Eric Foley from Maier Tree & Lawn, a Davey company, in Rochester, Minnesota, talks about the volunteer work he and other arborists across the country do for Saluting Branches, a non-profit organization dedicated to recognizing and honoring our veterans by doing tree work on veteran cemeteries.
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Doug Oster: Welcome to the Davey Tree Expert Company's podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each episode showcases one of Davey's certified arborists sharing advice with everyone about caring for your trees and landscapes. We'll talk about everything from introduced pests, seasonal tree care, deer damage, how to make your trees thrive, and much, much more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more because here at the Talking Trees podcast we know trees are the answer.
Well, we have a very special show today. I'm joined by Eric Foley. He's an Assistant District Manager in Rochester, Minnesota for the Davey Tree Expert Company. How're you doing, Eric?
Eric Foley: I'm doing great today. Thanks, Doug.
Doug: Talking about Saluting Branches, tell me what that is.
Eric: Saluting Branches is an organization that was started back in 2012. It's a nonprofit organization that's dedicated to recognizing and honoring our veterans. We're deeply appreciative to the brave men and women who serve and have served in our military, making it possible for us to enjoy the freedoms that we enjoy every day. One way that we do that as arborists is we gather together, we unite, and we donate a bunch of tree work, tree care operations in one day at veterans cemeteries and other veterans memorials around the country.
Doug: Eric, this is a national program, right? Is it all done on the same day?
Eric: It is. We have locations around the country that were all coordinated on the same day, and that'll be September 22nd this year. It's a big event. More than 80 national cemeteries across the country.
Doug: Specifically, where are you guys working in your area?
Eric: In Minnesota, we have three locations. One at the VA hospital, one at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, and then one at a state veterans cemetery down in Preston, Minnesota.
Doug: Tell me a little bit about the feeling of doing this work for you because it sounds very important.
Eric: It's a lot of fun. We have a great time getting arborists together, working for multiple different companies, and getting to work together to volunteer for one cause that we all love and appreciate, and that's the people who have given everything. They've gone and served our country. Some of them died in the line of duty. Some of them came back and are buried in the national cemetery.
Doug: These are places though that are taken care of by a grounds crew but there's things they can't do, right?
Eric: That's correct. Yes, a lot of times they're limited in the equipment that they have and the ability to get off the ground or to do specialized care for these trees. We bring in arborists and all the equipment, climbers, bucket trucks, cranes, some plant healthcare-type work. We do a lot of pruning, we remove hazardous trees that they may not otherwise be able to take care of. Sometimes there are trees that need some plant healthcare and have some insect and disease issues that we can take care of during this timing when the time is right.
Doug: You could actually be there and there might be a service, right?
Eric: That's correct, yes. It's pretty often that we'll have to pause work in the middle of the day. There'll be a procession going on, a family bringing a loved one in to be buried. We'll pause work, they'll have their little ceremony. Often there's a 21-gun salute, so we give them the privacy and the honor that they deserve during that time. It also is a great time for us to reflect on what that means to us and be able to just take a moment and step away from the tree care work that we're doing and recognize that there are people that have given a lot for us, and how appreciative we are for what they've done.
Doug: Why is it important for you personally to be working at these places?
Eric: I never served in the military but I've got a lot of friends who have grandparents, relatives who have. They gave up a lot. They gave up a large chunk of their lives. They experience things that most of us never want to experience, and they do it for our freedom and for our ability to live the life that we have here in America. It's really important to me to be able to serve them in this way.
I think that it's a limited way that-- or I should say the grounds crew at these places is really limited in how they can take care of it. It's really awesome to be able to get a group of arborists who know what they're doing, can do work safely and professionally, can care for these trees. Some of these places are so huge that we can't take care of it all in one day. At Fort Snelling, I think we're going to have 120 to 150 people working there, and we'll still touch a quarter of it maybe. It's huge and there's so much to do. We go in in stages, we break it up into various sections that need the most attention each year and prioritize along with the groundskeepers and the maintenance head there, but it's a huge facility.
Doug: How did you find your way to your job?
Eric: I knew the owner of Maier Tree & Lawn, the company that I worked for back when I was a kid and in high school. He hired me after I came out of high school. We were bought by Davey seven years ago, so we're an acquisition of Davey. I came on that way. It was just a summer job for me though, to be honest. When I was in college two to three years in, about my junior year, I had decided that I think this is something that I can make a career out of that I enjoy. Love being outside, and there's lots of different aspects of tree care that you can get involved in.
At that point I decided, "Hey, you know what? This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to chase this." I have a degree in business but I had the idea and the knowledge that I was chasing down the tree care as a career and took my classes and whatnot in that direction. Then came back home, came back to where I'm from, and worked for Maier for the last 11 years.
Doug: I'm assuming there's just a huge difference between working at someone's home and then doing Saluting Branches at this big quiet space, but I think the things that I'm seeing that are similar in my time of interviewing arborists is that in the homeowner, you're helping them. In this case, you're helping a bigger cause.
Eric: That's true. It's not just one individual. You're, in essence, serving all of the people who have been buried there, their families, the general public who visits. You might be even able to expand that out to all of us as Americans as well.
Doug: When you're doing this work, are these trees in better shape than they would be at a homeowner's? Because as homeowners we're like, "We don't want to look up. We're afraid to look up." Then usually by the time you guys get there, it's like, "What were you waiting for?" In this case, it seems as though you're there every year. You've got groundskeepers looking there. Are those guys giving you ideas when you get there? Like, "Hey, take a look at this. Oh, take a look at this maple."
