The Sugar Beet Harvest

The Sugar Beet Harvest

When we arrived in Minnesota for the 2019 Sugar Beet Harvest we were so excited to be starting this new adventure, and couldn’t wait to experience it. We read, watched and learned all about this seasonal job before we even got the chance to apply. So it’s pretty obvious how excited we were. 

We arrived on Thursday, the 4th of October, and we knew with the late arrival we’d be missing some of the harvest, but, like we mentioned in a couple of blog post back, we actually didn’t miss any work days! The following day we did our orientation in the office, along with paperwork and a briefing at our actual work location, the piling site. To be quite honest, Tanya felt a bit nervous about starting. She comes from the medical field where all that was known were people, patients, office work and computers. Working outside, doing manual labor and piling sugar beets is a foreign, but definitely welcomed, experience. Will she do ok? Will she get the hang of it? Will it be hard? These machines look complicated. Eeek! It is unclear if Maria felt this way. She usually is an immediate pro at everything she tries. She is Tanya’s super woman super hero! 

Of course Tanya was going to continue with this new job, but having a few nerves isn’t so bad! Our training went well. The day and night foremen were a couple of nice, older gentlemen who are retired from their respective careers. They had a sense of humor, and we are always glad for that! Humor is everything, especially when you are starting something new, and may be a little uncomfortable. After our orientation, which only lasted about 3 hours or so, we made our way back home. That was a Friday, and we didn’t start an actual work day until the following Tuesday. The biggest problem with sugar beet harvesting is it is completely reliant on the weather. If the weather is good, the harvest will be fast and should only last about 3 weeks. If the weather is less than optimal, for example, if it is raining and too cold, then harvesting comes to an almost complete stop. At most harvesting sites, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. We weren’t working the first several days being there. People became very impatient and started abandoning ship! On the Monday before we started work, they called a 30 minute meeting. At the meeting we were told that the weather should be clearing up soon, and to remain patient because it’ll be worth our while. We weren’t entirely sure what “worth our while” really meant, but eventually the incentives to stay started rolling in!! For instance, we were paid for an 8 hour shift just for going to that 30 minute meeting! We were also paid time and a half for each hour worked, and double time for all of our hours worked on Sundays. The best incentive for us, however, was being placed at an indoor piling site, which shielded us from the cold wind and sometimes sprinkling rain. It was definitely worth our while to stay.

So what is it we did?

Finally came the day to start piling beets. On that Tuesday we met our crew: Stella, a little Hispanic grandma from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, her grandson, Gabe, and the two us. We were Pile Helpers/Sample Takers. At each piling site, there are usually 2 helpers on either side of the piler. Ours, specifically, only had the two of us. We were always short handed. Gabe was the boom operator, who strategically places the beets on the ginormous hill. Grandma Stella was the Piler Operator and was in charge of all of us. To Maria’s delight, during Grandma Stella’s breaks and lunches, she was allowed to be Piler Operator. She quite enjoyed that role.

So what do all these job titles mean? We’ll explain.

Pile Helper: When the dump trucks arrive at the pile site, pile helpers direct them onto the piler platform. There is a platform on either side of the piler. Once perfectly positioned, the helper writes the piler number on their weight receipt, and hands it back to the driver. The piling machine is designed to separate mud and other debris from the actual beets. So after the truck is completely unloaded, the truck is positioned under another conveyor belt, and the mud and debris are returned to the truck. This ensures that the farm is getting paid for the weight of the beets and not the weight of the extra dirt and mud.

Directing the dump truck to the dirt release conveyor belt.

Sample Takers: In order to test the quality of the incoming beets, trucks are randomly chosen for quality assurance. When this occurs, drivers are handed a ticket at the weight station. This ticket is then given to the sample takers at the pile sites, and signals to the takers that a sample is to be collected from that specific load of beets. Once the truck starts dumping their beets onto a conveyor belt, the sample taker places a black bag under a shoot that will dump a small sample of the beets from that truck. The beets are bagged, labeled and set aside to be picked up for lab testing.

Sugar Beet Sample Bucket

Also as the helper/sample taker we make sure our area on each side is clean from the mud or spilled beets for safety precautions.

Boom Operators: The boom operator is the one that controls the conveyor belt that piles the beets. This person must make sure the beets are piling correctly, and the beet piles are at the required height. Our beet pile requirement was 30 feet. The boom can be controlled by a remote control, control panel located on the right side of the piler and also in the pile operator booth. The boom operator also makes sure that the boom doesn’t get buried in the pile of beets.

Sugar Beets Piling

Pile Operator: The pile operator sits in a booth situated at the top of the piler. The location of the booth allows the operator to properly see both dumping platforms the trucks drive onto. They control every move of the truck once it is driven onto the platform. There is a control board that allows for communication between the piler operator and truck driver. The operator tells the driver to move forward or backwards if needed for proper positioning, they tell the driver when to lift the bed of the truck and when to drop it, and lastly when to move off of the platform at the completion.

Sugar Beets being unloaded.

Piler #6

It may sound complicated, but it is an efficient system as long as you are working with a good crew. We all help and do our jobs properly. The two struggles with this job are the long 12 hour shifts, and cold temperatures you’re working in. Everything else is very easy, and if you can stand the standing then you will do just fine. The conditions are muddy and cold everyday, but it isn’t as bad as people say it is. You can work in the rain and snow, but luckily we didn’t have many days like that. Being in the warehouse helps with weather conditions, but once it was filled up, we were exposed to it all. Rain, snow, freezing temps and wind.

Working the Sugar Beet Harvest is a big gamble. There was a stretch of 19 days where we had only 5 working days. Luckily in the time we were there, which was a little over a month, we did complete 17 working days. Fortunately, our location didn’t have the worse of the weather or conditions that many other locations dealt with. Campgrounds near us in East Grand Forks, MN had to be evacuated to Grand Forks, ND, because they were getting flooded out. We were in the Red River Valley, and the river has a history of flooding. Its worst flooding event happened in 1997. Many other towns in Minnesota and North Dakota had too much rain, which prevented harvesting of the sugar beet fields. We had 8 days off in a row because of this. Many workampers had to leave, because they couldn’t afford to be patient. Some spent a good amount of money to just go up there for the work, and had to leave empty handed. Like stated earlier, the harvest is a huge gamble for many Workampers. Others went for the experience and didn’t even get that. Many people who have had a hand in the harvest in years past have said this was probably the worst year. Crystal Sugar Company and our Harvest District graciously treated us to a pizza party one evening, luncheon another day and a movie day. No that doesn’t make up for the loss people took financially, but it showed that we were cared about. The farmers were hurting too, and this is their livelihood. It’s not just about us workampers, it’s about everyone that is involved that make this entire process of making the Sugar Beet Harvest a success.

What an awesome experience! Our first season we loved it!

Now after all this, do we plan on coming back?

YES WE DO!

It’s not only about making good money, but it’s about what the sugar beet harvest is. We enjoyed this experience, because we were a small cog in this Sugar Beet Harvest machine. If no one was there to help pile the beets, the whole operation would be harder to complete. Most of the farmers were grateful towards us, and it feels good to know you are helping them make a living. It’s an amazing experience to be a part of. We are on a great big adventure, and every job is different. We learn and grow from each one, and some we will do over and over. This is one of them! So when you’re putting sugar in your coffee or eating that ice cream you bought at HEB, just know we might have piled the sugar that’s in it.

We have a whole new level of love, admiration and respect for farmers all over!

If you’d like to know more about the harvest please leave a comment or directly contact us with a message.