How a simple connection to agriculture can create massive ripples of awareness and support

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Scouring the fields: About 300 roguers who work in teams of 14–25 are hired every summer to weed canola crops in southern Alberta. The program has a 40% retention rate — many are repeat roguers from previous years.

Growing people & partnerships

For almost 20 years, young people in southern Alberta have been hired for canola roguing — walking through fields of purebred canola to pull out specific weeds and volunteer canola plants. These weeds contaminate high value seeds used to produce new seed varieties that farmers purchase for growing crops. The initiative is a partnership between several parent seed companies and Select People Solutions, an HR staffing company based out of Lethbridge, Alberta.

Roguing takes place every summer for a 4–8 week period from mid-June to late July or early August when canola is in bloom. Approximately 300 people are hired each year, 80% of whom are high school and university students.

While the seed companies provide the financial support for the roguing, the team at Select manages the program. From transportation to safety to training, Select provides the day to day support to roguers and the roguer teams, so that seed companies and growers can get on with what they do best, which is provide the expertise for growing seed.

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Travelling to the job site: Buses take roguers to flowering canola fields to begin the day. Roguers are trained to differentiate between male volunteer and female plants, walking the crops to pull and break the volunteers, and drop them between the rows.

Supporting the Ag industry

Roguing is a task that has to be done completely by hand for seed growers to produce the pristine quality of seed required that is sold to farmers around the world. No equipment is capable of this task.

As a seed grower located near Taber, AB, Scott Holtsman relies on the roguers for his canola fields. “There just isn’t the labour readily available to do roguing. People aren’t generally willing to work for such a short period of time. They also don’t want to work in a rural area. Without the roguers, I wouldn’t be able to grow as much canola, and I would have a much harder time controlling volunteer plants.”

Roguing is a task that has to be done completely by hand for seed growers to produce the pristine quality of seed required that is sold to farmers around the world. No equipment is capable of this task.

Jana Palmer, Quality and Compliance Manager at Bayer Canada has been involved with the roguing program for the past four years. “There’s quality checks all along the way when growing hybrid canola and we need the roguers to be able to meet those standards,” Palmer emphasizes. “Roguing also comes at the busiest field time of year — it has to happen and it has to happen at the right time. There are so many other activities going, so manpower is one of the biggest advantages you can have.”

Developing leadership skills & an appreciation of Ag

Surprisingly, 80–90% of roguers don’t come from a farm background and know little or nothing about canola farming.

“The roguing experience introduces city kids to a basic level of agriculture and really teaches them about work ethic,” says Tara Lennox, who manages the canola roguing program at Select. “It’s not easy work. The heat, wind, rain and the bees all present lots of challenges.”

“And it’s a natural leadership program,” she continues. “After a couple of years, many roguers become junior lead hands and help manage the roguing teams, then will progress to lead hands and even area hands.”

“It really provides them with insights as to how food gets on the shelf,” states Palmer. “They develop a better understanding of what plants are capable of, as well as genetic engineering and what that does for agriculture. It teaches them just how important fuel and water resources are, about sustainability and stewardship — that there’s a story to it.”

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High school students Shaelyn Sauter (L) and Mikayla Miller (R) worked as canola roguers during the summer of 2020. 80% of the roguers are students, of which 60% are female youth.

Meet the roguers

Friends Shaelyn Sauter, Kennedy Morland, and Emily and Mikayla Miller, grade 12 students from Lethbridge, all had good things to say about their canola roguing experiences.

Sauter said that canola roguing is hard work, but it’s a great team atmosphere where she had the ability to work with other young people on a daily basis. In fact, it was a highlight of her summer. Roguing also made her realize just how complex farming is and she certainly gained respect for farmers. “I had no idea. The fields are massive,” say Sauter, “and now I’m able to tell other people something about what goes into growing canola.”

Morland rogued for the first time this past summer. She loved being outside all day and says it was fascinating to learn about agriculture. She saw firsthand how farmers manage the fields, and about the diversity of different crops. “It was a really unique learning experience,” commented Morland. “It taught me a lot about responsibility, especially having to be there by 6 every morning.”

Emily Miller has rogued now for two years, along with her twin sister, Mikayla. “It’s cool to say I’ve been a part of one of the biggest things in southern Alberta,” says Miller. “I’ve learned how important a little thing like canola roguing is to producing food. I’ve also learned a lot of real world skills like time management and punctuality.” Her sister says how proud she feels to have made a contribution to agriculture by being a roguer.

“It’s cool to say I’ve been a part of one of the biggest things in southern Alberta.”

Influencing career choices

Bayer has a policy that when there’s roguers in their fields there has to be an agronomist on site. And Palmer sees it as an opportunity to start a conversation — about the impact the roguers are having on agriculture, the influence agriculture has on their lives and the career opportunities. “They learn that it’s not just up to the grower — there are other services out there and that’s where opportunities also lie.” She herself did not come from a farm background. It was just chance that she developed an interest in agriculture.

“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career. One day I was driving by the Lethbridge Ag College and I saw a sign inviting people to be a “Student for a Day”. I went in, took a tour, met some instructors, then filled out an application to take a class. I’ve never looked back, and have thoroughly enjoyed working as an agronomist and then taking on a managerial role. Agriculture has so much to offer.”

She continued, “I can really connect with people who are new to agriculture, so understand what it’s like to be in a field and identifying a weed for the first time. Students need to understand they’re doing this for a reason, that it has an important purpose. I believe that’s what really draws them to come back next year.”

Logan Skrelling is one success story who, in part, attributes canola roguing with Select to landing a job as Assistant to the Minister of Agriculture. His canola roguing experiences during three years of university helped him develop a lot of transferable skills. As a lead hand he was responsible for 15 people, which included troubleshooting and dealing with different personalities. “You really had to be able to think on your feet, and figure out how to keep morale high and keep roguers motivated,” he says.

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Boarding the buses at sunrise: Roguers start at 6 am (or earlier!) and work until late afternoon each and every day during roguing season. It’s a job that has to be done, regardless of the wind and weather.

Bringing people together

In so many ways, what started out as a service for seed growers evolved into something much bigger.

“It’s really a community initiative,” explains Lennox. “By engaging community champions and local vendors we always find really good people to take on the roguing every summer. And there’s a sort of pride that you get when you see everyone arrive in the buses and work so hard all day. It really gives you goosebumps. It opens up a whole new world to many of them.”

In so many ways, what started out as a service for seed growers evolved into something much bigger.

Ryan Miller, Director and Owner of Select, says the impact canola roguing has had on the community can’t be overstated. Seed companies get the support they need to rogue fields without having to utilize their staff or hire short term employees, and roguers get a summer job and invaluable employment experience.

The lesson is that making connections to agriculture is easier than you think. It also has more impact than we anticipate. Just a taste awakens insight into the complexity of agriculture, something that is an integral part of all of our lives. And with that knowledge comes the satisfaction of understanding how food is produced and that the industry takes great care in growing food for Canadians.

In southern Alberta, it all started with tiny canola seeds. Even one small activity like canola roguing can create massive ripples of awareness and support. From seed growers to farmers to students and the people they interact with, the story of agriculture is being shared and appreciated. And there’s so many more opportunities to attract new demographics to an important and growing industry.

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