Kids Turn New Leaf, Spend Season `Roguing' For Pay -- Summertime Means Spinach Fields For Hundreds Of Skagit Valley Teens

In the lush Skagit Valley, rows of spinach stretch like green highways through wide-open fields. Lanes of leafy plants - mostly female - are punctuated every four rows by lanes of male plants, with their distinctive, bright-yellow tops.

Here the quiet is usually disturbed only by farm animals and the muffled sounds of distant traffic. But summertime in the Skagit Valley means the fields are alive with the banter of school kids.

"Ouch, my back!"

"Janet, can I go to the bathroom? Please?"

For hundreds of North Snohomish and Skagit County schoolchildren, the classroom moves outdoors for what some claim is the best summer job going: separating male and female spinach plants.

It's called roguing, a critical step in seed production for the area's various growers. Skagit Valley is one of the biggest producers of vegetable seed in the world.

The Alf Christianson company, the area's largest seed company, has employed young people for 40 summers, and produces more than 50 percent of the world's supply of spinach seed.

Both the kids and company representatives say it's a great alternative to spending the summer in front of the television set.

This year, the company received 1,300 applications from school kids in both counties. Eight hundred are already working, but with some turnover throughout the summer, the company expects to employ 1,000 young roguers over the season.

Roguing is a simple but labor-intensive task that cannot be performed by machines.

To produce hybrid seeds, seed companies plant males of one spinach variety next to female plants of another. These are intended to cross-pollinate. But mixed in with the female plants are males of the same species, called rogues, which must be removed to guarantee hybridity.

Philip Maxey, a production manager with Christianson, said summertime roguing is a great way to introduce young people to agriculture.

"Kids are going away from agriculture," he said. "They sit at a computer and don't know how the food chain works."

Roguing is a Mount Vernon tradition that teaches responsibility. But many of the kids - who might complain about anything that's not a hamburger, fries or Super Nintendo game - see the lesson a different way.

"It's taking up our summer vacation," said 12-year-old Jessica Greenwald of Mount Vernon. Greenwald giggled with her two friends, Dawn Keller and Brooke Brady, as they moved down a row of spinach.

"We got out of school Friday and started on Saturday," Keller, 12, said last week.

Asked if she liked the work, she shrugged her shoulders.

"This is our first week," said Keller. "It's OK."

Greenwald added she was saving money to attend the Pacific Northwest Ballet School.

Janet Robinson, a bus driver who has shuttled children to and from the fields at Alf Christianson for 20 years, said roguing is a positive experience.

"We are like members of a family. One girl I worked with eight years ago invited me to her wedding the other day," she said.

Robinson is one of the company's 16 summertime bus drivers who pick the children up from designated spots in Snohomish and Skagit counties. She started driving the after her own children worked as roguers.

"They've moved on, and I'm still here," she said, chuckling.

"I ran the first mixed (gender) group. They didn't think boys could work with girls - that there'd be too much interest," Robinson said. "Now everybody (rogues) together."

Inside sources have it that a fair amount of teenage flirting does go on in this sprawling spinach patch. But it's just something else supervisors like Robinson have to keep under control, along with too many trips to the restroom.

The teenage roguers supplement the work performed by migrant workers year- round on a variety of crops. The spinach is easier to rogue than other crops, such as berries, which are more labor intensive.

Field representative Harry Wolden summed up the role filled by the kids.

"They're our labor force and we don't house them, see," said Wolden, who is responsible for all aspects of field production. "We need a big volume of workers and there's no way you could house that amount of workers."

Wages are also lower than if adults did the same work. Because of their age, the company may pay the children less than the minimum wage.

First-year roguers under 16 are paid $3.61 per hour. Second-year roguers under 16 get $3.85. Checkers, who supervise the work of less-experienced roguers, and those 16 and over earn the minimum wage, $4.25.

Adult roguers are paid $5 per hour.

But many kids said roguing is as much about the fun as the money.

"It's an easy job to get, and the pay is good," said Paul Hernandez, 15.

Meeting people and making friends is part of what 16-year-old Phuong Huynh likes about the job. Huynh, who came from Vietnam in 1989, has worked at Alf Christianson for three years and today is one of the checkers.

"Before, it was the only job I could find because you have to be 16 to work at a lot of places," said Huynh, who earned $1,000 last summer. "But now I have a lot of friends down here. The people are really nice."