspecialty, or parent organization, they ultimately come to exist as a series of more specific individual communities embedded within what Brown and Duguid (2000) have termed a ‘network of practice’. While sharing many attributes of the broader network of practice, the individual communities ‘… . cultivate their own style, their own sense of taste, judgment, and appropriateness, their own slang and in-terms’Brown and Duguid (2000, p. 141); features that then distinguishes them from other communities within the network. Individual communities of practice, therefore, tend to exist in specific geographical locales.

Hayter et al. (2003) argue that in debates about contemporary industrial restructuring and globalization, resource peripheries have not only tended to be treated as peripheral places but also peripheral to disciplinary theorizing in economic geography. They caution against the uncritical application to resource peripheries of conceptual templates based on the experience of industrial core regions. Studying resource peripheries in their own right can yield new insights that cannot be derived from the experiences of core regions. Our choice of the communities of practice conceptual framework raises similar issues. Both in the work of Wenger and his colleagues, as well as the limited recent examples where it has been deployed by economic geographers (see Amin and Cohendet 1999, 2004; Hudson 2001, 2005; Benner 2003; Malmberg and Maskell 2002), the concept has been applied exclusively to communities of practice in core primary labour market occupations that develop and endure over relatively long time-periods. Wenger et al. (2002, pp. 60–108) suggest that such communities of practice have five distinct phases of development: potential, coalescence, maturation, stewardship and transformation. In this respect, communities of practice in the tree planting industry in the resource periphery of northern Ontario are quite different. The seasonal nature of the work, the shifting location of the worksites and a labour force drawn from the secondary labour market result in communities of practice which develop over much shorter periods of time and undergo more frequent transformation. Our article demonstrates how the concept of communities of practice, with some modification, is applicable to the development of cultures of work in seasonal and peripheral labour markets.


Our empirical analysis draws on primary information collected by one of the authors during the course of M.A. thesis research (Sweeney 2005). Three principal methods were used to gather the information; ethnography, interviews in tree planting camps during the Spring of 2004 and a short survey distributed to major tree planting contractors. The scope of the project was constrained due to the seasonal nature of tree planting in Ontario, which limited the time available to conduct field research. However, the wide variety of experiences of the subjects interviewed provided ample information to enable a thorough analysis of the communities of practice that develop in tree planting camps.

Interviews and ethnography were conducted in three different camps operated by the same tree planting contractor. The main characteristics of each camp are summarized in Table 1. The camps were selected because they provided different combinations of factors that initially were conjectured to be important in shaping work cultures in tree planting camps.

Table 1. 
Attributes of tree planting camps where interviews were conducted
  Camp A Camp B Camp C
No. of supervisors 1 1 1
No. of assessors and deliverers 2 2 2
No. of crews/crew bosses 4 4 3
No. of planters606045
Level of worker experienceHighModerateLow

Due to his five years of experience as a tree planter, the interviewer was recognized by those working in the camps as a tree planter first and a researcher second. He became what Thrift (1996) refers to as an ‘observant participant’ rather than simply a ‘participant observer’. He worked alongside tree planters to help foster an open and reciprocal ‘planter-to-planter’ dialogue. It is widely recognized that the social positionality of the researcher often influences the responses obtained from participants (Friedman and McDaniel 1998). Therefore, when conducting the interviews it was important for the interviewer to reflect constantly on his relationship to participants (Dowling 2000). In particular, he needed to be constantly aware of how his masculinity, age and considerable experience as a tree planter had the potential to influence the responses given by interview subjects (Kearns 2000). For example, given his considerable experience as a planter, there may have been a concern on the part of some less experienced planters not to lose face in the eyes of the interviewer by presenting an opinion counter to the cultural norm that as planters both were supposed to share.

A total of 46 semistructured interviews were conducted in May and June, 2004 and ranged in length from 20 minutes to one hour. Tree planters, crew bosses, deliverers (who distribute seedlings to the tree planters close to where they will be planted), quality assessors, safety officers (who are in essence tree planters with first-aid training) and supervisors were interviewed. The experience of respondents ranged from tree planters with little over two weeks of experience, to supervisors with over a dozen years experience. While efforts were made to include less experienced tree planters, the sample of respondents was biased consciously towards those with higher levels of experience. The male–female ratio in interviews (24/22) was approximately in proportion to the gender ratios in the tree planting camps surveyed. Table 2 summarizes the characteristics of those interviewed. 3

Table 2. 
Number of interviews conducted in the three camps by gender, experience level and position
Experience/Position Camp A Camp B Camp C Total
Male Female Male Female Male Female
Planters–1 year 2 3 1 2 1 110
Planters–2 years 2 2 2 3 1 110
Planters–>2 years 2 3 1 0 1 1 8
Crew boss 2 1 1 1 1 1 7
Deliverer 1 0 1 0 1 0 3
Assessor 0 1 0 1 0 0 2
Supervisor 1 0 1 0 1 0 3
Safety officer 0 1 0 1 0 0 2
Total1011 8 7 6 446

A short e-mailed questionnaire was sent in early December 2004 to Ontario's 11 largest tree planting contractors. Eight replied, two of whom submitted incomplete responses. Each was assigned a pseudonym to maintain anonymity. The questions were designed to help estimate how many tree planters worked in Ontario in 2004, the average size of tree planting camps in Ontario and to elicit contractors' views on the general state of the industry, the nature of the labour force, and changes in the availability of contracts and the number of contracts they run annually. Since tree planting is not classified by Statistics Canada as a specific identifiable occupation, accurate estimates of the size of the industry are difficult to obtain.

