Eleven million tons of sugarbeets stacked in one hundred seven beet piles all along the Red River Valley between Minnesota and North Dakota is quite a legacy. Well, not that we personally attended to all the piles and stacked those twenty-nine trillion-gazillion beets—we actually helped make two piles and climbed one. But at 750 feet long, 30 feet high and 70 feet wide, they were big piles.
We began this effort because of Rhonda’s grandmother. She was raised on a sugarbeet farm in the Saginaw Bay area of Michigan. Great Grandma and her mother and sisters worked the farm all spring, summer, fall, and into the winter. You see, Rhonda’s great-grandfather was a merchant marine sailor on the Great Lakes and as long as there were ships to be sailed, he sailed them, to make money to help fund the farm and family. We entered the sugarbeet experience in our own way after hearing about the Sugarbeet Harvest on Facebook. My wonderful wife’s longtime fascination with sugarbeets became a quest. As it turned out, our workcamping work was nowhere near the farm, but in the piles of beets outside the factory.
To work the harvest you commit to at least fifteen, twelve hour days, with probably no break between each day. The pay is $12.86 an hour, with time-and-a-half over eight hours through the week and all day on Saturday, with double-time on Sunday. For two people making that wage for those hours the payday might be worth it.
So you know about the results of this work and why we chose it, but there is much more to the Unbeetable Sugarbeet Harvest experience.
The work can be warm, at 60 degrees, or freezing at 30 degrees in the face of a constant 30 mile an hour wind howling across the prairies. Choking dust can fill the air or scalding cold rain driven by the same wind can pelt whatever exposed flesh you may have neglected to cover. Heavy vinyl rain coats are issued against the rain and work just as well against the wind when there is no rain.
Of our twenty days on the pilers, we had only three or four icy cold and rainy days. Others were cold but not unbearable. We even had a few pleasant sunny days with little wind. Everyday was as bearable as we were prepared for it and decided to make it.
The job really consisted of guiding trucks and cleaning up after them. Trucks would enter an “end dump gate” by driving through it. The gate would close after them, the truck would back firmly into place and the dump gates would rise making a seal to keep beets from escaping as the truck dumped. Often this seal was imperfect or the driver not paying attention and beets would flood out. If all went well, one of us, usually Rhonda, would have to approach the truck driver get his receipt and write the number of the piler on it and return it to him. After two to five minutes, the truck would be empty but not finished.
The piler was designed to not only accept beets from the truck, it cleaned the dirt from them, so the cleaned beets could be piled. The dirt from the beets was gathered in the piler to go back to the truck that brought it. Each truck is weighed as it enters the station and it is weighed again as it leaves. The difference in the two weights helps determine how much the farmer will be paid for this load.
This was the last thing we did with each truck-to guide it under a conveyor to have the dirt dumped in and returned to the farmer who sent it. The truck drives away and we shovel the mud and beet parts into piles to be picked up by “skid-steers” or bobcats.
As I have described it, our jobs sound simple. But I left out one important part – the sounds. Every piece of boom or belt or conveyor or truck or skid steer had it own distinct squeal, beep or roar. The cacaphony alone would be frightening, but in the context of feeding limitless beets to a hundred foot long steel serpent from an unending line of fifty foot long trucks, it became surreal. The whole scene reminded me that I was a small cog in a big machine, a little person in a big organization that harvested and shipped food all over the continent. It was noisy but awesome.
Each piler had a trained operator and a ground crew of four. There is also a skid steer which is alike a powerful bobcat shovel that worked between two pilers. The beets are piled over culverts connected at the end to large blowers which pushed air into the pile to give it a constant temperature. A beet can be frozen once and used but not re-frozen as it turns to mush. It must also stay under 55 degrees. This can be a problem as the piles generate some heat as the beets age. This blowing air mitigates those conditions. And, we found afterward, the completed and smoothed piles themselves are covered with huge plastic sheets, sealed at the pile edges and the fans are reversed so air is drawn out of them. This effectively vacuum packs the beets until whenever they go to the plant for processing which could be as late as next February or March.
