Canola thieves invade farms near Calgary, with up to 15 people at a time stuffing plants into garbage bags

A rash of canola thieves have been spotted along the outskirts of southeast Calgary in recent weeks, with up to a dozen or more people at a time sneaking into farmers' fields to purloin plants — sometimes ruining acres of crops or prompting confrontations involving police.

One farmer lost 2 acres of crop due to ruined plants while elsewhere police issued tickets

Police respond to a complaint of canola theft on a farm in Rocky View County east of Calgary. (Jamie Day)

Over the past number of weeks, several people on the outskirts of southeast Calgary have taken to social media to comment on some unusual sightings — people cutting down canola crops by hand or with tools such as scythes, before jamming the plants into plastic bags and driving away.

In one case, neighbours tried to stop the alleged thieves from leaving until police arrived and ticketed them. In another, a farmer lost two acres of crops due to the thieves ruining the plants.

These sightings have left some unanswered questions — did these people have permission? Why would anyone want the young canola buds in the first place?

Murray Busslinger thinks he knows.

He's friends with a farmer who got hit by thieves this year.

Busslinger said his friend gave permission to one person to take a few plants — which, in the earlier stages of growth, are used in salads and certain dishes — but since then, he said, word has spread.

"Eventually, when you get 15, 20 people out there tramping around, now it becomes harmful and damaging and then it starts costing you money," Busslinger said.

Busslinger said thieves took about two acres of his friend's crop this year — plants which can no longer be harvested.
Northern Ontario farmers have seen wild swings in the prices for canola and other grains over the last four years. (Mike Symington/CBC)

He said a bagful or two may not appear to be much compared to the vast fields they come from, but said each handful adds up.

Then, he said, there's the principle of the matter.

"It's just like me going to the grocery store and grabbing a thing of romaine lettuce, walking out the door, and not paying for it."

Not easy to stop

According to the social media posts, people have been spotted near Beiseker, Strathmore, Langdon and Chestermere.

It's not clear exactly how many people are stealing the shoots and from how many different properties.

Brooke Patton, who lives in Indus, said she's passed different groups of people picking canola in two different fields over a period of two weeks.

In one instance, Patton said she recalled seeing at least 15 people and five vehicles, including one SUV filled with garbage bags in the back.

"I was surprised, cause that's not something that you see everyday," Patton said.

Tops of canola plants cut off by alleged thieves in a field near Glenmore Trail S.E. near Highway 797. (Murray Busslinger)

The Alberta Canola Producers said this happens from time to time when a canola field is planted next to a big city, such as Edmonton or Calgary.

"Not entirely sure how we can stop it," said Ward Toma, general manager with Alberta Canola Producers.

Toma said these crops are expensive to put in, maintain and take off — so the acre that's removed could have been the farmer's profit margin for that field for the year.

"It's not free. You are taking someone's livelihood," Toma said.

Toma said people can buy the seed mix and grow canola greens, which are similar mustard greens, at home.

'You could easily grow these plants in a pot on your balcony or your windowsill and grow enough for a meal and you could do it over and over again," Toma said.


But Toma said reports of full garbage bags are more than individual use — so it's important that anyone who witnesses these incidents report them to the farmer and police.

"At least signage should go up so that people are aware that they are trespassing on private property and they are stealing," Toma said.

Busslinger said police responded to a related incident on his friend's farm in July.

Close-up of a canola plant that has been cut down and can no longer be harvested. (Murray Busslinger)

A spokesperson for RCMP in Strathmore said police received a report of people stealing crops along Highway 791 in Rocky View County on the evening of July 10.

Police said neighbours tried to prevent the alleged thieves from leaving until police arrived and upon investigation police issued trespassing tickets to four Calgary residents.

The RCMP spokesperson said police then told the farmer to put up a "no trespassing" sign.

Busslinger said his friend has since put up a sign in the hopes it will help.

Ask first — you may be surprised

Busslinger said people should always stop and ask permission before entering a farmer's field for any reason.

And, he said, they should offer some money if they want to take something of value.

"And half the time, or three-quarters of the time, the farmer is going to say, 'Nah keep your money, go ahead,'" Busslinger said.

Busslinger said it's important people understand that just because the fields are close to the city, easily accessible and often unsupervised, they are not a playground or a community garden.

But he said farmers are, more often than not, willing to share their land if they are asked.

"Just pull in a farmer's yard and ask them. They're probably more than willing to give you a few bagfulls," Busslinger said.

"They're not redneck bullies or mean people."


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