The Development and Structure of Ontario's Tree Planting Industry

Table 3 summarizes the major changes to Ontario's tree planting industry since the 1950s. Early tree planting efforts were the responsibility of the forest products firms, and relied mainly on out-of-work loggers and ‘drifters’ to carry out the work (Bodner 1998; Armson 2001, p. 155). In 1962, the provincial government assumed responsibility for reforestation (Radforth 1992) and workers previously excluded from forestry—local women, First Nations and students—began to work as tree planters. The provincial government began contracting out tree planting operations in the 1970s, but it was after the introduction of the forest management agreement (FMA) system in 1979 that contract tree planting experienced its sharpest period of growth. Firms entering FMAs assumed responsibility for tree planting, and were given autonomy regarding their reforestation operations. By 1986, 58 percent of land licensed for use by the forest products industry was covered by FMAs (Morley 1986). Firms holding FMAs used private contractors almost exclusively, and as a result, the number of tree planting contractors increased significantly. Contractors came to rely on post-secondary students as their primary source of labour. By the late 1980s it was estimated that there were more than 4,000 seasonal tree planting jobs in Ontario (Brodeur 1994).

Table 3. 
Development of the tree planting industry in Ontario
Time period Significant legislation Labour force Service delivery Major changes
1950sAmendments to the Crown Timber Act (1948, 1954)Transient, unreliableForest products companiesInception of Legislated Forest Management
1960sAmendments to the Crown Timber Act (1962)First Nations, women studentsDepartment of Lands and Forests (OMNR)Province assumes responsibility, use of student workers
1970sAmendments to the Crown Timber Act (1979)Increasingly studentsOMNR, Some private contractors used to provide excess capacityIntroduction of FMA's
1980sSuccessors Rights (Crown Transfers) ActPredominantly studentsPrivate contractors, OMNR, forest products companiesRapid expansion of industry, move to piece-rates in lieu of hourly wages
1990sCFSA (1994), Softwood Lumber Agreement (1996)Predominantly studentsPrivate contractors, Declining OMNR, forest products companiesConsolidation and rationalization within contractors
PresentExpiration of Softwood Lumber AgreementPredominantly studentsPrimarily private contractorsContinued stagnation of piece-rates, difficulty in attracting and retaining experienced and productive workers

In the early 1990s public funding for reforestation was reduced significantly, and the provincial government eventually relinquished any direct involvement in tree planting (Armson 2001). Small and unprofitable contractors were forced out of business or taken over by larger firms. Although the 1994 Crown Forest Sustainability Act and the 1996 Softwood Lumber Agreement provided some recovery, the benefits were concentrated in the hands of the largest contractors. The tree planting industry in Ontario is currently dominated by a small number of large contractors, and the workforce is much smaller than at its peak in the late 1980s. In 2004 it was estimated that there were just over 2,000 tree planting jobs in Ontario, approximately 1,600 of which were provided by the five largest contractors (Sweeney 2005).

Tree planting camps are set up anywhere from remote boreal lakes to truck-stops, and house upwards of 75 tree planters and management staff for up to two months. The technical division of labour within a tree planting camp is relatively simple. A typical camp consists of one supervisor, a head cook and sometimes an assistant, one or two tree deliverers, a quality assessor, a safety officer (who is also a planter) and crew bosses. The rest of the camp consists of tree planters organized into crews of between 12 and 15. Each crew is managed by a crew boss. The supervisor is responsible for budgeting in camp, working with the client to plan daily operations and monitor progress, the distribution of work assignments and most general purchasing decisions, aside from food (e.g., fuel, extra tree planting equipment). Cooks and assistant cooks are responsible for planning and preparing meals, as well as the acquisition of foodstuffs and cooking supplies throughout the duration of a contract. Deliverers are responsible for the handling and delivery of seedlings to dispersed individual worksites. Assessors are responsible for monitoring quality and progress of the trees planted at the worksite. The safety officer is a tree planter who is paid a small premium to monitor and assess the safety issues and concerns in camp, as well as complete any needed Worker's Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) paperwork in the event of a work-related injury.

Tree planters in Ontario almost invariably are paid piece-rates which often vary with the difficulty and accessibility of the land to be planted, the stringency of quality expectations and the variety of seedling stock to be planted. Usually, these piece-rates are set at levels that will generate an average daily wage of between $150 and $250 for the tree planter and varied from $0.07 to $0.095 per tree in the camps we surveyed. Management employees are paid in a different fashion. Supervisors are usually paid a lump sum for the completion of a contract but can also receive bonuses for early completion and outstanding quality, or penalties for poor quality. The cost of running a large tree planting camp is in the order of $10,000 per day, and it is therefore to the advantage of supervisors and contractors, to finish contracts on or ahead of schedule (Bodner 1998). Cooks are paid a per diem rate that can exceed $300, depending on the number of people for whom they are responsible. The cook's work is arguably the most difficult in camp, as they often begin as early as 4 a.m. and work until 11 p.m. with little rest. Cooks may receive bonuses if they are able to keep within budget. Assistant cooks are paid a per diem rate of approximately $150. Assessors and deliverers are also paid per diem, usually in the area of $200. This rate may vary based on the contractor, client or experience of the employee. Crew bosses are paid a daily rate based on the production of their planters, usually ranging between 8 and 12 percent of their crew's earnings. Some contractors may impose minimum and/or maximum daily rates, or may assign crew bosses to smaller crews, allowing them to plant alongside their workers, thus earning wages based on the trees that they have planted as well as a percentage of what their crew has planted.

