Your checking workamping jobs and you come across an unusual ad. “Come join the Unbeetable Experience!” What’s this all about, you wonder…
We have now completed the ‘experience’ and it has us beet! Want to know what it’s like to help you decide whether or not it’s for you? Here’s our recap….
A little harvest introduction: Each area has several piler stations. Farms are assigned a station to take their beets to. We had 30 farms coming to our station (Stephen, MN) and we had two pilers there. Each pile will be 20 feet tall, 220 ft wide and sits on a runway that is 1/4 mile long. These are sugar beets. Crystal Sugar hauls them out of the piles 24 hours a day to the plants to be turned into white granular sugar. There are a few videos on YouTube that show the process of turning beets into sugar that are pretty interesting. I thought sugar came from sugar cane plants, but apparently it also comes from sugar beets. The beets are white on the inside and are a lot bigger than normal red beets. It will take them until May or June next year to haul all the beets to the plants.
Beet harvesting starts in the fields
Pile #2 almost done!
Comparison size of sugar beet and the white fleshy inner
First off you need to know that we were stuck on night shift after requesting day shift, and we were put on as “helpers” when we applied for skid-steer operator and lab help. Almost everyone starts out as helpers we found out. It is manual labor. Ground work. Lots of shoveling and 12 hours of standing. On nights, that means standing outside in the freezing cold all night.
Piler #2 at night
So what did we do? The Helper job (titled Sample taker/helper): Trucks pull up on the piler end dumps. You walk up to them and write the piler number on their weight ticket. If they have a sample ticket, you walk to the sampler chute, attach a heavy vinyl bag to it and press the sample button when the light comes on. Approximately 10-20 lbs of beets fall into the bag and you then fan-fold it closed and snap it shut and toss it to the side. When the truck is finished dumping, you guide him into place under the dirt return conveyor belt, press the button and give him his dirt back. Then you shovel all the dirt and beets that fell off the conveyor belt or didn’t make it into his truck. Even when the conveyor belt runs from the opposite side of the piler, dirt falls on your side. The shoveling of dirt is constant after every truck all night long. We handle about 60 trucks an hour average between the 2 pilers.
Day 1 – SUCKED. It started out good. We were excited and enthusiastic. By 3 am we were tired and freezing cold and every joint in our bodies was stiff. I feel like I got hit by a truck. We hurt really bad and after our pitiful nap, we discussed quitting. Jerry’s back is really hurting. We decided to give it one more night.
Day 2 – Much warmer and I did good until about 5 am. Then I got really tired and had my wobbly legs on, meaning I felt like I had no strength in my legs and that I was actually unsteady. And I hurt. My left foot and my hips hurt bad. I had on compression socks and another pair of socks over that. My left big toe went numb. The bathroom is 1/4 mile walk to get to one way! (I used Runkeeper to measure it) It’s 6:30 am. We have little less than two hours left. I can’t wait. Then we’ll see how we feel after a sleep. If we quit, we would have to live off savings for the next two months. I don’t really want to do that. I feel like that truck that hit me yesterday, backed over me again today!
Day 3 – Right after we punched in, the shift was cancelled due to thunderstorms – HALLELUJAH!!!!! It was a Sunday – double time, so everyone was bummed. They are going to pay us for 2 hours though. I totally needed that night’s sleep!
Day 4 – Not too bad. Warm enough. Slow night with trucks but it was a nice pace. We still have some daylight at the beginning of our shift. One of the truck drivers gave us candy each time he came through. The drivers are also working 12 hour shifts so you see the same ones all night long, every day.
Day 5 – Cold, 45 degrees for a low and the next few nights are going to be in the 30’s. My feet are freezing even with wool socks on! Piler#2 was down all night so the whole crew was on our piler which was ridiculous. It meant a lot of standing around. Trucks were slow to come in. Jerry and I volunteered to go home at 5:22 am, and we did. I can’t seem to sleep more than 4 hours. Neither can Jerry. So we got up for an hour and then went back to bed for another 3-4 hours. At least I feel rested today. I’m being bad and having macaroni and cheese for dinner. I ate half the box…by myself. My big toe is still numb and tingling. I hope it doesn’t fall off!
Day 6 – Cold but busy. Went by pretty fast. Jerry slipped on a beet and fell on his face. He’s discouraged. I ate the other half of the box of macaroni and cheese.
trucks piling in at night
Day 7 – Broken sleep during the day. Woke up feeling exhausted. Ready to quit an hour into shift. Took my No Doz by 9:30 pm hoping for an attitude adjustment and a bit of energy. It’s 32 degrees outside. I have two pairs of socks on and my Keen hiking boots. My feet are killing me! My arms hurt from jamming the shovel into stuck mud or cracks in the concrete. I hate the feeling of walking on boots caked with mud. I’m constantly trying to scrape it off on the shovel. It’s impossible. The big wigs provided pizza tonight, that was nice. We were all disappointed that there might be a whole week left of harvest. We were hoping to be done Monday or Tuesday. Push through. We can do it. On the plus side, there was a harvest moon tonight and we got to see the sunrise and moon set all in the same “frame.”
