harvest 101

An experienced lumberjack standing before a conifer will tell you with a quick glance from 20 metres away if it is a balsam fir. But for somebody who has grown up in a concrete jungle, the task is a little more challenging…

If you are a complete novice, are interested in harvesting and it’s your first time (there is always a first time), then this Harvesting 101 course is for you.


Everyone can do it. Whether it’s for personal use, to earn extra income or for hunters or trappers who want to mask odours, fir tree gum is all around you and accessible to all.


THIS IS CRUCIAL! If you expect to be able to harvest 10 litres per day or become a millionaire by harvesting balsamfir tree resin, you can change page because your studies are done!

Admittedly, there are harvesters that earn a salary from harvesting fir tree gum and some even make a career out of it. It is said that an experienced "picker" can harvest two to four litres per day! But for the beginner, it’s best to approach harvesting as a hobby by not setting the bar too high, especially the first few days. You have to master the technique of using a pickway, choose the right firs and learn to "read" the bark to spot the blisters. Give yourself time. Being a picker is basically a job and like any other; with time comes experience!


Let’s start with the lingo used in fir tree gum harvesting. These terms go back to the time of New France.

"The Métis, trappers and coureurs des bois benefited from this seasonal income. The fir tree gum "picker" was a trade not known to many. They would leave very early, with their five-to-six-foot ladder, a ‘pickaway’ in hand and a holder on their belt." -Frère Ours, Aube.laplumedefeu.com

You might have gathered that the "picker" is the person who harvests and the pickaway is the tool; basically a cylinder with teeth used to pick (puncture) fir blisters to get to the resin, hence the name "picker". The term pickaway evolved over the centuries into pickway . The holder is a large-format container, attached to a belt on the side, that holds the contents of the pickway.


There are two coniferous species that are, without a doubt, difficult to differentiate: the balsam fir and the spruce. The "Christmas Spruce" has often been seen in cottages in Quebec. Let’s start by talking about their leaves, otherwise known as needles:

Spruce: Its prickly needles are arranged all around its branches. They roll well between the thumb and index finger.

Fir:  Its needles are flat and not very prickly. They are on either side of its branches.

Just take a needle and try to roll it between your fingers. If it doesn’t roll, it’s a fir and if it does roll, it’s a spruce. Knowing the branches is good but since harvesting is also done on mature trees, often the branches are too high to use for identification. We will therefore also learn to differentiate them by their barks:

Spruce: The bark is scaly.                                                                                                                                                                Fir: The bark is generally smooth and has blisters (also called bubbles or bladders)

Practice comparing them and you’ll see that armed with the knowledge of how to differentiate them, it will become easier and easier. Like the lumberjack, get used to recognizing the balsam fir at first glance.  


Fir  resin can be harvested from the spring thaw to the autumn freeze. In other words, from the moment it is liquid enough to harvest until it turns solid from the cold, generally from April to November depending on the climate and the region where you are located. Harvesting can be done on the entire accessible surface of the tree and is only limited by the presence of branches. Use a ladder if needed.

To harvest: Place the pickway teeth as close as possible to the bark under the blister (to avoid resin loss) and in one movement press upwards, pierce the blister and the fir tree gum will start to flow. With the thumb from your other hand, press gently on the blister to help it drain into the pickway.

A WORD OF CAUTION! Don’t press on a blister that hasn’t been perforated beforehand otherwise you risk having some squirt in your eyes or your hair, and all of the problems that this entails.

Do not harvest in the rain or if the trunk is wet. Water will whiten the resin and destroy your harvest. Also, if you use a homemade pickway, avoid constructing it with copper or aluminum as these will darken the resin and destroy your harvest.

From a sustainable development perspective, avoid piercing small blisters as they are not worth your while and since a tree stand can be harvested every 5 to 7 years, you are ensured a future crop.

As for injuring trees when harvesting, rest easy in the knowledge that the balsam fir has everything it needs to heal and the injury will not affect its survival.