Tree planting contractors in Ontario explicitly target post-secondary students for their workforces. They rely heavily on crew bosses for recruiting and hiring, which takes place through two channels. The principal method is for crew bosses to recruit workers directly through personal networks. Secondarily, applicants who apply directly to the contractor's head office are referred to crew bosses. This latter type of hiring is becoming more prevalent as the larger contractors use intensive hiring drives at universities and colleges to recruit their workforces. Such applicants are likely to be referred to crew bosses who attend the same post-secondary institution as themselves. As far back as the early 1980s, Cowell (1982, p. 21) noted this tendency: ‘[e]ach foreman recruits his own crew. A foreman who is a graduate student at Dalhousie University shows up with a largely Dalhousie crew’. Thus, there is a strong tendency for a crew to comprise workers who reside in close geographic proximity to each other or who attend the same educational institution. Crews also usually include some experienced tree planters with whom the crew boss has worked previously. These hiring practices create a situation where, from the outset, many of the members of a particular crew share some common ground. This can be instrumental in the formation of a successful community of practice (Wenger 1998).

Jobs in resource-based industries such as forestry are often thought of as predominantly male jobs. Reed (2003, p. 373) observes that ‘[T]ypically, forestry conjures up images of logging, an occupation characterized by physical labour, hard work, danger and even drama. These images are symbols of masculinity in forestry communities, symbols to be admired and even romanticized’. She argues that representations of women in forestry work are limited because academics and policy-makers have overlooked the types of employment where women are most likely to be found. As noted earlier, men and women are almost equally represented in the tree planting workforce in northern Ontario and women often are amongst the most productive planters in what is a harsh and physically demanding work environment. Although not the focus of this particular article, this raises interesting questions about gender relations and masculinities in tree planting and the broader forestry industry (Bodner 1998; Brandth and Haugen, 2005; Lidestav and Sjölander 2007; Walby and Doyle 2007).

Communities of Practice in Tree Planting Camps

We now turn to the role played by communities of practice in the process through which rookie planters learn to become successful planters. The focus is on how learning takes place amongst tree planters and how the social, economic and cultural aspects of each camp combine to produce and (re)produce distinct communities of practice. As Wenger (1998, p. 130) notes, ‘practice is always located in time and space because it exists in specific communities and arises out of mutual engagement, which is largely dependent on specific places and times’. Thus, although embedded in a broader network of tree planting practice, each tree planting camp develops its own distinct community of practice. This is reflected in Cindy's (6F/CB) comment that

… each tree planting camp is like an extended family. When it comes right down to it, from the supervisor to the management down to the planters … there's a certain type of vibe that is created within each camp. It is dictated a lot by management, the people running the camp. In every camp I've seen … there's a certain mentality and a certain language that goes along with each camp … and it varies across camps.

Based on our research, three principal factors explain variations in communities of practice between tree planting camps in northern Ontario; namely, the client for whom the planting is being done through a contractor, the contractor for whom the tree planters work and differences in the average level of planter experience in specific camps. The latter is related to the discontinuous annual temporal rhythm of reforestation that shapes communities of practice in the industry.

Learning to plant

There are no courses to take or certificates to earn. There is no prescribed process to become, magically, a planter. Greeners become planters on that first cold morning with the sound of rain on the tent when the aching body absolutely refuses to get up and pull on wet clothes, but the mind and soul find themselves standing at the lunch table anyway, giggling. (Cathro 1998, p. 26)

Although the task of planting a tree appears simple, tree planters must develop a significant amount of tacit knowledge and skill in order to achieve the levels of productivity required to make a good wage. The first planting season worked by a rookie is often viewed as an investment, during which she or he can hone their practice in order to maximize earnings in subsequent years. Given the piece-rate system there is a constant incentive for individual planters to increase their daily planting output. The payment system for crew bosses creates a monetary incentive for them to ensure that the crew as a whole maximizes the aggregate number of trees planted. However, it is not simply a case of planting as many trees as possible, but rather planting as many trees as possible whilst meeting the quality standards set by the client. If quality standards are not met when assessed, tree planters are forced to replant. 4 This results in reduced earnings for individual planters and their crew bosses, as well as an erosion of the contractor's profit.

A planter must learn the tricks-of-the-trade to maximize his or her individual earnings. To maximize the earnings of the crew boss, the crew must meld socially and work well as a team. Although the more successful tree planting camps have low worker turnover rates from year to year and attract experienced planters from other camps and regions, they must still draw on a new crop of inexperienced rookie planters each year to round out crew complements. To ensure a successful planting season for the crew, new planters must be integrated into the camp's community of practice and acquire the tacit knowledge that enables them to become productive as quickly as possible, especially given the short planting season.