Eric: There's a lot of prep work that goes into it and we have a few site leaders. I'm one of the site leaders who we're going to go up there one or two times before the actual event and we're going to walk through. The groundskeeper, the head groundskeeper, has a list of the trees that he wants us to look at and the trees that he's thinking of replacing or whatnot. We're going to look at those trees, inspect them, evaluate them, give them a score, and determine what our priorities are.
Overall, the trees are mostly in pretty good shape. They've been maintained. They've had an eye kept on them for a long time. However, there are some trees that are pretty hazardous as they've been-- They just didn't have the money before to take care of it. The events of the Saluting Branches started in 2015. Then obviously 2020, we skipped a year because of everything that was going on. We've been there five years. We haven't caught up on the previous however many decades of time where this wasn't going on but we're getting on, we're getting caught up and getting ahead of it.
Doug: How big of a site are we talking about for the biggest one?
Eric: Ooh, that's a good question.
Doug: Like hundreds of acres? We're talk--
Eric: Hundreds of acres, yes.
Doug: Wow. There's a lot of work to be done. Just general maintenance obviously with that kind of space, but it must feel nice to make a difference.
Eric: It really does, yes. It's a good time. It's a low-pressure time although you still feel the weight of what you're doing. You're working right in the midst of headstones, and right around them. You have to be really cautious of what you're doing, respectful of how you're doing your work. It's not easy, necessarily, but it is fun. It's a cool experience too because you're bringing together a whole bunch of different companies, different cultures, different people, different backgrounds all together to work for one common cause.
We even have some people who aren't arborists. There are other companies that will donate their employees' time to come volunteer to just either clean up, drag brush. They do some of the raking, the blowing off of the streets, some tree planting, and various other capacities where they may not be skilled arborists but they're donating their time to the same cause.
Doug: Wow. I would think too that it would be cool for you to meet these other guys in the business, and both of you look up at a tree and say, "Well, I do this," and you might say, "Well, I did this." Is that sort of thing happening?
Eric: It happens a bit. We try to have fairly standardized instructions for what the trees should look like so that we limit how much difference there is between different pruning styles. We try to come up with a fairly broad specification for pruning to say, "Here's what we need all these trees along the street to look like." There are some minor differences in how you would do certain things. We try to eliminate a lot of the questions or the gray areas before everybody shows up so that we don't run into a whole lot of situations.
Doug: When you go out there to scout, is it you, or is it you and a couple other people or--
Eric: A couple other people. This year we've got a company that does inventory and IT management through a GIS-type system. They're creating an inventory as we're going and identifying all the trees that are being maintained, identifying all the trees that are there. Completely currently identifying planting sites for potential future plantings. There's a whole team that's actually going out and looking at these trees, not just one person.
Doug: Well, that's interesting. What does that mean? What does the GIS system mean? What are they doing there specifically?
Eric: They're taking a map online, and they're creating layers of information based on trees, species, sizes, health conditions, and then I think there's future plans or something like that. The superintendent of the cemetery can manage the trees and pull lists on his computer based on "I want to select all of the red oaks that are within this size range." Then he can pull that list and be able to know exactly where they are. He could send his grounds crew, or send us to go look at certain trees based on what he's got in his computer inventory.
Doug: That's amazing. That is.
Eric: It is.
Doug: That is really amazing. What a great way to manage the trees. [chuckles] That's awesome.
Eric: Right. It's one of the ways that when you have thousands of trees on a site, it makes it a little bit more manageable and more easily maintained, and you can plan better for the future.
Doug: How was it that you became one of the site leaders for that?
Eric: I volunteered.
Eric: I've been involved since 2015.
Doug: Don't they tell you in the military never to volunteer?
Eric: Yes. [laughs]
Doug: When did you first hear of Saluting Branches?
Eric: I've been a part of it since 2016, so right from the beginning or close enough to the beginning. The first events were in 2015. I started in 2016 after that first year. The founder of our company was involved as well as being one of the leaders and the founding members of it, so he got us involved right away. I've been involved there and seen a part of the background of what goes on in conversations with him and with some of the people up there, so I just volunteered myself to jump in here in the last-- I think this last year was canceled, but this year I'm playing a more major role.
A couple of years ago I was just more of an area leader. I was just basically a foreman over a certain section of the cemetery making sure that all the work was getting done to the right specifications, nobody was doing anything unsafe. We were looking out for each other, making sure people were still being somewhat efficient and continuing on, and nobody was wondering what to do next and those sorts of things.
Doug: Tell me why you volunteered to be one of the site leaders.
Eric: I know how much work it is to organize a large event. It's always easier if somebody steps in and is willing to take a piece and to share the load a little bit. I respect what the guys who have put this whole event together do, and I thought that I had something to contribute in a way that I could help spread the load out from them.
Doug: I want to finish up with one more question. When you're done on that day that you do Saluting Branches, tell me the feeling when you finish up for the day.
Eric: Satisfaction, looking over a job well done, seeing the impact that was made. That's the lasting impact people are going to see for years and enjoy.
Doug: Well, Eric, that's very important work you're doing, and we thank you for that work. Again, also thank you for spending some time with us today and telling us about Saluting Branches. What a wonderful, wonderful project. Thanks again.
Eric: You're welcome. Thanks for the opportunity.
Doug: That was truly inspiring. Such meaningful work. Now, tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I'm your host, Doug Oster. I would appreciate it if you would subscribe to the podcast. Now, did you ever wonder why the leaves of trees change color? We'll learn all about that next week, and talk about trees with great year-round interest. As always, we'd like to remind you on the Talking Trees podcast, trees are the answer.
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