What lead you to arboriculture and urban forestry?
Gary Raffel: I grew up with an interest in the outdoors, including hunting and hiking, and from an early age wanted to become a forester. In high school, I did landscaping work for a friend’s start-up company and gravitated toward pruning trees and the thrill of climbing them to get a dead limb here or there. That turned into working for tree companies on summer breaks from Paul Smith’s College. Eventually, I decided to dual major at SUNY ESF in forestry and forest biology to integrate my desire to become a forester with my experience climbing and working in arboriculture.
While at ESF I took Paul Manyon’s tree pathology class and an entomology course and was hooked on the material and the desire to focus on individual trees. I worked for a summer in Pennsylvania marking timber and boundary lines for a consulting forestry company and I realized, though I loved the forest setting, I missed the thrill of climbing and focusing on the individual tree within the stand. It became clear to me that the real-world economics of timber stand management wasn’t always in accord with the textbook sustainable management practices I was so eager to implement. I also met too many foresters who had come to feel like the woods was a job site for them and they began to despise it. I wanted to keep the woods as a special place, one where I could always hike and hunt without feeling like I was on a job site. So from then on, I decided to focus my studies on arboriculture and urban forestry.
What has been your career trajectory?
GR: I worked for my first tree company in Buffalo after my freshman year at Paul Smith’s at a time when tree companies in Buffalo were jockeying around company names to seize the first slot in the Yellow Pages. Whoever had the most “A’s” in the beginning of their company name was the winner. I worked for most of those “A” companies over a four-year period and enjoyed being an arborist. Wanting to utilize more of the pathology I enjoyed, I began working for a company that dealt with Plant Health Care. From then on, I wanted to be able to incorporate insect and disease interests with the excitement of doing tree work.
Can you tell us about your business?
GR: My business partner Steve Schnepf started Genesee Tree Service in 1983, focusing on pruning and removal services. I started Dynamic Tree Systems in 2002, offering general tree care service as well as Plant Health Care and Integrated Pest Management programs. I later wanted to find a niche in the industry and purchased a Tree Radar Unit at a time when there were only three of us in the U.S. and eleven people in the world using the equipment. Initially, I thought that offering risk analysis and root mapping to the golf course industry would be my niche (I later learned that trees will never win the tree vs. turf battle in the golf industry and gave up on that particular sector).
A few years into running the equipment I developed close ties with the manufacturer (Tree Radar Inc.) and became the company’s international consultant, which later became international trainer, such that when a new unit was sold I would fly to the particular client and spend a week training them on their new equipment (I still do that). In 2008 Steve and I merged the two companies creating Genesee Tree Service Inc. with Dynamic Tree Systems as a corporate DBA and the consulting arm of the company. We have six dedicated, hardworking employees.
What do you spend the most time doing in your work life?
GR: The seasonal nature of the industry dictates how my time is spent. I am blessed to have a great business partner and crew so that we are able to diversify and focus our efforts where they are most needed and best served at any given time of the season. During the busy insect and disease season, I am largely focused on those efforts; for instance, EAB in Rochester is a real problem and demands a large chunk of time. Tree Radar is still my “baby” and has allowed me to see parts of the world that an arborist from Buffalo would never be able to see otherwise.
What are some of the challenges in your work life?
GR: Our challenges are the same as with any small business, I would suspect, but what’s unique to our industry is the need to distinguish ourselves from companies less focused on good arboriculture and more focused on cash flow. We spend the non-billable time in dialogue with residential and commercial clients so they can make an informed decision on how best to manage the trees on the property. Sometimes that results in rewarding things, like helping preserve ash trees on a street of otherwise dead ones, or convincing a homeowner to preserve a mature tree.
How did you get connected to the NYSUFC and how have you been involved?
GR: When Andy Pleninger was the president, he asked me to get involved. At the time I was the arborist at a private golf club and was a client of Andy’s business, Urban Forestry LLC. I started going to ReLeaf conferences and then became involved with the Region 8 ReLeaf Committee, was chair for a period of time, and then became part of the board of directors.
What are your interests in your free time?
GR: Hunting and playing music with my family and friends (dogs included—no cats allowed on the porch).