In their original formulation of the concept of communities of practice, Lave and Wenger (1991, p. 29, italics in original) observed that:

Initially people have to join the community and learn at the periphery. As they become more competent they move more to the “centre” of the particular community. Learning is, thus, not seen as the acquisition of knowledge by individuals so much as a process of social participation … . the mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the socio-cultural practices of a community.

This is true of communities of practice in tree planting camps. New planters acquire the tacit knowledge that enables them to become successful planters as they participate in the practices of the camp; practices that include not only the formal work practices but also social and cultural practices. The latter include a vocabulary of slang, story-telling, the extensive use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana and a loosening of social inhibitions. During the planting season, the work and social life of tree planters are inextricably intertwined.

It may take an inexperienced planter three days or three years to learn how to plant efficiently. The time taken depends on a number of factors including the influence of the crew boss, the other planters on the crew and factors such as terrain, weather and the rigour with which quality specifications are enforced. A crew boss must ensure that their planters are all adequately trained in production methods and must also help instill the accepted social norms of this particular camp's community of practice in both the rookies and any experienced planters who, previously, have worked for different contractors or in different camps. While the seasoned planters begin planting and earning money almost immediately, the rookie's first days are dedicated to training in health and safety, basic production techniques and planting etiquette. Planting etiquette focuses on the importance of maintaining social solidarity within the crew by sharing the less desirable tasks and not taking advantage of fellow crew members by ‘creaming out’—taking a disproportionate share of the more easily planted land to maximize one's own earnings. More generally, when things go wrong for a fellow planter, others are expected to help out, knowing that, in turn, they will receive assistance when needed. Such etiquette is designed to reconcile the competition between individual planters that is inherent in the piece-rate system with the need for a cooperative organization of work in order to maximize the aggregate output of the crew and ensure day-to-day and season-to-season reproduction of efficient and profitable work practices.

Since a crew boss's pay is based on a percentage of their crew's production, they have every incentive to ensure that inexperienced planters learn as quickly as possible to plant profitably. In the first week of the planting season, crew bosses spend most of their time with rookies demonstrating the essentials of the job; namely, how to plant each tree properly without incurring a quality infraction. The greater the number of inexperienced planters on a crew, the less time the crew boss has to spend training each one and the more they have to rely on their more experienced planters to informally assist with training. Once most planters are up-to-speed, the crew boss is able to devote time to supporting planters by supplying them with seedlings, water and insect repellent; assistance which maximizes the time that a planter is actually planting trees.

Given that they are responsible for as many as 15 other planters, the impact that the crew boss has on the training of any one individual rookie is limited. Much more learning and development of tacit knowledge is required to transform the rookie planter who will be doing very well to plant 2,000 trees a day into a highly productive worker capable of planting over 3,000 regardless of terrain. As Mary (3F) stated ‘Crew bosses can show you technique, but it's different when you're out there’. The crew boss is unable to spend the entire day with a single planter, teaching them more advanced planting techniques and how to maintain a steady pace throughout the day. Therefore, much of the training informally falls upon the shoulders of the experienced planters and is conveyed through the sharing of tacit knowledge in work and social spaces. One of the interviewed crew bosses, Shawn (5M/CB), illustrates this well:

It takes a certain individual to adapt to a new environment and to embrace a culture that I'm trying to give them. It's about working with the individuals on a day-to-day basis, getting to know who they are … I have an influence, but on top of that I feel that my vets … have a strong influence as well, setting the work ethic, setting the expectations because they're working side-by-side, while I could be somewhere else delivering trees … we're a very tight crew, everyone gets along with everyone. Just trying to encourage as much socializing, as much bonding as possible after the job because if you're able to form a relationship between the two, not only on the block but hanging out and socializing with people, you force a much stronger bond and a certain respect is gained for everyone on the Crew. I think that it is very important to know the people on the crew, to know that you can trust them, and to know that the people you're working with are working just as hard as you, and are going through the same stuff. It's a very strong bond. It's unspoken but it exists.

One technique used by crew bosses to help train workers is to pair a new planter with an experienced one and have them work together for a short period of time. Mary (3F) remembered benefiting from this technique, stating: ‘I remember learning a lot from working with Bobby in my first year. I would have been slowing him down a lot, though. But it made me have to keep up with him. It's good just to know how fast to go’.

By observing and working alongside experienced planters, new planters learn to increase their productivity and earnings. This type of learning occurs at the worksite and elsewhere, through direct conversation and meetings with the crew or the whole camp. Clark (5M/CB) believed the experienced planters on his Crew taught him ‘… everything that my crew boss couldn't. …’ Tony (8M/CB/S) reinforced this when he stated that ‘asking or watching [the more experienced planters] to figure it out [how to plant efficiently] has a huge impact on how you grow as a planter’. However, if a crew boss has recruited a crew with very little experience, they are faced with two major challenges. First, they must spend more time instructing new planters in the basics and, therefore, have less time to spend with individual planters. Second, experienced planters are instrumental in setting an example of how hard to work. Without this example, it is difficult for new planters to learn how to maintain a consistent and efficient pace throughout the entire workday.

