Tree planting is a job so demanding that when the BBC sent three young Brits to B.C. to give it a try, two didn’t even make it through the first week.

“It really is the hardest job in the world,” said Dirk Brinkman, whose company, the Brinkman Group, hosted the three woefully unprepared twentysomethings at a camp in Prince George.

When that episode of World’s Toughest Jobs aired in March, it showed the pasty trio grumbling about the tough physical work and the lack of creature comforts.

Even lifelong tree planters will tell you the job requires Olympian levels of exertion and can be cruel in its monotony. Although the work doesn’t involve much heavy lifting, planters must carry huge bags filled with seedlings and repeatedly dig holes with one hand and plant with the other, aiming to put a tree in the ground in every few seconds. Most live in tents for the entire season and eat their meals in mess halls.

It has its rewards, though: spending time in the wilderness, bonding with like-minded people and the potential for big earnings.

But recent numbers suggest the majority of tree planters aren’t making as much money as they might hope.

Brinkman remembers the exact date he planted his first tree — Sept. 8, 1970 — as an independent contractor working with two friends after winning a bid to plant 100,000 trees before the first snows of winter.

“I loved the adventure of it, going with a group of friends to a remote area,” he said.

As the years went on, his team kept earning contracts, learning the necessary flow to get a tree in the ground every few seconds. The result of their hard work was the type of income that is now legendary in the industry.

“By ’75, ’76, ’77, we were making the equivalent of doctors’ wages,” Brinkman said.

That just doesn’t happen anymore.

“In the past 30 years, there’s never been a year without people complaining we’re making less money than last year,” Brinkman said.

“If you do the math, yes there is a decline.”

It’s hard to measure how far the average tree planter’s earnings have fallen in recent years, but the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association has taken a stab at it. The group makes a yearly estimate by comparing the amount of money paid by the industry to the number of trees planted; the vast majority of jobs are piecework.

The association’s executive director, John Betts, estimates that workers are earning between 30- and 35-per-cent less than they did 15 years ago when inflation is taken into account.

“The majority of them are not making really high wages,” Betts said. “Many of them are working longer and harder to earn among the lowest rates of resource workers in Canada.”

A survey conducted by the B.C. Silviculture Workforce Initiative at the end of the last planting system revealed that tree planters work long hours — about a third said their days lasted up to 14 hours — for pay that can be underwhelming.

During a typical pay period, 68 per cent of fieldworkers reported earnings that translate to less than minimum wage. About 10 per cent said they earned between $20 and $26 an hour.

Even during their best pay periods, nearly half of field workers reported earning under minimum wage, and 57-per-cent said they brought in $15 or less per hour.

One reason for that, Betts suggested, is an increasingly young and inexperienced workforce. It usually takes at least a full season on the job before a tree planter develops the quick and efficient movements necessary to plant thousands of seedlings in a single day.

He also indicated that many contractors aren’t doing sufficient training.

“How do you teach them so that they don’t have such a steep curve and get discouraged so quickly? We’re trying to do a better job,” he said, pointing out that retraining workers could boost a company’s bottom line as well.

A bidding system that often favours the lowest bidder is another factor. For companies trying to cut costs, the payroll can be an obvious place to find reductions.

“The contracting community has continued to find ways, and I’m not sure they’re all good ones, to stay highly competitive,” Betts said.Despite those grim statistics, it’s still possible to make a great living as a tree planter. Those who stick around once they’ve developed the muscle memory to work quickly are in a much better position to make the big bucks.

“The elite, highly skilled and very experienced workers are making $300 to $500 a day, which is a pretty good wage,” Betts said.

They can make even more if they find work on sites where the planting is a bit more difficult and specialized planters are needed.

But even first-timers can do really well under some circumstances, according to Brinkman, who has watched countless planters blossom over the years.

“It depends on the individual. We always have the rookie of the year, who (plants) 2,000 in the first week,” Brinkman said.

Those workers often come from tree-planting families, and have already learned the tricks of the trade from their parents. But that isn’t always the case.

“It’s the innards of the individual that make the great planter,” he added. “That magic of flow is just a part of who they are. That’s what it’s all about: finding the right spot, planting with the fewest number of moves.”

And gender has nothing to do with how well workers perform in the field.

Tree planting tends to attract nearly as many women as it does men — last season, 42 per cent of workers were female.

“It’s not about how big of bone structure you have, or how much muscle. It’s how coordinated, how efficient you are with how you move,” Betts said.

“There’s a lot of stamina, and women are apparently very high on endurance. That may go partly to explain their success in an industry which you would otherwise think is about brute strength.”The industry employed 4,361 tree planters last year, marking an increase of 35 per cent since the 2010-11 season. But according to provincial labour estimates, the demand for workers is expected to decrease over the next 35 years as the number of seedlings planted each years falls from an anticipated 243 million in 2014-15 to about 145 million in 2050.

“Right now we’re coming off of a peak,” Betts said. “Logging is going to drop off because we literally are running out of harvestable wood in parts of the province. The harvest is the principal driver for the reforestation work we do.”

That could change if the province decides to take a more proactive approach to dealing with the millions of hectares of trees killed or degraded by the mountain pine beetle, he added.

Five years ago, the industry was tarnished by revelations that a group of black African planters were working under slave-like conditions in camps runs by Khaira Enterprises. They were denied adequate food, forced to sleep on dirty mattresses in trailers that lacked toilets and drinking water, and their pay was withheld.

“They were no help to the positive impression of the industry,” Betts said. “What they did reveal, as an egregious example, is how cretins and criminals could participate in the market for silviculture services.”

His association is working with B.C. Timber Sales to develop a bidding system that will give good contractors an advantage over lowball bidders like Khaira.

“We’re hoping that’ll make a difference and that we’ll never see a repeat of the likes of Khaira,” Betts said. But he added that there is still, “a certain level of shirking going on.”

From the beginning of 2010 through to the end of last year, the Employment Standards Branch received 27 complaints against tree-planting companies. The majority of those were either resolved voluntarily or withdrawn by the employee; two contractors were fined a total of $4,000 for problems with paying wages.

For certain people, tree planting will always be an attractive career.

After 45 years in the industry, Brinkman is something of an evangelist for the peculiar joys of back-breaking outdoor work and the character building that comes with it.

“Parents who worriedly send their kids tree-planting don’t recognize them when they come home,” he said.

“Is it still the best wilderness experience you can have as a job? I think it is.”