In the first article in this series, “The Road to Consultanthood: Musings of an Antique Arborist,” TCI Magazine, February 2023, the author looked at his introduction to tree care and some of the now-outdated practices and equipment being used at that time. In the second article by the same name, in TCI Magazine, April 2023, he reminisced about his foray into logging and millwork in the Pacific Northwest and his eventual return to tree care. For Part 3, TCI Magazine, June 2023, the author shared his cross-country adventure and his eventual return home, where his education continued and his arborist career began in earnest. Part 4, TCI Magazine, August 2023, brought climbing championships, marriage, mortgage and fatherhood. In part 5, the final episode in this series – at least for now – the author reflects on his transition to consultant.
An early morning surprise
It was 3 a.m. during a 20-hour shift pushing snow off the local roadways when I caved. Like the ocean when it’s foggy, it was hard to tell where the earth and sky separated or where I was in space. I began to experience vertigo, and pulled into a side street only to encounter the surreal site of a male turkey standing defiantly in the path of the 8-foot plow. So I leaned out the door in the whiteout and desecrated the scene with a hardy “yurk.” I may even have pooped my pants a bit. Clearly the turkey was a sign, and my snow-removal career came to an inglorious end. There had to be a better way to supplement my tree care earnings.
If not already obvious, great financial wealth was not my goal. Work takes up a lot of time, and I wanted to spend that time being productive and engaged. The money would come. Unlike many entrepreneurs, I kept overhead low and limited my risks. I was not going big, but also, I was not going home.
Signs of success
Business was steady and diverse. By the end of the first decade of the new millennium, I was styling, with a rear-mounted aerial lift and a late-model chip truck. A decent spray rig was acquired to encounter the scourges of leaf-defoliating winter moth and spongy moth. Next, a stump grinder was added to the arsenal. Then, the pièce de résistance – a mini skid steer, with the power of three workers sans the cellphone breaks.
I began to take educating myself more seriously, and never was there more opportunity. The now-defunct New England Grows, founded by local green-industry organizations, annually hosted a three-day event to display the latest gadgetry and provide a plethora of diverse speakers. TCIA had its annual trade show and conference, TCI EXPO, along with regular workshops on subjects such as electrical hazard awareness. Along with their annual trade shows, ISA, the local ISA chapter and the Massachusetts Arborist Association provided workshops and learning opportunities year-round. More recently, ArborExpo, held annually in Springfield, Massachusetts, has provided more opportunities.
Drs. Alex Shigo, Ed Gilman, Claus Mattheck, Nelda Metheney, James Clark, Mike Raupp and Dennis Ryan, along with a host of other industry luminaries, made themselves available to present new information in practical terms. The term “tree surgeon” always seemed extravagant, given the amount of education required for those practicing (practicing?) on humans, but the bar was being raised.
I spent the next several offseasons training my gluteus maximus for chair duty. I had my sights on an RCA (Registered Consulting Arborist) credential, but despite the associate degree earned at the prestigious Essex Aggie, I did not have enough higher-education credits to meet the requirements. However, any applicant with a BCMA (Board Certified Master Arborist) credential would be accepted. Piece of cake, sign me up.
At the time, there was no study guide for the BCMA exam. No workshops, no guidance other than a list of texts to review. These included everything from tomes such as Dirr’s “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” and Johnson, Sinclair and Lyons’ texts on insects and diseases to the ANSI Z133 safety standard and A300 tree care standards.
One thing that became apparent was that there was no way you could pass this test without some meaningful experience and accumulation of knowledge. The whole point of this “Road to Consultanthood” series is that you never know how all your life experiences may culminate into something serendipitous. Sure, I left an ass-fault imprint on the office chair while reviewing all the suggested texts, but without years as a practitioner, the effort would likely have been futile. As with the Massachusetts Certified Arborist (MCA) exam taken years ago, I scraped by with a passing grade.
Meanwhile, back in the gadgetry department, innovations abounded. Technology borrowed from recreational rock climbing and integrated into tree care created an explosion of cool and colorful devices designed to ease our pain. Split-tail climbing systems and single rope technique (SRT) enhanced efficiency. Rigging and pulley systems maximized mechanical advantage, reduced damage to the tree and provided more control during removals.
But my interest in all this newfangled gear was winding down.