Tree planters are continuously confronted with new situations, especially given variable terrain and weather conditions. Similar to many other work groups, tree planters regularly take advantage of the shared expertise of their fellow workers (Paulus et al. 2000). As a rule, experienced planters are willing to share their knowledge of techniques and work practices. For example, Clark (5M/CB) noted that: ‘there aren't a lot of secrets [of planting techniques] held back’ and Tony (8M/CB/S) that ‘… it's normally only the really big assholes who won't share their techniques with people’. Although the bulk of a planter's training occurs during their first planting season, learning remains an ongoing process for those who plant for several years. Tony (8M/CB/S) commented ‘… you have the ability to be really amazing in your second year, but you still haven't honed the skill to a state of perfection’. Imparting tacit knowledge to others is an added source of satisfaction for experienced tree planters.

Becoming a tree planter, learning the culture

In order for new planters to become accepted and productive members of their Crew and camp, they must learn and participate in the social practices of the camp. Such participation provides further opportunities for planters to acquire tacit knowledge about how to plant efficiently. Some of the social practices that bind planters to their crew and their camp include language, story-telling and the pervasive use of alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs. While in camp and out on the block planters often engage in practices that are antithetical to their normal patterns of behaviour. For many of them, tree planting represents a rite of passage and the camp is a liminal space that allows planters temporarily to construct new identities and ways of acting (Bodner 1998; Sweeney forthcoming).

Language and story-telling are key elements in the development of any community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998). Before becoming fully integrated into a community of practice, individuals must become familiar with its language. Familiarity with a community of practice's language ‘may have more to do with [the individual's] legitimacy of participation … than with knowledge transmission’ (Lave and Wenger 1991, p. 105). A basic vocabulary is common amongst tree planters across Ontario, and to some extent, throughout Canada, however, each camp adds its own distinct words and phrases. 5 The argot used by tree planters becomes one of the most cherished memories of their tree planting experience. While some slang refers to the actual job of tree planting itself, it is also descriptive of the lifestyle of tree planters. Swear words, curses and sexual innuendos are scattered liberally through the discourse of the camp. The use of such language, and the frequency and volume at which it is delivered, would be considered unacceptable in most work places (or in the halls of colleges and universities). Speaking of language, Barb (9F/A/C) noted that:

when you're up here every other word is a swear, you're constantly cursing and swearing [but] no one gets offended really. It's pretty bad, some of the comments people make. If you were working somewhere else there would be nobody talking this way. And the sexual innuendos … there's definitely a lot of sexual innuendos around camp. But I've never seen it to be a problem.

Story-telling and work narratives are also crucial to the development of communities of practice. They are not only used as vehicles for both formal training and imparting tacit knowledge, but also work to reinforce social identities. Jordan (1989) speaks of story-telling as a key factor in the learning that goes on within a community of practice. She notes that ‘[w]hat happens is that as difficulties of one kind or another develop, stories of similar cases are offered up by the [members] … In the ways in which these stories are treated, elaborated, ignored, taken up, characterized as typical and so on … are the packages of situated knowledge’ (p. 935). In the case of tree planting, story-telling and biographies play a prominent role allowing individuals to share knowledge with each other. This is especially important for inexperienced planters. Story-telling and biographies are also important in a collective sense, as it is the experienced members of the community of practice who, as a group, create, modify, retain and control the transmission of knowledge.

Although by no means universal amongst tree planters, tobacco, drug and alcohol use play an important role in shaping practice in many camps. The most prevalent drug is marijuana and it is not uncommon for some planters to use marijuana on the block as well as in camp and on days off. 6 The use of ephedrine-based products was also common before they became heavily regulated. Drug and alcohol use can operate as a coping mechanism amongst co-workers in physically or mentally challenging occupations (Work in America 1983), and as a form of social support and stress relief (Beattie et al. 1993). Bennett and Lehman (1999) found that work groups that tolerate the use of drugs and alcohol are more likely to promote open use, which is certainly the case in most tree planting camps. In tree planting camps where drug and/or alcohol use is not tolerated, this policy is made explicit to new hires.

Substance use was prevalent in all the tree planting camps in our study, as well those described by Bodner (1998) and Cyr (1998). As Cathro (1998, p. 25) remarks, ‘a lot of the top planters smoke a lot of pot’ and tree planting is the only job where it is not uncommon to be ‘… doing bong hits in the back of a crew cab at sunrise’. The social use of drugs and alcohol, especially on days off, is also a way for inexperienced planters to gain entry into their community of practice and bond, at least socially, with other members of their camp. Jim (3M), a planter who abstained from alcohol and marijuana, commented on this. He noted that drug and alcohol use, especially on days off:

… helps people interact, it gives them an opportunity to step out of where they've been all week, their crew and whatnot, to get them to know other people in the camp. I think it's important because you do notice other people. With marijuana and alcohol, [a tree planter] might notice and hang out with different people than they would in camp.

Drugs and alcohol can help foster relations between experienced planters who are well integrated into the community of practice with those on the periphery. The use of drugs and alcohol may also help planters cope with the physical and mental duress that is inherent in tree planting work. A number of the planters interviewed in our study did not indulge as heavily in drugs and alcohol when they were not planting, reinforcing the notion of the tree planting camp as a liminal space. While planters who do not regularly indulge in substance use are not overtly ostracized or excluded, this may inhibit their full integration into the community of practice.