Day 8 – Didn’t sleep well, again. Worked on my calloused feet. Used Biofreeze on arms and feet. We both take Ibuprofen or Tylenol before we leave for work each day. Today I took my NoDoz before I even left for work! Cold out, but I did ok. I got hit by a flying beet today. Damn that hurts! I totally understand the need for hard hats!! Found out the harvest is 65% done. YES! My calculations tell me that means 5 more days should be it!!! So excited to have the end nearer than the start!!!!
Day 9 – My feet are killing me! (Have I mentioned that?) Callouses! Some truck driver told me that I looked like I was dressed for a blizzard. Clay, our agriculturist, says by Tuesday/Wednesday we might switch to day shift for half shifts! I can’t wait. I’m studying the menu at Thermea spa in Winnipeg. Yes I’d drive two hours for us to each have a spa day with massages and mud treatments etc!! We had ‘drama night’ tonight as 2 co-workers got into it verbally and the foreman ended up moving people around. It was a guy and a girl. I think she could’ve taken him if it got that far! Jerry and I are still on piler #1. A farmer’s wife made a huge pot of goulash and brought it in for everyone. I didn’t have any as it smelled kind of weird, but everyone said it was good.
Jerry covering the piler while Brian’s at break.
Day 10 – Temperatures dropping. Feet freezing by 11 pm. Changed socks and boots. The cold is just the most brutal part of this job. One of my coworkers, Brandon, made the perfect statement tonight. He said “I think I’m in a nightmare”. I laughed and said “we all feel that way.” Classic. Every night is so hard to just get through. It feels so long. The last four hours are the worst and also the coldest! We’re constantly checking the time. I don’t ever want to see another shovel again…. Or another sugar beet! Tonight is supposed to drop to the mid 20’s. Please oh please call us off! I can’t hardly take 40 degrees for 12 hours let alone 25 degrees!!!
Day 11 – The temperature dropped to 28 degrees with a “feels like” temp of 21. I had foot warming insoles, toe warmers and hand warmers and I was still cold. That was on top of two pairs of socks, leggings, flannel lined jeans, 3 coats, a long sleeved shirt, 2 pairs of gloves, a head and neck gator, another neck gator, and hard hat liner. And yes, this is pretty much the way we all dress every night! We got to come home at 4am because it was slow. Piler #2 people had to stay the full shift. Now I’m hearing two more nights still. I was hoping today was going to be the end. Tomorrow’s lows are mid 30’s. Not much warmer.
Day 12 – We managed to get up early and get laundry done and run to town for some groceries. One of the foreman’s wives, Ceil, cooked potato soup for all of us at work tonight and it was delicious! I’m glad she didn’t make beets! It really slowed down after 2 am and they decided to close our piler down at 3 am. We were told that this may be our last shift. We volunteered to go home at 4:30 am. We’re pretty good at this volunteering thing! It was good because my foot warming insoles weren’t doing the trick. They are lumpy to walk on and that is very uncomfortable. My hands and the bottoms of my feet feel like they swollen. It’s hard to even make a fist! They are talking that we may only work a few hours tomorrow and be DONE FOR GOOD! Jerry’s itching to be done! I think most everyone is ready for this “Unbeetable experience/nightmare” to be over. We’re all pretty ‘beet’. 😉 Piler #2 people saw the northern lights…Our crew didn’t as we were inside the piler scraping mud. Every night we shut down the piler and do the nightly cleaning. It is very hard/physical work as you have to dig and scrape mud off the conveyor belts inside the machine, clean out the dirt hopper (from the inside) and clean off the mud and beets from the end dumps that the trucks drive on – I’m getting too old for this shit! Right before we left for the night the foreman told us that everyone has to come in tonight. I realized that another nightmare was going to happen – they are probably going to make us do the end of season spit shine clean of our piler. Everyone’s muscles are exhausted from using scrapers and shovels to shovel heavy, wet, sticky mud. I hope, hope, hope we don’t have to clean that monster again! Jerry hopes even more!
Day 13 – I’ve checked into two different spas for massages. It’s happening baby! 6 pm – the foreman came over to notify us that the night shift tonight is cancelled. He’s still not sure we’re completely done. We’ll find out tomorrow. I poured a glass of wine right away. My big toe is still numb!
Day 14 – We were told around noon that we should report to work at 8 pm but that we would probably only work 2-4 hours. So we took a nap. Woke up from our nap and called the hotline to hear “night shift has been cancelled”. We talked to the the foreman next door who then asked Jerry to work days tomorrow for a 4-6 hours. He said yes! I can’t believe it. He’s the one that’s been bitching about wanting to be done and never wanting to have to clean the piler again and he just agreed to go in AND clean the piler. I’m done. Happy dance. Drank the last of the wine. My ‘Unbeetable Experience’ is officially over!
Although I’ve worked nights for 20 years, this was my first night shift “outside” job. Watching the beautiful sunsets and sunrises and following the moon across the sky all night was magical.
