12 Jun 2019

How hard is it to plant trees for a living? Lisa Owen finds out

From Checkpoint, 5:08 pm on 12 June 2019

There are fears the government's goal to plant one billion trees by 2028 could be toppled by a chronic labour shortage. 

The goal is to plant a mix of a billion native and exotic trees by 2028 -  to support a low emission economy, protect the environment and create ongoing employment. 

The Ministry of Social Development alone is looking to recruit 750 people into forestry jobs just this season, but forestry bosses say it's difficult to get and keep workers in what is a physically demanding job. 

Some contractors report up to 80 percent absenteeism in some field gangs. 

So just how hard is it to plant trees? Checkpoint decided to find out by using host Lisa Owen as a guinea-pig "planter" for a day. 

With producer Bridget Burke and cameraman Nick Monro, she headed to the back of Kinleith, close to Tokoroa and was put to the test. 

She was briefed to expect hill work ("like the lunar suface of the Moon", Lisa reckons) and to avoid cyanide that may have been left in the area.

Each planter carried a box weighing about 12kg of 100 tree seedlings on their back as they set off to begin their work. The plan was to work in a grid to plant a seedling every three metres. 

Lisa said her first box earned her $25, some of the hardest dollars she's ever earned. 

Visa rules should be relaxed, says contractor

A forestry contractor told Checkpoint visa rules should be relaxed for overseas planters if the government wants to reach its One Billion Trees target.

Nathan Fogden says 40 percent of his crews are overseas workers, but the bureacracy of reapplying for visas annually and limits on the years they can work in New Zealand is constraining the industry. The Ministry of Social Development is looking to appoint 750 workers this season.

Mr Fogden said he is a complete crew short and has other vacancies - in all, he is short about 12 workers. He wants experienced workers and without them he will be half a million trees short in his planting this season, blocks of land in the central North Island won't get planted and he was being forced to turn down work.

"I have no doubt that others are in the same boat. Through the other groups I'm part of I have discussions with other contractors and most people are in the same boat ..."

He said the billion trees target is in jeopardy and Forestry Minister Shane Jones needed to be aware of the difficulties. The industry needed the right people able to follow instructions and stay safe to be hired.

He was hiring Pacific Island workers who had been a fantastic addition to the workforce, but there was a huge challenge to get them here and keep them here. He said he wanted workers for the long-term because they take several months to go through training.

There were no guarantees that visas would be renewed but it would be helpful to have visas issued for two years instead of one. "... I want some help from Minister Jones around getting access to overseas workers ... our Pacific Island neighbours have got a lot of people that are keen to come here and work on our planting initiative."

Mr Fogden said he was also conflicted as an employer that the work was deemed to be low-skilled so their partners and children could not live in New Zealand. He said it would be "humane" to allow them to come.