A future forest of green seedlings surround Iola Elder who clutches a valuable bag.
It’s a large plastic baggie filled with about 30,000 Douglas fir seeds, worth a couple thousand dollars on the open market.
Not quite gold, it still takes a Midas touch to convert these hard seeds into tender, vibrant seedlings that will transform today’s cutblocks into tomorrow’s working forests.
At Sylvan Vale Nursery in Black Creek, that golden touch has been passed down to Elder and her identical twin sister Siriol Paquet.
“We’re working on our third generation now,” says Elder during a break on a busy day.
Their parents, Selwyn and Phyllis Jones, founded the nursery in 1980 just after the provincial government deregulated its virtual monopoly on controlling tree seeds and growing seedlings.
The province still controls seed distribution for reforestation of Crown lands, but when it opened the door for privately-run nurseries in 1979, Selwyn Jones made his move.
He was working for the province growing trees and when the new forestry regulations came into effect, customers suggested he go into business for himself.
That was the seedling for Sylvan Vale, located off Kelland Road.
More than 30 years later, after good years and bad – like the growth rings on a tree – the nursery has sprouted to 44 green houses producing seven- to eight-million seedlings per year.
“It’s as much an art as it is a science,” says Elder.
Rick Monchak of Timberwest agrees. His company has bought millions of seedlings from Sylvan Vale, but the relationship goes deeper than that.
The two have known each other for years, and rather than a handshake, Monchak and Elder greet each other with a friendly hug.
It’s an embrace of friendship as well as a deep understanding of the symbiotic partnership that enables success for both companies – and others as well.
Starts with a seed
“It starts with a recipe!” says Elder, describing the process that helps the seed transform into a seedling.
It includes perlite, peat, slow-release fertilizer, lime and gypsum,
“That’s our staring recipe,” she adds, careful not to tip any trade secrets.
But that’s not how growing begins.
“Collecting seed is a story unto itself,” says Monchak as he walks between the greenhouses on a clear, chilly afternoon.
Monchak, recently named B.C.’s Distinguished Forest Professional of the Year, oversees the management of a large local tree farm licence (TFL 47) for Timberwest Forest Corp.
As he strolls, he tells how specialized donuts attached to helicopters drop over choicely-selected trees and pluck off branches.
On the ground, human hands pick the cones and then seeds are sent off to he provincially-run Tree Seed Centre in Surrey.
“Ninety per cent of the seed (in B.C.) is stored there. It’s well-run and very secure,” says Monchak.
It’s this seed that has produced the 70,000 western red cedar seedlings destined for Timberwest’s TFL 47 on cutblocks located on Quadra and West Thurlow Islands, the Mainland, and Jackson Bay.
“The two ‘kings’ are red cedar and (Douglas) fir,” says Elder as she lists the trees grown at Sylvan Vale.
Roughly, in descending order, the other species grown here include yellow cedar, white pine, balsam, hemlock, red alder, sitka spruce and more.
Fir and cedar command the best price, but due to concerns about global climate change, government and industry see the benefit of growing other sites with “lesser value” trees to see what happens.
“More foresters are thinking about climate change...and what we’ll be harvesting in 60 years,” says the 60-year-old Monchak.
A conveyor system of humanity and machine hum in virtual unison as thousands and thousands of trees are prepared for boxing.
On one side off the greenhouse-style warehouse, styrofoam trays containing 105 trees are tipped sideways and punched out by metal pins onto a rubber conveyor where experienced staff inspect the trees for quality, with the rejects going to compost.
The good trees continue down the line, their roots wrapped in plastic and then the little trees are boxed, refrigerated and frozen until planting season.
On the coast, the two planting seasons are late winter to spring and late summer.
Today, Monchak is here to have a look at “his trees” that will be planted in early 2014. They look good, even some of the so-called rejects which he quickly asks to be included in the inventory.
“We’re a little short this year,” he explains.
The mechanized conveyor systems used by Sylvan Vale – for boxing and for seeding – were all designed and built in B.C.
It’s not just the machinery, it’s the know-how and experience in this province of how to grow trees better and both Elder and Monchak speak highly of B.C.’s advanced technology.
“B.C. is ahead of the rest of the world,” states Elder.
At a conveyor on the other side of the warehouse, a group of women – “The Grey Hairs,” laughs one worker – separate other seedlings the old way: By hand.
Thirty years ago, it was all done this way at Sylvan Vale by 60 people. Today, 35 workers are required when it’s busy and 12 are employed full-time.
Keeping costs in line is crucial because the price of seedlings hasn’t changed in 30 years.
As well, every nursery – in spite of rigorous sterilization processes – gets hit by growing disasters and most, like Sylvan Vale, don’t buy crop insurance because, financially speaking, it’s not worth it.
But Monchak quickly points out that Timberwest, and most other forestry companies, don’t “play hardball” with the nurseries when disaster strikes and the industry’s next crop of trees is wiped out. If they do, he says, the nurseries are likely to drop them as customers and then their costs go way up.
“We share a mutual risk. There has to be give and take,” explains Elder.
That’s what happens in all good relationships and the visit ends the way it began, with a friendly embrace between business partners creating tomorrow’s forests.
“If they’re successful, we’re successful,” says Monchak. “If the forest industry is proud of one thing, it’s the ability to reforest and this is one part of that.”
By the Numbers
- Improved growing techniques enable Sylvan Vale to grow seedling “plugs” in six months. It used to take two years.
- Employees box 100,000-200,000 seedlings per day.
- Sylvan Vale is a small- to medium-sized nursery operation in B.C., producing 7-8 million seedlings per year. By comparison, PRT Growing Services, just west of Campbell River, produces 10-11 million seedlings.
- One greenhouse at Sylvan Vale holds 500,000 trees.
- It takes up to three weeks to thaw a frozen seedling before it’s planted.
- This past year, Timberwest logged about 500 hectares of forest. They will replant these cutblocks with 1,000 trees per hectare.
- Sylvan Vale website: www.svnltd.com