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We survived the beet harvest

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The wind outside is howling - nay screaming - like a banshee, rattling and pounding our RV. My wife is cowering on the sofa.....I feel like we're on a boat in a wild storm. But I promised myself to write this tonite and post tomorrow.


It is almost exactly 24 hours since we finished our contract and, partly in response to some fellow workampers who - with varying degrees of incredulity – wanted to learn of our experiences, I decided to review the past two weeks hopefully for the benefit of others as much as to clarify my own thoughts on the matter.

Therefore, with a glass of sweet wine in hand (actually a styrofoam cup – we lost much of our chinaware in an abrupt traffic stop en route) and an ample supply of Wasabi n Soy Sauce flavored Pringles to fortify me, lets rip:


Firstly, a qualification.

There are numerous different sugar beet sites with variables to consider such as:

location, number and mechanical state of the pilers, pros and cons of the day versus night shift debate, campground conditions and travel commute time, which side of bed – or whose - the foreman got out of etc etc. However the greatest and most unpredictable variable of all is the weather.



Now some details.


Culbertson is 50 or so miles south of the Canadian border,with a population of approx 750 people. The beet harvest here usually starts and ends early. The operation is much smaller and quieter than Sidney....two pilers, whereas there are at least five in Sidney. The campsite is a five minute drive away.

Hours and renumeration:

Typically a first year couple makes an average of $13.50 per hour working a 12 hour shift. Weekends pay time and a half (Sundays in Minnesota means double time) and the last four hours of each full working day is paid time and a half. If there is no work (usually weather related – too hot, too cold, too wet or too windy like today) then you get paid 4hrs regardless.

In addition there is a 5% bonus on completion of contract and I believe second year couples snag a 10% bonus.


Not FHU. A honey wagon stops by twice a week to relieve the RVs of their grey and black water and a water line is supplied for the owners to manually fill up their respective water tanks...been a while since I heard my water pump thrashing into service.


An introduction.

There are generally three types of sugar beet workers: workampers who like the money, workampers who need the money and desperados who probably wouldn't be hired elsewhere (no drug testing required). The latter included the grease monkey whose two companions were fired within two days leaving him with only one set of clothes and a title-less class B (lets offer the definition loosely) bought for $600, the windows of which consist largely of plastic sheeting secured with a liberal application of duct tape (postscript...surprisingly they sort of held up in the storm). An interesting chap nevertheless who never failed to both entertain and irritate us.


My experience.

The camp site is located in a field next to a runway. There is no wifi (none was promised) and the fairground shower room seems to be perpetually flooded, the water luke-warm at best and the manager non-existent. But, hey this is camping! Our next gig with FHU will seem even sweeter and we will be more the grateful too.


We arrive at the site office every morning at sunrise and leave, dirty and oftentimes exhausted after sunset. We look at each other with that wordless sense of shared suffering and relief....and clock out, another day survived. Obviously its much colder for the night crew but they work less and sometimes get to see the amazing northern lights...a non starter for us...screws with the old body clock.


It takes about fifteen minutes to figure out what your responsibilities are, a couple of days to be comfortable with the motor skills involved and a week to be bored numbless watching trucks coming and going and beets swooshing up and down the piler. Of course, my very first screw up (running two loads simultaneously) happened to coincide with the arrival of the Ag manager (foreman's boss) who never failed to chew me out.

As a pile operator, your chief role is to flag in the beet trucks, unload them and keep an eye on the boom. The cardinal sin in this business is allowing the boom to “push the beets”. Apparently last year (aforementioned Ag manager supplied me with two color photographs as evidence) one boom was destroyed when it was submerged in a sea of beets. I doubt whether the operator was invited back.


The pile operator is not a difficult job. It is hopelessly monotonous though and on busy days the traffic can be relentless. The main down side though is that the PO is solely responsible for clearing out the accumulated dirt from the box underneath the tare belt. When it rains the beets arrive from the surrounding farms caked in mud which clings to the interior walls. The piler is then shut down and the PO is called upon to climb the open runged ladder and slide – with as much dignity as he or she can muster - under a railing dropping down to the apex of the dirt roller. Suffice to say it can get messy. If you're not comfortable standing in a confined place, ankle deep in mire and scraping gunge off the machinery without a power tool then read no further. To be truthful though, I only visited the box three times and it was no biggie for me.


The helper (usually the wife of the partnership but not necessarily so) picks up the stray beets and cleans her area. Some pilers, for a variety of reasons, are busier than others. Piler number one in Culbertson ends up with a beet pile more than twice bigger than Piler number two. It is quite a sight especially standing on top of the pile.


Teamwork is important to us. Of course we work to be paid but we also want to do a good job. Its a nice ego rub to be recognized but ultimately you are your own judge. Anyhow, we lucked out in two ways;

  1. The weather, with the exception of one god awful, miserably cold, wet day was generally good, balmy almost.

  2. Our work partners, who were returnees, had a similar same work ethic as us which made for a perfect team. Efficient and supportive..no politics and no finger pointing.


The wind has died down a little now. The missus is safe in bed, satisfied perhaps that the place we call home is in no imminent danger of being blown into another zip code.