Interestingly, much of the language used by planters is inextricably linked to drug and alcohol use. For example, ‘shwag’ or ‘kif’ refer not only to poor quality marijuana but also to land that is difficult to plant. The refrigerated trucks used to transport seedlings are known as ‘reefers’. A ‘gongshow’ or a ‘shitshow’ occurs when a party gets out of hand due to excessive alcohol consumption or when a workday or contract becomes disorganized and inefficient. One can also ‘pound’ trees, meaning to plant very rapidly, or ‘pound’ alcohol by drinking it quickly.

Variations in communities of practice between camps

Communities of practice are shaped by factors that operate at a variety of scales. Although each camp's community of practice may have its own specific elements or practices a number of aspects of work and life are common across camps and help define a broader network of practice. In this regard, Browning (1998, p. 9) notes that when one becomes a tree planter, he or she enters into ‘… a club made up of thousands and, when you meet [other tree planters], you understand each other's experience without having to discuss it’. The seasonal nature of tree planting is common across the network of practice. The remote and shifting worksites render the direct supervision and monitoring of tree planting work difficult and costly (Braxton-Little 2001; Prudham 2005). The sheer physicality of the work influences the composition of the labour force and, in turn, the network of practice. In the boreal forests of northern Ontario, planting is carried out on relatively large cutovers. The terrain and weather are different from other areas in North America where significant reforestation takes place such as the Montane region of British Columbia or the former agricultural lands of the southeast United States.

We move now from the idea of the broader network of practice and focus on the factors that explain variations in communities of practice between individual camps in northern Ontario.

The client Tree planting contractors in Ontario carry out work for a client base with diverse individual operational policies. The client determines the specifications of each contract, such as how many trees are to be planted, where they are to be planted and how stringent the monitoring of quality standards will be. Ultimately, it is the client who determines if the tree planters' work is satisfactory, and, therefore, whether they are to be paid in full. In the early days of the contract tree planting industry, the client base in Ontario was much more varied in both capacity and operational focus. However, mergers and acquisitions amongst forest products companies in the 1990s eliminated many of the smaller local forest products firms. Although operational policies differ significantly between clients, each client tends to implement their policies in a standardized manner throughout their operations. This rigid approach is largely the result of advances in the science of silviculture, which determines how, when and where trees are to be planted, as well as increasing public concern about the environmental impacts of logging. The day-to-day experience of tree planters is closely related to the application of the reforestation philosophies and policies of clients who often discount the knowledge of local foresters and tree planters.

While relationships between the client, the tree planting contractor and the tree planters usually are satisfactory, tensions can develop as a result of the conflicting goals of forest products companies and tree planters (Sweeney 2005). Forest products companies demand quality in their tree planting programs to ensure regenerative success, while tree planters strive to plant as many trees as possible in order to maximize earnings. If tree planters view the quality specifications set by the client as overly stringent, they may not be willing to work in that camp or on contracts for that client in the future. Camps linked to that particular client will therefore have lower planter retention rates and may be shunned by experienced workers. Consequently, the contractor responsible for that camp may not be able to complete contracts in a timely fashion or attain the same level of quality they would using more experienced workers. Sarah (2F) spoke about a contract where quality standards were so stringent that most planters were unable to earn an adequate wage. Nevertheless, many of the planters working on this contract formed tight social bonds as a result of their adverse situation. She noted that ‘… the whole quality factor … brought everybody down … Because we were so screwed around and everybody was worried all the time, we got really close, and camp life was awesome. Everybody bonded through the crappy work life. The social life was all we had’. Although planters in Sarah's camp bonded well socially, most were unwilling to return to that same camp the following year because of the perception that they would be unable to earn adequate wages. Therefore, this particular community of practice was short-lived.

One common source of friction stems from the perception on the part of the planters that the client's quality assessors do not have first-hand tree planting experience. Typical are the following comments from, respectively, Shawn (5M/CB) and Julian (5M/CB):

I've seen checkers walk in to land, they don't walk in very far for one thing, let's say the first twenty or thirty metres. … I'd say 90 percent of the time they don't walk in deep enough to get a realistic portrayal of the land. They go without shovels so they can't find the depth, they can't find unplantable spots where rock is, where duff is, so they can't judge accurately what can and can't be planted and what's a good tree … I believe it should be absolutely necessary to have to plant for at least one season to check. It just makes sense. Why would you [be] check[ing] something if you've never done it before? I had to plant for four years to become a crew boss.

… I don't think you can [assess quality] until you're out here, until you've planted. You want the ability to say, if they have a problem with your planting ability, ‘this is how you do it right’. Show me, instead of telling me. They [the client representatives] don't have the tree planting background, and it's hard to work with that sometimes.

In his analysis of relationships amongst logging and reforestation contractors and parent firms in Oregon, Prudham (2002, 2005) found that increased levels of trust developed through repeat contracting between parent firms and specialized contractors. Such relationships were beneficial since they ultimately reduced transaction costs. A similar situation exists in the relationships between tree planting contractors and forest products firms in Ontario who often enter into multi-year agreements for reforestation services. This fosters closer relationships between the contractor, the client and the tree planters because of more regular face-to-face contact. At the same time, it establishes and reinforces differences in the communities of practice between camps working land for different clients.

