How many trees should I plant? A favorite answer is, no more than your Spouse can shear.
Keeping it in the family may well be the best way to go but unfortunately not always the way it works out. Your business/marketing plan is more apt to tell you how many trees to plant annually. This starts out simple enough- plant X many trees per year. Then with that Christmas Tree fever you were blessed with, that amount ends up X plus a few, and five years later you are caring for five times more than you started with. Meanwhile, two of the kids graduated from high school and have other more lofty plans for their future and your spouse is starting to complain.
Hire some outside labor! This may be easier said than done but with diligence and patience it can be accomplished. Having hired for 33 years I have a lot of experience in this area. Some experiences have been positive, some not so much, but for the most part it has been a mixed bag that allowed me to accomplish the work at hand. Most of the hires need a great deal of supervision and unfortunately will be here today and gone tomorrow. For the Christmas Tree business I offer the following guidelines for hiring.
Recognizing that your needs at first are more apt to be part time, it is best to advertise this and make provisions to work around their schedule when possible. A person collecting unemployment checks will not be happy with a part time check. This can be frustrating, but it pays dividends. There are people looking for supplemental income so a thorough search will work.
When you reach the stage of harvesting trees for bulk sales, timing is such that a lot of the construction workers are laid off for the season and become a great source of full time/ temporary workers. I have found that it may require paying more than you normally pay but the work is tougher and you need workers that have the stamina and willingness to work in the November climate.
A few words should be said of this group because they are a source of quality help for our industry but unfortunately illegal for the most part. Our needs are more part time or temporary so the current guest worker programs are just not workable. They are too costly, we do not have housing and the government micro managing our payroll is not a pleasant thought…say nothing about the paper work. Our local Christmas Tree Association has written our Elected Officials on several occasions and given them our position which is as follows: Let us legally hire them. We will document them, collect and include them in employment taxes and insure them with workers compensation as we do all other hires. That way we are assured of getting our work done, the worker is documented and pays his share of taxes. We take no political position on the issue.
This could be a source of interested students of the Horticulture industry that receive college credits for working for a grower. I do not know the details but probably housing would be necessary.
Another source is an “independent” and or work crew that promises to shear trees for a contracted amount per tree. This may well work but issues of legality and insurance should be carefully thought out. I have not tried this avenue for those reasons and also because I do not want to give up control of the shearing process.
Other factors to consider
Pay rates vary but it would be doubtful you will find anyone willing to work for minimum wage. Transportation or lack of same, how well you plan your work, (if you are fortunate enough to find a professional laborer Your confusion will lead to employee dissatisfaction). Personalities are also important because even though you work in the great out of doors direct supervision is required and personality conflicts just do not work out. I honestly believe that physical fitness is a fringe benefit. It may be a hard sell but successful hires seem to fall into this category. I do not supply uniforms but do offer all the protective safety gear and include rain suits, gloves and mud boots. For the cooler weather we have a heated break room and a rented portable toilet is on site for the entire season.
Words of advice
Check references the best you can. Carry workers compensation insurance. Abide by state and federal regulations. Keep yourself in good physical shape, because there will be those days when no one shows up for work and the “show” must go on with them or without them.
Do not look for the impossible
When you stop to think about it temporary workers usually have another agenda. Assuming this agenda is of honest pursuit, do not be surprised, in fact it is better to encourage it and wish the employee well when they leave. Remember the old saying- “you can’t hold a good man down”. You will be respected for this attitude.
A few experiences to share
Early on I adopted a philosophy that I was not a student of human behavior nor was I in business to save souls. I have learned a lot and although cannot be given credit for saving souls certainly have offered at least a stepping stone for some…and there is humor. For a few years, late in the landscape season and out of desperation, I found a great source of temporary workers at what I call the “drunk tank”. The local Rehab had sobered up some very fine workers that they would allow to leave mid-days on a work pass. It was a shorter work day than I liked but the workers were very happy to see fresh air again, and I got my work done.
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**Disclaimer- It needs to be clearly understood that my consulting expertise is derived entirely from my love and time invested in the industry and not by a degree in Horticulture or Forestry, but rather in Marketing.
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