Would we do it again? Its unlikely but not an impossibility...lets file this in the “nunca dija nunca”department and revisit it again in the spring. It was quite the experience for me....for the first time being involved and seeing where food actually comes from.

This is farm country. Most of the truckers work on the farms and they pride themselves in their simplicity. You can have a little pleasant diversion by chatting to some of them during loading.


One oddity is that amongst the zillions of white sugar beets there are a handful of red beets (for marking purposes – whatever that means). We snagged a few and steamed them....absolutely delicious.


Yes, there were many, many times when I angrily berated myself. “What the feck am I putting myself through this for?” It was a challenge at times. Sometimes I'd verge into “zombie zone” and that was where teamwork and support came into play.

All workers are told by Sidney Sugars to take two fifteen minute breaks in the morning, a half hour break for lunch, two more afternoon breaks of fifteen minutes and finally another thirty minute break. Its a generous policy but realistically you make do with half that and count on frequent machine break downs for some respite.


Part of our strategy is to turn work into play. For example, my wife would grab a spare sample bag in the lull time, walk around the yard and pick up all the fallen orphaned beets and return them to the mother pile. She believed that the beets were asking to be reunited with their family in the main pile. I told the foreman about this and thankfully he didn't laugh. You have to find some greater purpose, especially when the work can get so tedious.

We heard that a number of folk quit from the Sidney site. One woman complained that her shoes were ruined. Another remarked that she didn't sign up for hard labor. Read the brochure lady...its not hard labor but its absolutely not for everyone.



We made some sacrifices, it wasn't exactly fun but, as my next door neighbor commented, ”You can do pretty much anything for two weeks” especially when there's a fat pay check at the end.




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Wife and I also just finished the beet harvest in Reynolds, ND. This was our first time and we opted to work for a farmer driving beet trucks. This farm had 5 trucks, 3 semis (90,000lbs/beets) and 2 tri-axle straight trucks (40,00lbs/beets). We were supplied a FHU site (no charge} on the farm by the grain bins and arrived a week early to practice truck driving. The harvest begins Oct 1, at midnight every year for this area and we were given a tri-axle to run 24hrs for what ended up being 10 days. Most drivers run 12 to 12 shifts, however, having an assigned truck, we ran 7 to 7 putting me on nights and the wife on days. The truck was a 06 International with a hybred auto transmission, meaning you clutch on stops and the shifts are automatic like in a car. There is also a manual push button shift for use in the field. Like any job, the first day was nerve racking and then it settled down, but never boring. There are some U tube videos showing the load and unload process, but it mainly involves driving along side the beet lifter to load, driving to the piling yard to weigh in, dump beets, reload excess dirt/beet ends, weigh out, driving back to the field to dump dirt, and then catch up with the beet lifter. In a 12 hour shift we could run 14 loads if all went smooth.

Would we do it again? I would, I liked driving the truck and the challenge of getting more efficient each day. The truck drove nice with a heater/ac, and radio/CD. The auto still had a clutch and my left leg is still sore. The wife say's probably not again, although she did great and was driving like a pro even though it was her first time in anything bigger than a PU. She said it is definetely a mans world and being together for the last 3 years, she prefers to work as a team and not seperate. I would not like the yard jobs, it was dirty dusty and they were on their feet all day and just looked vunerable in the yard with all the trucks running around. The driving pay was very good at $21/hr for all time worked and no CDL required.


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I have long believed that I'd prefer to drive a truck, but I've lived near enough to the beet harvest to have seen it in action every year for our 18 years in WY. I traveled through the NB, Platte River Vally area once or twice a week all of those years. We saw the Idaho potato harvest up pretty close one fall also and it looks to be pretty much the same type of work, although I've only seen it advertised in Workamper News a few times.


Not a lot of places that a couple can take home close to $5k in less than two weeks time.

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* Next stop...the Mesa Regal sweat shop AZ :wacko:


* DW (had to look that one up...thought it might mean dead weight or devil worshipper) is probably more positive than myself, surprisingly.


* I talked to quite a few of the drivers and there were certainly some interesting characters. We met Omar in Culbertson's one and only laundromat (with commensurate pricing) and he outlined his lifestyle:

Drives a bus in Denali NP during the summer, trucks the beet harvest and then spends six months in Thailand (supposedly for under $1k per month). That's not particularly remarkable save for the fact that he's paralyzed and doesn't have the use of one arm and one leg.

Yes, knowing what I know now, I'd choose the trucking job if I were a single guy. The DW won't even drive our MH let alone a big truck.

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I know a couple folks that spend time in Thailand, outside of the big cities it is very inexpensive and the people are great. Just stay out of the local politics and religion and you'll love the place. Even Bangkok isn't that expensive, the beach resorts catering to stupid tourists with too much money often are though.

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  • 4 weeks later...

It's interesting to hear about the other end of the process...where I live in northern Wyoming, and where I work, is where we process and ship the sugarbeet seeds to the area you helped harvest. This end is a lot easier and only for 8 months out of the year; we're laid off in summer to road-trip and travel :-)

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Thanks for taking the time to write up your experience. While at the Tampa, FL RV show I picked up some of their literature and after reading it we decided that it was not for us. I enjoyed reading your well written and humorous story.

Good luck at your next adventure.

RV Fan

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  • 4 weeks later...


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