The contractor A number of Ontario's tree planting contractors have a broad geographical reach. Each of the largest contractors regularly provides work for upwards of 400 people every year. The number of employees and significant distance between many camps make monitoring and administration challenging, and forces large contractors to sub-divide the management of their operations by region. Operations are often split into two regions, with the western region focused in or around Thunder Bay, and the focal point of the eastern region near either Timmins or Kapuskasing.

The practices implemented by those in charge of reforestation operations in a specific regional division are instrumental in shaping the communities of practice in the camps under their management. These regional divisions are not completely impermeable, since employees, especially those who have been promoted to managerial positions, can be transferred between camps and regions. Therefore, while tree planters in Ontario tend to have a strong identification with the practices of one or other of the two regions, there is the possibility for the transfer of practices between regions through the movement of workers.

Communities of practice in tree planting camps located in different regions but operated by the same contractor have more elements in common than do communities of practice in camps operated by different contractors in the same region. 7 Contractors' operational practices that impact directly on the formation of communities of practice include such things as the length of workdays, the number of days between days off, degree of tolerance with regard to substance use and policies related to health and safety. These practices are, in our opinion, far more influential in shaping communities of practice in this industry than are practices derived from the looser informal social connections between tree planters in a regional network.

As the size of tree planting contracting firms increased, the direct personal role played by the contractor in shaping communities of practice changed. The owners of the multitude of small tree planting contractors that operated in the 1980s were much more likely to work in and around their camps than the owners of the large and more diversified contractors which dominate the industry today. The former had much more face-to-face contact with their own tree planters, enjoyed a greater degree of social intimacy with their employees, and consequently, not only had a very direct influence on shaping the communities of practice within their camps but also were often active members of the community. Today, most tree planters share little, if any, sense of identity or comradeship with the owners of the firm for whom they work. Thus, they are less likely to have as strong of a sense of duty, pride, commitment or belonging than tree planters who have regular and reciprocal interaction with the owner(s) of the firm that employs them.

The temporal dynamic of communities of practice in tree planting camps In our research we found that a key factor explaining variations in communities of practice between tree planting camps in northern Ontario was the proportion of experienced planters in the camp and the associated processes of worker retention and turnover. This raises the crucial question of how communities of practice are modified and transformed over time.

Wenger et al. (2002) describe a temporal cycle of communities of practice based on studies of occupations such as naval quartermasters, midwives (Lave and Wenger 1991), insurance adjusters and COBOL programmers (Wenger 1998). Clearly, the lifespan of these communities of practice are far longer in duration than the relatively short-lived, ephemeral and temporally discontinuous ones found in Ontario's tree planting camps. While it is unlikely that planters will work in a camp for more than four or five years, it is not uncommon for planters to return to the same camp for two or three seasons in a row during which time a well developed, close-knit, and stable community of practice develops.

Even though the planting season is short, tree planters form intense social bonds. As Ricky (4M) notes: ‘It's like a family in a tree planting camp. You're up here for two months … you get to know everybody, and you get to know them fast’. These social bonds are crucial in the formation, maintenance and transformation of communities of practice in tree planting camps. There is a tendency for experienced tree planters to congregate on the same crews or in the same camp from year to year. The close-knit and communal nature of tree planting encourages planters to work closely with those with whom they have developed previous relationships. Cory (5M/CB) believed that ‘the reason a lot of people are working … in the camps that they work [at is] because they know who's going to be there and they know they're going to enjoy their time there’. Similarly, Jamie (5F/A) noted that ‘once you get with a group of friends that you've planted with for a while, you need that support when you come back … this year I wasn't going to come because the people that I wanted to be with weren't going to be there’.

When one or two core members of a community of practice in a tree planting camp withdraw from the industry, the effect can be contagious. Core members tend to exit in bunches, often due to the loyalty of planters to their crew bosses. If a crew boss moves to another camp or contractor, or leaves the industry entirely, the other experienced planters with whom they have developed a bond often follow. This creates a temporary vacuum that is filled by planters previously on the periphery and not yet fully integrated into the existing community of practice and leads to a partial transformation of the community of practice. Although some practices may be carried over, the new community of practice is modified and adapted by its new core membership. Thus, a modified community of practice develops as the formerly peripheral members form a new core within the camp.

Thus, the nature of the tree planting workforce results in regular transformations in the communities of practice within particular camps. Since the majority of tree planters in Ontario are post-secondary students who ultimately aspire for a permanent white-collar career, very few planters work in the tree planting industry for more than half a dozen years. In fact, only one interview subject planned to make a permanent career in forestry. This creates a cycle within communities of practice that commonly lasts between three and five years. Cindy (6F/CB) believed that the turnover of tree planters was:

… inevitable because tree planting works in cycles. You have a couple [of] really good years and then you build up to this really great year, and then there's always going to be a turnover of planters … the more experience you gather in a camp the less inexperience is going to come into it. But at some point the experience has to do something else.

In summary, while the communities of practice found in tree planting camps are much shorter lived than those analyzed by Wenger, McDermott and Snyder, their formation and transformation does exhibit a strong temporal cycle.


