Recently, we received an email from James Nesslage, a construction contractor with Nessco Designs in Sanders. Nesslage thought we’d be interested to know about his seasonal project: From late August to mid-October, he and his crew harvest pine cones from trees in the White Mountains, and the U.S. Forest Service uses the cones to plant new trees in areas damaged by the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fires.
Indeed, we were interested. We reached out to Nesslage and asked him a few questions about this unusual line of work. He’s also going to have someone on his crew shoot photos of the work being done, and we’ll bring those to you in a future post.
Q: How did you get into cone-picking?
A: I am actually a construction contractor but kinda stumbled into cone-picking. I was just perusing the FedBizOpps [Federal Business Opportunities] page one day and came across a solicitation for seed-cone harvesting. After reading the scope of work, I thought, “We could do this!” I’ve had years of climbing experience, and I have always gravitated toward niche-type occupations anyway, so it sounded like a lot of fun. Go camping, climb trees and get paid for it! Sweet!
The first season was a little hectic because we didn’t even know we had the contract until I got a call on Saturday, saying, “Start Monday.” Yikes! Well, we scrambled up our equipment, jammed down to the White Mountains and started picking. Our first week was just myself, a couple of my regular employees and my granddaughter living out of the back of my truck. By week two, we were starting to get things together and lined up some more help, along with a little better camping situation. Still pretty primitive, but we learned a lot and had some fun. Well, when the season was over, we told a lot of our friends about it, and everyone was pretty jazzed. When the next season came along, we had lots of folks who wanted to join us. Now we work with a crew of 15 to 20 people, with some rotating home or only working part of the season because they have to go back to their real jobs. It takes someone who has a great spirit of adventure and a good work ethic to do this kind of work. It’s hard, it’s dangerous, and it requires a lot of trust in your teammates.
Q: What’s a typical day of harvesting like?
A: The typical workday starts around 6 a.m. with breakfast and a safety meeting. Then, it’s off to the trees. We use standard climbing equipment, including ropes, harnesses, friction savers, ascenders (no climbing spikes!) and so on. I try to have some trees rigged the night before so there is minimal time lost getting the pickers aloft. We use a powder-activated launcher to send a light line up into the tree and over a good, strong branch. Using the throw line, we pull the friction saver (a kind of strap with two rings, one on each end) over the limb and then the climbing rope through the friction saver. This protects the bark of the tree and prolongs the life of the rope.
The climber ties in and is hoisted up into the lower branches. With the right equipment, you can pull yourself up, but we found that by the time the climber pulls himself up to the top, he’s so tired that he has to wait quite a while before he’s able to start picking, so we do that part for him. We keep two climbers in each tree for safety, as each can help the other to tie off or belay. The ground crew makes sure the climbers have anything they need, including picking bags, water, snacks, whatever keeps them going.
After the climbers pick a bag of cones, they are lowered to the ground and the ground crew sorts them for quality control. Sometimes they will have insects that eat the seeds or other defects. The cones from each tree are kept in separate sacks and tagged, each tag listing the region, location and specific tree, including GPS coordinates.
Q: What species of trees do you harvest, and how much is done in one day?
A: Most teams can pick two trees in a day, with three or four bushels of cones from each tree. Primarily, the species harvested are white pine, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. Each species has distinctive cones, so the number of actual seeds collected varies. We will do a field test on a couple of cones from each tree before picking to make sure the cones are healthy and the seeds are mature enough to pick.
After we harvest, the bags of cones are stored in a cooler in Alpine until a truck takes them to a nursery just outside Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where they process and sprout the seeds and then grow them for a couple of years, until they are seedlings. When they are ready, they are shipped back to Arizona, and a team plants them in the same area the seeds were harvested. That’s why we do all the record-keeping. The genetics of each tree are, of course, passed on to its seedlings, so we have to be pretty picky about which trees are harvested. Healthy, straight, no forked trunks, et cetera. That way we get good seedlings for reforestation.
Q: What are the challenges of this kind of work, and what do you enjoy about it?
A: The real challenges are mostly psychological, but you do have to be in fairly decent physical shape to climb. Primitive living conditions (although we try to make that as comfortable as possible), close living with a sizable group, working in somewhat hazardous positions, and the guts to work until the job is done. With that being said, it’s the best office I’ve ever had. There is something almost spiritual about sitting in a tree, 150 feet above the ground, a slight breeze of clean air blowing the tree with a gentile rocking, watching eagles and hawks soar just above your head and feeling the sun warm you. Almost puts you in a trance. I’ve actually taken a nap up there. Yeah, it’s awesome!
Q: Can people come watch the work being done? Or can people join the crew?
A: If anyone would like to come watch, they can just email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will let them know where we will be that day. I have to be pretty choosy about who helps because of the challenges I mentioned, but I am certainly willing to talk to someone if they would like to join us.