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Kyra Stephens

SFU Student Undergraduate
Co-operative Education

Position Title
Experience Faculty
The highlight of this work term was learning more in depth about local agriculture and the impact pests and disease can have on crop yield.
Experience Details
Introduction + Preparation

Making sure I was prepared with the right gear was the most important thing required for me for this job. Having the right clothing and footwear can really make or break a day out in the fields, so confirming I had the right protection from weather conditions was crucial. Some of the more specific gear needed for the job was given to us, but double checking I always had a hat, sunscreen and some sort of shirt to protect from the sun was the biggest concern. 

Previous Experience

I have had a lot of experience in the outdoors before starting this job, so I knew it was an environment that I would be comfortable working in. I grew up camping, hiking, kayaking and canoeing, as well as had an interest in the role plants and animals play in their ecosystems which I think helped in my curiosity for a job in agriculture. One of the most impactful experiences I had before working this job was my first co-op work term, where I was treating mosquitoes all across Metro Vancouver. This job was my first time doing field work outside of a classroom, and I believe it helped in my understanding of what is required of someone who wants to do field work in their career. 

Preparation Tips for Future Students

Be prepared for anything. As you continue working over the course of the term you can get into a routine, and you can broaden the amount of gear you have for each day. For example, making sure you have extra clothes (especially socks) in case you need to change, having lots of sunscreen and bug spray to be able to re-apply throughout the day, and a good pair of rain boots were some things that I was constantly using. Another thing I had to adjust over the course of my work term was the amount of water I brought. Since my work term was in the summer, we would be working in hot conditions sometimes where I would be drinking much more water than I usually would. So always having a couple extra bottles of water in your car as a backup may be necessary. 

One other tip would be to understand that the work may be challenging some days. Mentally preparing and understanding what is required of the job will work out in your favour. There will be some days that are harder and longer than others, but it will all balance out in the end and you can get through it. Knowing that there are others on the team that will feel the same way as you makes the work feel less demanding. 

During my Experience
Orientation and First Weeks

The first few days you are thrown a ton of information in an overview of the job. There will be paperwork to fill out, PowerPoints to go through, and learning the names and locations of the fields you will be monitoring. You will learn about what role you play on the team and what will be expected of you, as well as what sort of things you need to be looking for in the fields. This includes types of pests, diseases, different types of feeding damage on the crops, and more. Lots of the gear required is given to you on the first day, including a scout pack, vials for sampling, data sheets, and other gear needed for monitoring. Meeting the team was also an important part of the first few weeks, since you are constantly changing the partners you work with every day. There were lots of ice breakers and team building exercises done to ensure everyone is comfortable working with everyone else. One way that we bonded as a team as well as got a feel for the locations we would be working in was with a scavenger hunt. In teams we would drive around looking for items and learning about what landmarks are used to access the fields. 

As the first few weeks go by you start to get the hang of things and move into a routine, so it does get easier as you get better. Being efficient in monitoring is a key aspect of the job to ensure you can visit as many fields as possible each day. However, in the first few weeks the team really emphasizes taking your time and understanding what you're seeing in the fields. 

Day to Day

What a normal day usually looks like is getting paired up with one of the other scouts and getting your field list for the day. The list can vary from 5-10 fields a day, depending on what period of the season you are in. Once everyone breaks off into their pairings they go to their required fields to monitor. We track our findings on data sheets and collect samples from the fields when needed. Once we are done for the day we report back to the field office to hand in our completed data sheets and any samples from the day. 

Learning and Adaptation

Prior to this co-op, I had very flexible hours where I was able to determine my start and end time since I mostly monitored solo. For this work term, the hours are very structured seeing that you were working with a team and needed everyone to end around the same time. Learning about farm life was a bit of a new idea for me also, considering I had never worked on a farm before. Lots of the growers are working alongside you as you're monitoring, either getting ready to irrigate the field, re-hilling the rows of potatoes, or even harvesting so being aware of your surroundings at all times is quite important. Adapting to this style of work took some getting used to, but after about a month or so of repetition it becomes very natural. 

Learning about all the different insects and diseases that you may come in contact with in the field was definitely a learning curve, especially since some of them can look very similar at certain stages in their life cycle. There will be some pests that you are consistently seeing so they can become second nature to you, but taking lots of photos/samples and asking questions (even when you think you know the answer) is the best way to learn. 