The seasonality of the work, the fact that the location of work-sites frequently shifts from contract to contract and the dispersed deployment of individual planters across work-sites all pose significant challenges for the efficient and profitable organization and management of the tree planting industry. One such challenge is how to exact high levels of productivity from planters when direct supervision of their work is extremely difficult. The solution is to use a piece-rate wage system for planters, which tends to foster competition between individual planters. At the same time, however, the crew boss must foster a strong sense of teamwork and mutual support within their crew, since the crew boss's pay is dependent on the crew's aggregate productivity.

The efficient transfer of tacit knowledge between planters, and especially from experienced planters to rookies, is critical to the successful operation of a tree planting camp. To facilitate this transfer of tacit knowledge, it is important that individual members not only learn the technical aspects of planting but also become integrated into the social practices of the camp. We have described how, through both practical and social learning, tree planters learn to become successful planters and how the work cultures of camps are reproduced from year to year.

The concept of communities of practice proved useful in framing our analysis since it emphasizes the importance and confluence of both technical and social practices in the process by which workers learn their craft. This is especially true of tree planting camps where workers both work and live together over the course of one or several planting seasons. The associated concept of a network of practice also proved useful. At a certain level, tree planters have a shared sense of practice and group identity, irrespective of which contractor, in which region or in which camp, they have worked. This is well reflected in Cathro's (1998, p. 25) impressionistic essay on the iconic status of tree planting in the Canadian psyche: ‘… . in the city, back on the farm. Hanging out together like a tribe. Shooting pool and telling bear stories … to the point that everyone you know is a treeplanter. Or has been one. Maybe now a lawyer, a producer, a back-to-the-lander, but always a treeplanter’.

Within the broader network of practice, it is noticeable that communities of practice do vary between different tree planting camps. We found that both the client for whom the tree planting camp carries out work and the operational practices of the treeplanting contractor exercise a significant influence in shaping the communities of practice in individual camps. However, the most important factor generating differences between camps is the process by which communities of practice are socially produced, reproduced and transformed over time and the role played in this process by worker retention and turnover.

Previously, the concept of communities of practice has been applied to learning in occupations where the life cycle of the work culture develops over an extended and continuous period of time. Communities of practice in the tree planting industry in northern Ontario are very different in this regard. They develop over much shorter time horizons and undergo more frequent transformations. The seasonal nature of the work, the shifting location of the worksites and a more ephemeral workforce comprised of post-secondary students, who usually only plant for a few seasons before exiting the industry, all contribute to this process. While mindful of Hayter et al. (2003) caution against the uncritical application to resource peripheries of conceptual templates drawn from other contexts, we found that the concept of communities of practice, albeit in a modified form, provided useful insights into the development of work cultures amongst seasonal reforestation workers in northern Ontario.


  • 1

    While Beynon and Hudson's work focuses on more long-term and permanent communities, their concept of place is nonetheless applicable to the more ephemeral communities formed by tree planters.

  • 2

    Tree planters have been the inspiration for recent creative work in photography (Cyr 1998; Gilbert 2005), film (Pelletier-Gilbert and Lanthier 2004), visual art (Johnson 2005) and fictional writing (Kuitenbrouwer 2004). Recently, Library and Archives Canada used an iconic photographic image of a female planter (‘Kerry’ by Lorraine Gilbert) as an illustration in promotional material.

  • 3

    Interviews were coded according to the level of experience, gender, and position(s) held by the respondents and these codes are used when quoting from interviews. For example, a male tree planter who was tree planting for the first time in 2004 is referred to as ‘Name (1M)’ while a female crew boss, who had planted for four years and was currently in her second year holding the position of crew boss is referred to as ‘Name (6 F/CB)’. Only respondents who have worked in management positions will have a code after years of experience and gender; where there is no code the respondent has only ever worked as a tree planter. The proper names of the respondents have been changed by assigning pseudonyms.

  • 4

    There are over two dozen quality infractions that regularly occur. The most common are: trees are not planted upright; cases where the entire plug of the seedling is not entirely covered by soil; trees that are planted too loosely and are easily pulled out; and trees that are planted in loose organic matter rather than mineral soil.

  • 5

    For glossaries of tree planting terms see Sweeney (2005, Appendix 1), Bodner (1998) and Cathro (in Cyr 1998, pp. 14–19).

  • 6

    In Ontario, tree planters are usually afforded one day off a week. Most camps will take their day off in a nearby regional centre such as Timmins, Kapuskasing, or Thunder Bay, and alcohol and marijuana consumption play a central role in these leisure activities.

  • 7

    In the case of the Ontario tree planting industry, there is little interaction, face-to-face or otherwise, that occurs between tree planters employed by different contractors while they are working in the forest. Much of the contact between members in the broader network of practice is done in an indirect fashion through such mediums as newsletters, Web sites and online bulletin boards (for example, see or In British Columbia, where there are more tree planting camps and days off are more frequent, face-to-face meetings of tree planters from different camps are more common.


We wish to thank the Editor and two anonymous referees for their constructive comments on the initial manuscript. We would also like to express our sincere gratitude and thanks to the tree planters and tree planting contractors who participated in our study, and to the supervisors for accommodating us in their camps.