How much does it cost to grow a tree?
Planting trees is one of the easiest and most advantageous ways of preserving and rebuilding ecosystems to reduce our carbon footprint. But is it really that easy? And is it really as cheap as claimed by many organizations? Planning, financing, organizing, implementing and monitoring tree plantings are complex tasks that require data and tracking to reach a scale that will have a mitigating effect on climate change.
Over the last decade, mobile network coverage has increased and opened up the possibility to reach even the most remote communities in the world. Based on this mobile technology, Greenstand has developed an open-source software stack revolving around its Treetracker app, which enables tree growers all over the world to upload geotagged photographs to a cloud-based system where they are then verified against environmental and social value factors. These attributes represent the environmental and social impacts (such as creating animal habitats or providing food or income to a family) that are captured in a digital Impact Token. This Impact Token can be passed on to individual donors through the Greenstand Impact Wallet and therefore allows the person or organization who pays for the tree's survival to claim ownership of this impact. These tokens are a transparent digital asset that allows “tree growing” to be traded directly between the donor and tree grower as a fair, green commodity. The Impact Creator, usually the tree grower, ultimately benefits the most through compensation for the service of growing trees. It is inherent in our mission to engage the global consumer market in investing in a greener future by commodifying tree planting through open-source software that provides equal opportunities to contribute to global restoration to its users.
The tree planting industry does not currently value tree growth; rather, the focus is on the initial tree planting. We refer to this lack of follow-up as the “plant and forget” model. Such planting projects are rarely able to collect and analyze data on tree survival rates since they only focus on planting low-priced trees in order to claim high numbers. These models rarely consider compensation for the farmers.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the most common and highly-funded model: planting operations starting from seeds in nurseries. Greenstand’s Treetracker platform receives a range of data from native tree afforestation projects to Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), classic organization-driven planting campaigns, individual planters, and many other use cases. Generally, the amount of support that reaches tree planting operations from donors through intermediary tree planting companies is far below the actual cost of raising a tree. We would like to share some insights into the true cost of growing trees from seeds.
One of the most interesting discoveries the Greenstand team has made is the similar cost of successfully planting trees across the globe (please see resources below). This process involves a lot of time and care. Seeds first need to be identified, collected, and prepared for planting. The next step is finding a piece of land for the nursery that has access to water, a great challenge in many locations. Then, farmers must begin making “growing bags” from long rolls of plastic tubing and filling them with soil and humus to improve the growing medium and thus increase the chance of the seedling growing into a healthy sapling. Once the seeds are germinated in smaller containers, they need to be transferred to the growing bags and cared for until they are ready to be planted in the ground. The long list of manual labor tasks add up as the trees become saplings.
This process typically takes around six months, and can result in an average price of $0.80 USD per tree, regardless of global location. Tree sapling cost reports from planting operations show that costs certainly go much higher, with the following ranges by country:
Planting the saplings at their restoration site requires transport, management, tools, and more labor, which adds up to a minimum of $0.20 per tree. This depends on many factors, such as the scale of the planting event, availability of planting tools, distance to planting sites, and road conditions. Once the saplings are in the ground, other factors affect their survival and growth: the size of the holes dug, the favorability of the planting season, weather, soil erosion, and other uncontrolled factors. All of these potential factors combined bring the price of successfully planting a tree to an absolute minimum of $0.35 USD per tree, but more commonly averaging around $1.00 to $2.00 each.
Now begins the most critical stage of a sapling's life, the first 2-3 years when the tree is vulnerable to being eaten by grazing animals, taken over by invasive species, or drying out. Greenstand's approach is to funnel more planting project revenue directly to the farmer, with the goal to ensure an average of $1.00 - $2.00 USD is actually paid to the farmer for keeping the tree alive over those first critical years. The tree steward regularly tracks the trees through the Treetracker app, which gives digital evidence that the trees are surviving and growing. As a result, the payment owed to the farmers for their service can be easily quantified and allocated.
Ultimately, the overall cost of raising a tree from a seed to an age where it has a good chance of survival easily surpasses $3.00 USD. Some tree planting operations boast that it’s possible to successfully plant a tree for significantly under $1.00, or even as low as $0.10, but the evidence does not support these claims. If compensation for a farmer to keep the tree alive after planting is considered part of the equation, then these bottom-line prices are clearly unachievable. Sustainable tree growing can only be accomplished if farmers are paid a fair wage for their acts of environmental stewardship. Otherwise they may be forced to make the choice between growing trees or cutting them down to produce incomes that will feed their families. Therefore, greater transparency is needed to support those responsible for the reforestation efforts we rely upon and transform forestation into a sustainable industry.
If we want a fair market around global reforestation, we must be able to accurately capture the time and resources that are invested. To accomplish this goal, the tree planting industry must make a fundamental shift in perspective from “tree planting” to “tree growing” that supports farmers and trees at every life stage. Greenstand’s Treetracker software stack not only creates transparency, but it also verifies and monetizes those impacts so that everyone from remote farming communities to wealthy corporations can directly invest in growing trees. With environmental impacts defined, we can link the tree growers to the global consumer market and have an almost limitless mechanism to fund global restoration.
Please note that much of the information in this article was taken from Greenstanders’ personal knowledge of the reforestation industry. We also consulted with various industry professionals, including some of our planting partners.
Sydney Stokes | Communications & Marketing Intern | firstname.lastname@example.org
Karen Nicolas | Treetracker Liaision | email@example.com
Sebastian Gaertner | VP Programs | firstname.lastname@example.org