The Treemes story

October 20, 2020

Robin Gardner of Treemes.

“If you can’t measure something, then you can’t understand it, control it nor improve it” – Dr H.J. Harrington

Mensuration: (noun) measurement; the part of geometry concerned with ascertaining lengths, areas and volumes. (Oxford English Dictionary)

SA Forestry freelance reporter Justin Nyakudanga visited Dr Robin Gardner at his office in the misty hills of Hilton, to find out more about Treemes SA and why mensuration plays such an important role in the world of forestry. Robin is a former researcher and tree improvement forester and currently owner of Treemes SA, which imports and manufactures mensuration equipment, and offers a range of related services.

JN: Why is mensuration equipment an essential part of a forestry practitioner’s toolbox?
RG: Forestry mensuration equipment not only provides a means of keeping track of individual tree growth, but also an inventory of standing crop in a forestry compartment or research plot at any point in time during crop rotation.

Individual tree growth attributes most commonly measured and/or assessed during crop rotation are height and breast-height diameter (dbh). Increment borers are commonly utilized for taking wood samples from tree stems for investigating wood properties, and/or the annual growth pattern over rotation length (mainly conifers).

Utilizing tree height and dbh measurement data plus a stem-form factor for the particular species, a forestry planner or researcher can calculate fairly accurately the standing tree wood volume and subsequent estimation of the potential and/or value of the particular crop.

JN: Robin, tell us a bit about yourself, and how you came to establish Treemes SA?
RG: I was born in Durban to a father who was a grocery importer and mother who was a nurse. We moved to Ixopo early high school days, so trail running and river canoeing were my favourite sports, and still are. My father owned a general dealer shop in Ixopo and a trading store in the surrounding hills where I worked during school holidays to earn a bit of extra pocket money. After matriculating I served a three year apprenticeship with Mercedes Benz in Durban, eventually becoming their chief auto-electrician.

After eight years in the auto-electrical field, my love for fresh air, nature and wide open spaces came back to haunt me. I sacrificed a lucrative job to switch career and study further, eventually obtaining higher diplomas in both the Horticultural and Agricultural (Botany Research) fields. During most of this time I was employed by the Institute for Fruit and Fruit Technology Research based at Roodeplaat research station outside Pretoria. My main responsibilities were investigating alternative temperate fruit tree species and cultivars, and pruning and training systems for high density peach orchards.

After 11 years of working for the government I moved back to the KZN midlands with my family. The only relevant job available to me at the time was Silvicultural Research Technician at the Institute for Commercial Forestry Research (ICFR) in Pietermaritzburg.

On taking up the ICFR post in April 1990, one side-line responsibility given to me was the periodic import and supply of fibreglass diameter (dbh) tapes to the forestry industry. The main reason the ICFR originally took on this task was to assist their funders. The manufacturer and supplier of the particular Dean tapes, Stanley Tools (UK), would not consider orders of less than 200 units. From 1995 the tax status of the ICFR changed preventing the institute from selling items such as wattle seed and dbh tapes.

So in April 1995, with written permission from the ICFR Director, I began importing and supplying the same dbh tapes to the industry in my own time and under my own name as sole proprietor. I eventually registered the business as Treemes SA cc in 2010.

Mensuration plays an important role in forestry.

JN: What motivated you to start Treemes?
RG: Up until the mid-1990s the main tree height measuring devices used by South African forestry researchers and enumeration/inventory teams were Blume-Leiss and Haga Altimeters and Suunto PM-5/1520 Height Meter. These mechanical height meters were pretty accurate, but slow to derive height readings because one first had to establish distance from tree base using a target placed on the tree stem. During the second half of 1995, after hearing about the promising performance of the Vertex digital hypsometer prototypes from a New Zealand colleague, I was tasked with importing one of the instruments for the ICFR for testing against the popular Blume-Leiss. This was to my knowledge the first Vertex imported into the country. We put the instrument through its paces in ICFR trials in different climate zones, and the results were reported on in the ICFR Bulletin.

The pace and accuracy of the digital instrument was significantly superior to the mechanical Blume-Leiss. Later I was approached by researchers in local forestry companies to supply them with Vertexes for testing.

The Vertex hypsometer has arguably been one of the most successful instruments manufactured and supplied by Haglöf Sweden AB. So I guess for me the motivation to start Treemes SA was two-fold: (a) In the earliest phase of the business I enjoyed being able to help out the forestry community by procuring and supplying a small but vital piece of forestry mensuration equipment, viz. dbh tapes, and (b) being able to introduce, test and supply innovative new forestry measuring equipment items to the industry.

JN: Tell us more about Treemes services?
RG: The focus of Treemes SA is the supply of specialised forestry mensuration equipment to the industry. Most of the equipment is sourced directly from a few overseas manufacturers. Some items, like the hollow aluminium height (HT) rod sets used to measure young trials/stands where mean tree HT is ≤ 10 m, we manufacture ourselves. From the time of importing the first Vertexes, I developed a sound working relationship with Haglöf Sweden. The company has always appreciated any feedback given them regarding performance and adaptability of their equipment to Southern African forestry conditions.

Steps are taken as soon as possible to improve hardware (subsequent models) or carry out and distribute software updates.

Treemes SA also offers practical training courses in the use of equipment.

JN: Is this equipment used by a wide range of forestry companies, big and small?
RG: For basic tree measurement and standing timber volume assessment, less complex and therefore less costly mensuration instruments will in many cases suffice. Such instruments are mostly mechanical and slower to deliver accurate slope, height and diameter readings. Measurements need to be physically recorded into a manual or digital book which is time consuming. These types of instruments generally only suffice the needs of a small or private grower.

Equally rugged, but more sophisticated and expensive digital mensuration instruments such as Vertex IV hypsometer and Mantax Digitech II (MDII) and Digitech Professional (DPII) calipers have built-in error reduction features providing increased rapidity and accuracy of measurements. Such instruments can communicate collected data directly in-field with Bluetooth® and IR, or in the office with USB. Digital calipers, including the above, have large internal memories that can store thousands of measurements.

These types of instruments appeal to the forestry planning, cruising contractor and research communities. More expensive digital calipers such as the DPII, which are fully programmable, generally appeal more to forestry planners and researchers in the larger forestry corporates.

JN: What are some of the daily challenges your business faces?
RG: The main challenge is being able to supply a client with items ordered as soon as possible. However, a common problem is imported stock getting hung up in South African Customs for whatever reason. This can be very frustrating.

Most of the items I supply are high quality, and if looked after, can last a long time. Improvements to instruments take place periodically, particular those recently introduced. So in most cases it doesn’t pay to import in bulk.

Then there’s the problem of fluctuating exchange rates, so it’s a balancing act!

JN: What other businesses are you involved in?
RG: I currently do a limited amount of forestry consulting work under the banner of ‘Gardner and Associates’. One facet of this business is the training of upcoming forestry researchers in the establishment and measurement of field trials.

The other facet of the business is organizing and conducting forestry tours for international and local groups.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, July 2020

Related article: Forest Operations Productivity Initiative

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