Accomplishments and Challenges

The biggest challenge I'd say was the weather conditions. Since this is a summer job, some of the days can get very hot when you're out in the fields. Bringing lots of water and staying protected from the sun as much as possible is the most important thing when working a physically demanding job like this. Luckily our supervisors know what it's like to be working as a scout, so they were able to shift things around on the really hot days. For example, starting earlier in the mornings to try and avoid the hot afternoon sun. They would also encourage us to take a couple extra minutes to cool off either in the shade or in our cars after a field, and to drink lots of electrolytes. Having supervisors that look out for you while in the fields was something that I greatly appreciated about working with E.S.

An accomplishment would be seeing the impact of what you're doing on the potato fields firsthand. Since the same fields are monitored every week, you are able to directly see how the data you collect can benefit the crops and allow them to flourish. Also, as the months go by seeing how much more efficient you are at monitoring. You notice more in the fields and are able to hit those goals of finishing 9 or 10 fields a day. 

Reflection & Tips

I entered this co-op looking for more experience with field work and data collection, and I am grateful to be able to say this job met those expectations. I learned a lot about agriculture and the work that goes into getting produce and other crops from the fields into the grocery stores. Being able to enhance my skills in field work and gain knowledge about the many different types of insects that are present locally are two aspects of this job that I will be able to carry forward in my education and career. This was a much drier summer than the previous year, so seeing the changes and how the conditions can affect crops was interesting to witness. I definitely have a greater appreciation for anyone working in agriculture. The hours that farmers and farm hands work are long and labour intensive and was something that I definitely took for granted when buying produce at the grocery store.

Even though I have previous experience in field work, learning it in a new environment will be a good skill to have moving forward. I am pleased to be able to say this co-op with E.S. exceeded my expectations and I will be grateful for the opportunity moving forward. 

Most Valuable Aspects of This Experience
  1. Learning multiple ways of monitoring the same crops. Depending on what stage they are in their life cycle will determine how they are monitored. This was something I was curious about before starting the work term, since the crops grow so much over only a few short months. I believe that being able to now say that I have learned a few more ways of monitoring crops will benefit me in the future. 
  2. Making connections with my coworkers and employers. These connections may help in the future if I want to pursue something in agriculture or entomology. Having built these relationships with others that have done the same job as me but coming from different backgrounds and experiences show that there are so many opportunities out there for people of all kinds. 
  3. Field work experience in a different environment than what I have done before. Broadening my understanding of the relationships between plants and animals in many different environments will be important in any career I choose. Even though I was working with small insects and mainly one type of crop, I think this job can be considered a stepping stone and will help guide me in whatever I choose next.
Connection to Academic Studies or Career Goals

I am studying biology with a concentration in ecology, evolution and conservation, so this work experience greatly ties into that. My previous field work job I was focusing only on one type of insect, so broadening my scope on the different types we have even just locally will benefit me in my future classes. Data collection and many monitoring processes are important in any career in ecology and conservation, and I think the knowledge I have gained from this work term will greatly relate to my studies. This job has helped me realize that I do want to have a career where field work is present often, since I want to be out experiencing these ecosystem interactions firsthand. In my opinion, any field work experience is helpful in this field of study. 

The most recent way this job will help me in my academic studies is in my insect biology course that I will be taking in September following my work term. Since learning about the many different insect body forms and the habitats they like to live in from this work term, I believe I will have a good understanding in the class following. 

Advice for Future Students

Bring back as many samples as you can, even if you already know what type of insect it is or what caused the feeding damage. This was the best way that I learned what to look for in the fields and understand how it affects the way the potato plants can look. If samples aren't possible, take lots of pictures and send them to your supervisors. They love receiving photos since it lets them know you are looking for abnormalities in the fields. 

Sometimes the job is hard, especially if you are mentally or physically tired. Knowing that the work you are doing directly helps the farmers know what is in their fields and whether or not they need to spray is definitely something that helped me push through on days that I didn't feel like working. 

Ask questions! All the supervisors had one or more research projects going on during the work term and by asking questions you can see what else is involved in other branches of the company. You might even find one that you are interested in. Being curious is a great way to find out what your interests are and what you want for your career.