Editor's Note: Roadtreking Reporters Jim and Rhonda Phipps are Workkampers. Here's their account of one temporary job they took…working with the sugar beet crop in North Dakota.
Arrival at the Drayton, North Dakota site of American Crystal Sugar is exciting. Drayton is one of five American Crystal Sugar plants along the North Dakota / Minnesota border. The plant and surrounding grounds sprawl on over a mile wide along Old South Dakota Highway 44, and at least as deep. It looms large on the horizon, but before we visit it, we decide to pull into the Sugarbeet Harvest Campground we encounter on the way. As part of our employment we are given a full hookup site for the duration of our employment though we were told not to expect too much. After all we are smack in the middle of the North Dakota prairie. In the 1840’s pioneers discovered that beets and potatoes grew well here. They seem to be the primary vegetation, and how shady a campsite could you possibly get from plant about two feet tall?
Workcampers arrived in the park in a variety of vehicles carrying a variety of cargo. Vehicle vintages include 2013 Class A Coaches, retro 1950’s travel trailers, buses, umpteen fifth wheelers pulled by Ford F150’s, Chevy Silverado’s, a
nd even a Toyota Tundra.
My personal favorite is the Roadtrek from Michigan, although a Volkswagen Microbus complete with paisley paintjob is a close second. Tents are pitched next to early model Chevy Suburban’s at campsites which showed no signs of sleeping arrangements other than the tents. On dry days dust blows up from the prairie, giving the entire site a modern day “Grapes of Wrath,” visage. As there are a hundred people camped here, getting to know them all takes time, and so far no sign of Ma or Pa Joad though there might be a modern day Tom in the bunch. Folks on the road are as eclectic a bunch as any you will find. But all are friendly, respectful each others' means and all here to work. Perhaps more on that later.
Harvesting sugarbeets is an elaborate process, done not only by farmers, but by “Ag Techs” as they are sometimes called. Beet plants are “topped” and their green vegetation is hauled away. Next beets are picked by mechanical harvesters with large trucks following alongside collecting beets as they are plucked from the ground.
The trucks are where we come in.
Some are large dump trucks which tower thirty feet in the air as they dump. Some are short trucks which empty much the same way. Some are self contained, and don’t rise up to dump at all, but have conveyor belts built into the bottom of the trucks to shoot the harvested beets out the back.
With beet farms as far away from the beet piles as ten or fifteen miles, the truckers have an easy drive which they may make many times each day until the beets are all harvested or frozen into the ground. These last are given up as a loss.
Trucks line up at eight different piles here at the Drayton plant. Each pile has a “piler” which can empty two trucks at a time, and catapults the beets onto the pile spreading them via a 75 ft long movable boom chute. Each pile can be fifty yards wide and a quarter mile long.
Trucks are weighed at a weigh shack, given a tag, and come to us at one of the piles. They pull forward a settle into the “side chute” and on signal dump their loads.
We take their documentation, mark our “All Important Pile Number” upon it and turn it back to them. When they are finished dumping, we direct them under a dirt return chute which gives them back as much dirt as we can get off the beets in the two to five minutes it takes to empty each of the various sized trucks. When they have all their dirt we direct them onward and out of the line, just in time to do the same for the next truck. Our job includes cleaning up whatever is spilled—both beets and dirt, so we want to direct these trucks to the best position possible.
Based on the where the truck comes from, how many times it has been to the piler and some other mysterious features, some trucks are tagged at the scale for sampling. To get a sample while the truck is dumping its beets, we maneuver a sampling bucket that resembles the bucket on an old fashioned steam shovel into the falling beets, grab a sample of 5 to 12 beets and bag them for testing.
Now think about this. The beets are about fifteen feet above us in the piler and blasting their way through the chute. Our sampler shovel dips into the stream and pulls out a at least six beets. Each beet can weigh up to three pounds and is thundering straight down a foot square shoot from fifteen feet high to be caught by us in a canvas vinyl bag. The advice “hold onto that bag!” is always heeded. At most the bag weighs 35 pounds, usually less. It has to be taken down from the chute, wrestled closed and sealed. This process was what we dreaded most on this job. Could we do it? Lifting thirty five pounds repeatedly from shoulder height worried us greatly.
Turns out the job is doable, even the sample bagging. You just have to watch out for slippery footing, skidsteers (front loading bobcat like machines) stacking beets, errant beets on the ground and occasionally flying through the air, truck drivers who have done this for thirty years (and those who are doing it for the first time)and the beet piling machine itself moving and running you over. Like I said, it is doable.
Lingo here is cool. We “get beets on the ground” and “pile beets high.” The funniest instruction today was, “Don’t drop your pen in the beet pile. Pens don’t make pretty sugar.”
Yesterday, Friday Sept. 30, we started at 7:15 a.m. We got a bit of additional training and assigned to our piles. We piled beets until 2:30 p.m. when all piles shut down. We would have worked longer but the day got too warm. So, in true Roadtrek Hospitality Style, my sweet wife jumped into action and made everyone on our piler crew a cup of coffee. It went down well and was appreciated by the whole crew…though the foreman was surprised to until Rhonda handed him a cup of his own.
It was warm last night, and the high today is said to be in the low 70’s, so we started at 8:00 a.m. and shut down three hours later due to rising heat. Three hours…that’s a far cry from the 12 hours at double time we expected to be working today. But the weather rules this operation. So despite our worries we have not yet worked an entire 12 hour shift. The weather is too warm and you can't lay beets on the ground when it's warm.
When the internal temperature of a sugarbeet rises above 55 degrees F, it begins to rot. To prevent this, when the temperature rises to 65 degrees outside and is predicted to stay there for a few hours, beet piling stops. This can happen easily early in the harvest, before fall actually breaks in North Dakota. Today it got too hot. Tomorrow it is predicted to be a degree warmer and two degrees warmer the day after that as well
A SCOREBOARD The Sugarbeat Harvest and 65 year-old Workcampers
Grading scale is 0 Arrggh! needs to improve, 1 making progress, 2 adequate progress, 3 Not a challenge already skilled, bring it on!
Round One Getting up before dawn—
My wife is notorious for liking quiet. Early mornings when I greet her too loudly I sometimes get a look that would melt my face off. I like it noisy. So,
Rhonda –Zero Jim – Three
Round Two Surviving Work
We both have worked out and prepared our bodies for this hard stint. Turns out the work is not so hard as it is L-O-N-G and we both can feel it after our first day, though it is getting better.
Round Three Agricultural Work Environment
Trucks and machinery that are dirty, make noise and often have crabby operators
Round Four Coping
Overcoming fears of new things and of things purported to be “too hard”
Round Five Having a Positive Attitude
Meeting the challenges, accepting them and maintaining great spirits
Our latest word on work: Sunday's shift quit early; Monday and Tuesday there is no work due to heat. Wednesday is scheduled for the first full on 12 hour shift. But that could change with the weather!