LOON LAKE, Wash. – Bouncing along a trail that might give a lunar rover fits, Rich Sherman heads for a remote orchard of hardy white pines.
Sherman’s client, a timber company, wants him to inject its trees with gibberellic acid to stimulate cone production. The goal is seeds that will grow into new forests more resistant to insects and disease.
Here’s the tricky part: If Sherman injects one-tenth of a milliliter too much acid in a tree, it might die; one-tenth too little and the tree won’t generate extra cones.
But Sherman knows what he’s doing, having devoted more than four decades to tree improvement. Based in Rathdrum, Sherman and his Tree Tek employees travel throughout Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming gathering pollen, cones and scion wood for clients.
During a recent interview, he discussed his company, as well as a new venture that could make Sherman popular with area gardeners.
S-R: Gibberellic acid, scion wood – your job involves a lot of science. Were you a nerdy kid?
Sherman: No, probably just the opposite. But I had a high aptitude in science and math, and I got a lot of training during 26 years with the Forest Service.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Sherman: In northern Michigan. I was a yooper, up near the Canadian border. I went to school at Ford Forestry Center, part of the Michigan College of Mining and Technology (now Michigan Technology University), and started with the U.S. Forest Service when I was 19. I worked on the Hiawatha National Forest in northern Michigan for almost 10 years, then transferred to the Idaho Panhandle National Forests (based) in Coeur d’Alene and worked there another 16 years.
S-R: And then you took an early retirement?
Sherman: Yes. I really enjoyed the work, but not the politics. So it’s worked out well for me. I do the same thing, but get more time off.
S-R: Who are your clients?
Sherman: The federal government, state governments and a lot of the big timber companies. Now it’s probably 75 percent government, but in the past it was 75 percent private industry.
S-R: What services do you offer?
Sherman: We do a lot of climbing for genetic material. Our main focus is helping produce genetically superior trees for planting.
S-R: Who’s your competition?
Sherman: What usually happens is I hire people, and after several years they think there’s big money in it, and don’t see all the downsides, and they become contractors. Basically I’m training people to become my competition. But I still get hired for most of the jobs because of my experience.
S-R: You mentioned downsides. Such as?
Sherman: Insurance is expensive, and the work isn’t full time. I like the down time, but you don’t make money when you’re not working.
S-R: When are you busiest?
Sherman: Right now is fairly busy because it’s pollen collecting season. We’re busiest from mid-August through September, when we collect cones. Jobs are intermittent the rest of the year.
S-R: How difficult was your transition from government employee to private contractor?
Sherman: Fairly difficult. I was used to a 9-to-5 job, steady paychecks and all the benefits. As a private contractor, I had to learn to take care of money, because I might go two or three months without work. And some days I put in a lot more hours than when I was with the government.
S-R: What’s a long day?
Sherman: Probably 17 or 18 hours. We do a lot of 15- and 16-hour days when we’re busy because we cover so much territory driving.
S-R: Any scary situations: bears, lightning, bees, eagles?
Sherman: All of the above.
S-R: For instance?
Sherman: One of the scariest moments occurred while bagging cones. We helicoptered into a remote area, and (the client) wanted to do a commercial. So while I was 90 feet up a white pine, they flew a cameraman over in the helicopter. I’d warned the pilot to stay back, because the trunk was only about 2 inches in diameter where the cones were, and it’s precarious even with no wind. Everything was cool until they were done filming and turned to leave. I got hit with some serious prop wash and thought the top of the tree was going to snap. I was a little upset, but by the time I got back to the helipad the pilot was falling over himself apologizing. And I was still alive, so it was alright.
S-R: How many miles do you log during the year?
Sherman: I used to drive at least 35,000, but now I farm more out to my employees.
S-R: How has GPS technology changed your job?
Sherman: It’s made a huge difference. Everything used to be done with hand-drawn maps and tags on trees. GPS can get you to within 5 feet. But we really need both, because GPS readings can be completely bogus in mountainous drainages with poor satellite coverage. So if you don’t have the old maps to go along with GPS, you can get into big trouble.
S-R: How do you keep up with the latest genetic research?
Sherman: When I was with the Forest Service I went to a lot of meetings. Now it’s more dealing with clients, searching online or contacting industry acquaintances. The Canadians are really good at forestry because they still cut trees and we don’t, for the most part.
S-R: How far afield have you gone to collect genetic material?
Sherman: We’ve driven as much as 300 miles and then traveled another 70 miles one way by snowmobile to collect cuttings, which have to be harvested while they’re still dormant. People think it sounds fun, but most snowmobilers go where they want to go, not where they have to go.
S-R: Because timing is so important with pollen and cone collection, could you get somewhere and discover you’re too early or too late?
Sherman: Yes. That’s why experience is important. Pollen ripens by latitude and elevation, and even microsite, such as north aspect versus south, stream bottom or ridgetop. And there are only three or four days where the pollen is ripe enough to pick. Once it’s too ripe, it flies and you lose it. So you can log a lot of miles and a lot of time for nothing if you don’t know what you’re doing.
S-R: Do you climb trees?
Sherman: I climbed well into my 50s. I’m 66 now, and I still can climb, but I’m becoming a little more intelligent, so I don’t climb very much anymore.
S-R: What qualities do you look for in employees?
Sherman: They need to be strong and adaptable. They need to listen to instructions and be very careful about documenting everything. With this tree improvement stuff, it’s critical that you maintain genetic identity, because it affects the whole breeding program. And my employees need some other source of income, because we don’t work year round.
S-R: How much do they earn?
Sherman: People who climb can make $600 a day.
S-R: Are allergies an issue?
Sherman: They are for me. I suffer most of the time. But you get used to it. And most tree pollens aren’t as big a deal as grasses and weeds.
S-R: How about fear of heights?
Sherman: If you don’t have a fear of heights, you probably shouldn’t be climbing. A respect of heights is what keeps you alive. In 20 years we’ve never had a climbing accident. A lot of my employees are ex-tree-service people, and I trained tree climbers when I was with the Forest Service. But you have to have some natural ability.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone who climbs trees professionally?
Sherman: Always take the second-fastest way down. Learn the proper technique, and speed will come as you get better.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Sherman: The outdoors, and knowing the work we do is pretty valuable.
S-R: What do you like least?
Sherman: Dealing with the federal bureaucracy.
S-R: When you tire of dealing with bureaucrats, what’s next?
Sherman: I have another business that’s part of my retirement plan.
S-R: Tell me about it.
Sherman: My wife loves flowers, but the deer and moose on our property used to eat everything she planted. We tried several deer repellents, but they either didn’t work or were a nasty mess. So I fiddled around with old home recipes, added a few things, and came up with a repellent that’s all natural and effective on anything that browses on plants. I took it to the Kootenai County Farmers Market, and it was so popular that I got a trademark on the name – Moose Juice. Some friends are about to start marketing it online, and I’m hoping to collect royalties for 15 years.