Be professional when you harvest. Even if you are in a forest, always keep in mind that the fir tree gum is destined to be used in pharmaceuticals and food. Keep contaminants, such as bug spray and sunscreen, away from your pickway. Always keep the tool clean. In this respect, FIR TREE GUM OF THE NORTH offers all of its customers, free of charge, the opportunity of harvesting with a clean container each time.


Obviously, if you own a property or land, the question does not arise. If you live in the city, you might want to ask family with land for permission to harvest. Inquire with the state or provincial authorities responsible for forests in your area to find out if you can harvest in parks, controlled harvesting zones (ZEC) or nature reserves on land belonging to the government. Usually, it isn’t a problem. In certain places, there are logging operations. Is there a possibility of  harvesting gum before cutting begins? Always ask permission before harvesting on land you are not familiar with.

Be careful during the hunting season. Inquire about when hunting is permitted in your area. During these periods, it is possible that access to certain government territories be refused. The most important thing is that if you are harvesting during the hunting season, no matter where you are, be it on private land or another area, make sure you are wearing a reflective vest for your security.


 Unless you want to earn a salary, you don’t need to spend the whole day harvesting. Plan a Sunday afternoon to harvest with friends or, if you are camping, fishing or hunting, harvest for a few hours during down time. As part of a family activity, children old enough to harvest can learn to make a bit of money while discovering and exploiting one of our natural resources. You may be surprised at the quantity that can be harvested.


 Here is an exhaustive list of equipment useful to pickers. It is up to you to judge the relevance of each item. 

 Pickway                               Water Bottle                                 Flagging Tape                                  Purell                             Latex Glove                          Insect Repellent                          Fluorescent Bib                               First Aid Kit                 Safety Glasses                      Solar Protector                            Boat Alarm                                       Cleaning Wipes           Small Scale                            Hatchet                                        Whistle Ultrasonic                           Waste bag               Suitable shoe                         Compass or GPS                        Small butter container

Note: A boat alarm (portable air horn) or an ultrasonic whistle can be useful in keeping away unwanted visitors. A small pill container filled with butter (or margarine) can be used for cleaning away fir tree resin if you get some near the eyes. In hair, the gum can be removed with butter (or margarine) or Purell.


 There exists a special moment when you harvest this golden resource that earns you money, as you stand in front of a tree, concentrated on each bulge of its bark which you carefully pierce so as not to lose any of the precious liquid. As your nostrils are filled with the pleasant smell that only a forest can emit and a warm and moist summer wind brushes your skin, you might just slip into a state of "here and now" and realize that what seemed like ten minutes was in fact an hour.

And at the end of it all, as you are leaving the forest and on your way home, feeling relaxed and lost in your thoughts, you can already see yourself harvesting the next time. AND THERE IT IS! You have been afflicted with pickway compulsion! And if such is the case, no telling if there is a cure!


A good course cannot end without some recommendations!

  • Kept health and safety in mind when you harvest. In the forest, emergency services can take a long time to arrive. Wear good footwear, hydrate yourself adequately, secure your ladder, tell somebody where you are going, etc.
  • Keep sustainable development in mind when you harvest by leaving small blisters intact and not harvesting from small firs.
  • Be ecological by preserving the forest in its natural state, leaving nothing behind and collecting your gloves and other items. Respect nature and it will provide its fruit free of charge!
  • Be professional in your harvesting by using a pickway and clean bottles, avoiding contaminants and keeping in mind that balsam fir tree resin is used in pharmaceuticals and food.


Join the ranks of “pickers” who exploit this natural resource which is unique in the world. No matter where you are from, be it from east-central Canada to the edge of the Maritimes or the northeastern United States, we are at your side to make this experience truly satisfying. And who knows, you might discover as most of us have that harvesting balsam fir resin goes beyond simply filling a container. HAPPY HARVESTING!

                                                          TO THE FIRS, CITIZENS!


                                                                           Fir Tree Gum of the North inc.
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