Seeing the agricultural work up close was also interesting. I have a new appreciation for farmers and agricultural workers! I’ve never had a “dirty” job but it didn’t bother me after the first day. You get used to being covered in mud and dirt. I’m easily amused. It’s amazing what conditions you conform to when put in different situations!
If we had been on day shift, I think it would have been a totally different experience. The temperatures were in the 50-70’s, the sun was shining and the workers got normal sleep. And they didn’t have to clean the piler! If we decide to return the following year (cue roaring laughter), our pay goes up by over $1.50 an hour and we would be rotated to the other shift. They alternate your shifts each year.
The other thing that I enjoyed was the fact that we got to work with so many colorful “characters”. Each one had their own story. There were the foreman Doug and his wife Deb (who worked the scale house.) They are a retired couple from Pennsylvania and are full time Rv’ers. Their sister in-law Ceil also worked the scale house at night and her husband Pat was the day shift foreman. They’re also retired and full time Rv’ers. Piler #1 – Our Piler Operator was Brian (40), from Southern Illinois. He has an ill wife and lots of bills, lives in a trailer and just needed some extra money. He calls everybody “Bubba” and talks alot. Brandon (39) – Local guy that started a few days after the rest of us. He has some mental disabilities but we were able to teach him his job and he was a really good shoveler. Every day he complained of his knee hurting and that he had a blister on his ankle. Every night we wondered if he’d come back to work because he complained so much, but he always did. Melissa (37) – is from Wisconsin. She lives in her motor home with her 2 ferrets and her dog. She has a child that she doesn’t have custody of. I think she’s lead a pretty rough life but she’s so sweet. She managed to accumulate three truck drivers phone numbers in our two weeks here.
Piler #2 – Operator was Heather. Her and her husband are from Missouri and Florida and they work opposite shifts and sleep in their pickup truck with their dogs. They came here with not a dime in their pockets. They had to borrow money from the foremen for food. Apparently that happens every year. She used to waitress at a Waffle House. Haven (late 20’s) is the local girl. She lives an hour away and has worked other harvests. She just got married 2 weeks ago and has 2 small children. Joe – (41) calls himself a traveler. He has no home. He hops trains (as in freight trains) and picks up work along the way. He canned salmon in Alaska this summer and he’s going to plant trees in Texas this winter. He looks disheveled but he is such a nice guy and always so happy and willing to work. In fact, he’s the only one that said he loves this job! He’s staying with Melissa currently. They met while hitchhiking 6 years ago. Craig (40) – is from New Hampshire. He lost his job recently and he met a guy that said to him “Come do the beet harvest with me, it’ll be fun” and so he came.
We all camped in the same campground except for Heather (who got kicked out of the campground for not having a camper) and Brandon,who stayed at his Aunt’s house. Four of our coworkers came here without a car so we were giving them rides every day. We worked together, took breaks together, ate lunches together, suffered the cold and the lack of sleep together. It was our little “beet family.” I was going to get a picture of us all the last morning but half of us went home early and I we never went back to work after that.
The biggest advice I could give about this job is that you will need to make sure you can stand 12 hours at a time. You’ll need to be able to shovel. You also should be able to handle night shift because you won’t know what shift you’ll be on until the day before you start. Bring lots of winter clothes, wool socks, insulated boots, long johns or leggings, head gators, gloves etc. Shop at Goodwill as you WILL get not only dirt and mud, but also grease and oil on your clothes and will most likely have to throw them out after harvest. I wish I had known they had electric socks – I definitely would’ve tried those out! You’ll be provided rain gear if it’s raining. You will work in rain and snow. The only time you won’t work is if it gets too hot or too cold (we worked in 27 degrees so apparently that wasn’t too cold) or if there’s lightning. Our day shift was called off for half a day due to heat (70+ degrees) and night shift lost one night due to thunderstorm. We never had any snow. Also, stock up on groceries to last you two weeks. Plan for quick and easy meals. No one feels like cooking after working every day for 12 hours. I made soup, chili, and spaghetti sauce and froze them ahead of time. We also had PBJ’s and salads often. The average harvest is 10-14 days.
As for the whole experience….I do not plan on doing it again, but I’m really glad we did it and persevered through it. This quote came from a weekly newsletter I got from Clean Food Dirty Girl on day 2 of the harvest. It totally applied to this experience and is part of the reason we stayed (Thanks Molly for the inspiration!)
It takes a certain amount of work to be proud of oneself. It takes doing something that you don’t normally gravitate towards. It takes following through on a thought. It takes welcoming discomfort for a certain amount of time. It takes learning something new. It takes investing some of your time. It might even take sweat in your butt crack.
But here’s the thing. None of these undesirable sensations last forever. They will come to an end, and when they do you will feel deeply satisfied and proud of yourself.
And that’s something you can never buy.
So put in the work. Do the time. Feel all the feels. Show up for yourself. And repeat.
Happy harvest workers
And that is exactly how I feel!