Of course, there was the mud. Not just little mushy-pushy mud pie stuff. Clay. Rich black sticky clay with the ability to grow anything — and the tenacity stick to you wherever you touched it. Walk on it for ten steps and you could find yourself five inches taller, walking on soles of clay and beet pieces.
Our Roadtrek was a great comfort and convenience to us. We drove it to the piler and usually parked near the “little blue plastic necessary room.” We were able to go “home” to the campsite for lunch while others had to sit in their vehicles. We used our own bathroom not the blue room.
While the piler was down for repair, we even used our kitchen to make coffee for our crew. On one of the coldest days Rhonda made a huge pot of chili using our WonderBag. Hers was a gift from above and warmed us all at lunch time. We tried to keep the mud out of the Roadtrek by putting plastic bags over our boots as we entered, much like doctors and nurses do in operating rooms. We also purchased inexpensive woven “rag-rugs” to lay out over whatever floor we might need to use. The end of every day was punctuated by plugging in, scraping and sweeping mud, and shaking rugs before we could even consider anything for dinner.
These natural and man-made environments were formidable, but not frightening. Our tools were three kinds of shovels and two different mud scrapers. Manual tools for manual labor. Our gaits gradually slowed over the course of the consecutive days of twelve hour shifts. Our spirits rose and fell with the weather. The toughest adversaries were the clock and calendar. Neither were they frightening, except in their all too familiar passive-aggressive way. Hours refused to pass and days refused to end.
After a week the wear on us was obvious, but also strangely familiar and reassuring. We discovered we could do this. Rise at six, coffee, breakfast, dress, prepare lunch, drive to the piler, punch in at eight to face the beets, the trucks, the mud and all the racket. Each night at eight, we punch out, return to the van, store our boots in plastic bags, shed our outer clothes, shake the rugs we laid inside the van to keep the mud in check, drive to the campsite and make a sandwich or something equally fast and go to bed.
To encourage ourselves, we decided that if we finished the whole harvest, we would repair our tired bones. So many times we fell back on our mantra “Jac-CU-zi!” and keep our spirits up. And, on our way out of North Dakota, we did stop at the C’Mon Inn in Grand Forks for an opulent room with a two person Jacuzzi tub. Later Rhonda and I both got pedicures (on my doctor’s recommendation only) and I got my first manicure. Rhonda got a manicure too, but I let her have the French nails, as they clash with my personality.
We could do this. We did this. But why? Our circumstances are certainly different than many of the other beet harvest workers. The number of people living on the road, “full time RV’ers,” is varied. It includes those moving across the country to find work just to subsist, as well as young families enjoying the freedom of the open road and giving their children the “home-on-wheels” schooling experience.
Ages vary from 20 somethings trying their wings before settling down–if they decide to settle down — to retirees and others our age or older. In the midst of the beet harvest grind their spirits buoy with thoughts of their next destination, while other workers’ sag with the worry of finding the next job, or the one after that. The adage about not knowing someone unless you walk a mile in their shoes is just as true if you roll a thousand miles in their wheels. But practically to a person, everyone we met was friendly and there was camaraderie evident among us all.
For ourselves, we are baby boomers who have been blessed with productive lives. In our youth we worked a variety of jobs while getting through college and raising kids. Our efforts weren’t Herculean, but we have always worked and were tied to a single location. We have been “retired” for seven years. Clock and calendar are still adversaries though in a somewhat different way, but now we approach each challenge a bit differently. Whatever is in store for us, brought to us by clock and calendar, will be met with the knowledge that we can work, and overcome, and triumph, now, as we have in the past.
So next year the Sugarbeet Harvest may be graced by our presence, or it may not. We know we can do it, the choice is ours and looking back, we’ll probably do it again. But just in case we might not get the chance we HAD to climb one of those beet piles.
With permission of our foreman, who also manned the camera, we crossed one more thing from the top of our bucket list. Funny thing is, it wasn't ON our list until Mike Wendland said he would believe we were there until he saw a picture of us atop a pile. So we're passing on the Beet Challenge to Mike and to others.
What have you done recently to push yourself? What unexpected new side of humanity have you seen?