After obtaining my BCMA status, I was able to concentrate on the Registered Consulting Arborist designation. In 2004, I attended the American Society of Consulting Arborists’ (ASCA) Consulting Academy, a four-day training course designed to prepare for the RCA exam. As an added bonus, the venue was in scenic Trenton, New Jersey. Arborists from all over the country were in attendance, with a high instructor-to-student ratio. Topics covered included arboriculture and law, expert-witness testimony, forensics, ethics and report writing.
I cannot express enough the value of this workshop. The company and character of the individuals present were impressive enough. The instructors were informative, genuine and passionate, as were many of my peers, some of whom went on to become industry leaders, speakers and successful entrepreneurs. For myself, the most valuable lessons were in report writing.
Report writing is the process of organizing and producing a professional and concise document with the emphasis on “defining the assignment.”
Report-writing mantra: Define the Assignment. What a concept! It sounds so simple, yet can be so elusive. Almost no one likes to read reports for fun. I’ve yet to see any reading material of this genre in the throne room. To be proficient, one needs to define exactly what is expected. Agree on a list of questions the client wants answered and stay on that road. Do not go off-road expounding on your vast knowledge on a subject, unless directly related to the assignment. Less is more.
I passed the exam given at the end of the workshop, but there was still the requirement of providing two reports. One was to be fictional, based on a scenario provided by the ASCA Consulting Academy, and the other based on an actual case. I failed miserably at my first attempt at the fictional report, but was given clear criticism to rectify my mistakes. This yielded a nearly perfect score when it was resubmitted.
A mere three years later, I presented an original report based on an actual case. I had been providing consulting services on a small scale for several years, but this was my first substantial case. Early attempts at report writing proved to be incredibly time consuming. Actual time spent on those projects resulted in fees I could not reasonably charge.
So the downside to consulting is that there is a learning curve, and the big, easy bucks would remain elusive. The upside is reasonable expectations for my work-worn physique and minimal overhead. A vehicle, computer, binoculars and a plastic mallet will get you started.
Nothing would change overnight, but the percentage of income from consulting rose steadily over the years. There were times it would have been more financially feasible to not do the job, but I knew the experience would be beneficial in the future. As the number of jobs completed grew, past reports provided templates for similar situations. Efficiency eventually improved, and I was able to feel more comfortable charging steadily increasing rates.
I am still astounded when I unexpectantly catch my reflection. The wrinkled, crepe-skinned, hairy-eared, sagging bag of flapping flesh does not juxtapose with the stud in my mind’s eye. The unfortunate side effect of becoming a competent consultant is that you are probably also old. Ah, but being old has its benefits. For instance, did you know that there are increased penalties for assaulting anyone over 60?
Seriously, the clarity gained through experience, great achievements and epic failures provides perspective that is the basis of good decision-making. This can only be attained through showing up and paying attention.
A new day
The truck and chipper that were in my driveway at the beginning of this series are gone, along with any illusions of me using them. The arthritis shifts about my joints, reminding me of all the repetitive motion endured. Pole sawing, handsawing, chain-saw use, brush dragging, brush chipping, truck loading and other mundane tasks have reduced muscle tissue to bath tissue. Vast improvements in safety, culture, ergonomics and equipment capabilities should result in better health and extend the careers of future arborists.
I have taken the consultant road exit and am off the aerial highway. Much of my practice involves visiting homeowners who care about their trees. For a modest fee, I offer unbiased opinions and management options based on their goals and needs. Ninety-five percent of the time folks are very grateful and express an appreciation for the profession.
I often surprise myself with the ease with which I can talk about trees and the amount of stuff I manage to extract from all the other useless info stored, such as old ad jingles – “N.E.S.T.L.E.S, Nestlé’s makes the very best … chooooocolate!”
I enjoy a variety of assignments, from providing tree-protection guidelines to once opining on foliage conditions at the time of a drug-related stakeout. Many jobs are related to wrongful cuttings and other bad juju. Getting compensated to talk trees and provide insight to a grateful public is most rewarding.
The road to consultanthood, built of trial and error, passes beneath my feet. Always forward, never straight.
Howard Gaffin, BCMA, RCA and Massachusetts Certified Arborist, is owner of Gaffin Tree based in Rowley, Massachusetts. He also is a member of TCI Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Committee.