A friend sent me a link to the Duluth newspaper that had this headline, “Wanted: Pine Cone Pickers.” I had never even thought about this as a job title. Clearly I had a lot to learn. (More)

Wanted – Pine Cone Pickers

The story in the Duluth News Tribune highlighted a job that I had never imagined existed. A Pine Cone Picker? Really? What is a pine cone picker and what do they do?

The district offices of the Superior National Forest are paying $50 to $70 for bushels of native jack pine cones collected in the next month across forest lands. The seed banks that are usually used to reforest lands are low on pine cones.

Kris Reichenbach, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service in Duluth, said seed banks are low at the tree nurseries usually used by the agency to reforest lands.

Those native cones go to nurseries that produce seedlings for replanting in logged areas.

Asked whether the offices might be flooded with those seeking some extra cash in a tight economy, Reichenbach said “it’s going to be interesting.” She said the seasonal nature of the work, along with many younger people out of school for the summer, could add to the demand.

A pine cone picker, picks pine cones. Experienced people told me that they could collect a bushel an hour best case and at least a bushel every two hours. That makes the hourly rate of $25 to $70 an hour, depending on the color of your cones and your picking speed. No benefits, obviously seasonal work, but still, way above minimum wage.

How do I apply?

I started with the newspaper story, which told me to go to a local Forest Service Ranger Station for further information. I stopped by the local office and said I was interested in the pine cone picking information. I got a handout that was very complete

The first page explained how to get a nine-digit Dun & Bradstreet number and how to register for CCR (Central Contractor Registration). It explained that an email address was critical and how to use your local library if you didn’t have either a computer or internet access. The first page of the handout was very clear that you would not get paid if you had not registered.

Pages 2 and 3 had a list of how to collect, how to store, and how to deliver the cones for inspection. I am sparing you these details but they were quite specific. This was followed by two pictures of “unacceptable cones” and four pictures of “acceptable cones” noting the differences between the brown cones ($70/ bushel) and the gray cones($50/bushel). At several points in this handout there were telephone numbers to call with questions. It was complete, informative and included maps with the best harvesting areas and instructions to the pickers on how to record where, exactly they picked their cones.

My camp hosting job was slow and I was so interested in this unknown job that I devoted my afternoon to trying to figure it all out. I was expecting to find these “picking jobs” listed on the CCR website. It is a great website and many of the contracts listed had the icon for the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. There were no jobs for “pine cone pickers.”

Back to the ranger station I went. I asked why the pine cone picking jobs were not listed on the web site. “Well,” the ranger said, “We have a lot of people who just walk in and ask if we have any jobs they could do. Sometimes we need pine cone pickers, sometimes we need people to plant seedlings or clear brush and so we hire them if they have a DUNS number.”

Another phone call to another ranger asking how one found out about pine cone picking jobs. “This time we just needed extra help so we sent out news releases to the local papers. Mostly, people just walk in. ”

I had no idea about these jobs or this part of our economy. Did you?

In my explorations, I found one man who makes, according to him, $65,000 to $70,000 a year planting seedlings. He moves from one National Forest to the next, following the seasons, and just plants seedlings. He has a deluxe trailer and just keeps moving and planting. Think of him as a well-paid Johnnie Appleseed for our times.

Between the descriptions of “crawling through slash” (think logged out areas) and perhaps the need to climb trees to reach the cones, I had decided this wasn’t my kind of job. But I had collected lots of information that would be useful to someone who was young and fit and needed a job. I don’t tweet, so what could I possibly do with my new info?

Next stop – Hooverville

Last month in Midday Matinee, I wrote about an abandoned campground that has become home for homeless people in my area. Some have jobs that don’t pay enough to maintain a year round residence. Some are students who have found a cheap way to live for the summer.

I decided to take my pine cone picking information down to “Hooverville” and see if they knew about this well-paying, short term gig. They did not know. I passed around copies of the handout from the ranger station and shared what I had learned about pine cone picking. The circle grew and I started repeating myself. Finally I said, “Hey, this is all I’ve got and if it works for you, good for you. Share the handouts and if you’re interested, go for it.”

As I was leaving five or six young guys piled into a car. They were on their way to the library. I hope they pick lots of pine cones and make lots of money.

Who knew?

These jobs are not a long term solution to unemployment or a jobs creation strategy. But they may be just the short term help that can keep food on the table for people or give them a cushion against the coming winter. My innate curiosity led me to follow a trail of clues. It led me to a world I had no idea that even existed. I’ll talk about this with other college students and campers that I know.

I won’t be adding “pine cone picker” to my resume. But I might add “pine cone picker talker.”