Today (Saturday the 14th) was my last day working the sugar beet harvest, woohoo! Our last truck came in at 11:37pm last night, so today day crew just came in for four hours to clean the machines well. A task that would have been better if it hadn’t been cold and raining this morning, but what can you do.
Okay, some stats:
- Total days worked: 15
- Total hours worked: 173.25 (Including orientation: 177.25)
- Days off: 0
- Short days: 2
- Average daytime high: 58 degrees
- Nights below freezing: 3
- First paycheck (orientation and week 1): $1,384.41*
* I had $200 withheld from my paychecks (to help cover taxes on other things), so really my paycheck would have been $1,584.41.
So. It’s finally over.
Sometimes, it felt like these two weeks would never end, and sometimes it seemed to go really fast. In truth it was a really fast harvest. It’s quite unusual to go the entire season with no off days and only one day cut short due to weather. All the long-timers kept commenting on how we really couldn’t have asked for better conditions for harvest. I personally would have loved a day off somewhere in the middle to catch up on the blog and housework (and sanity), but on the other hand it’s kind of nice to be done early. The leaves aren’t even off all the trees yet and I won’t have to worry about trying to race the snow out of here – which does happen some years I’ve heard.
Yes, it did end up being a very challenging work-camping job. More so than Amazon I’d say. There were a couple moments on the job, usually when I got cold or frustrated, that I daydreamed about walking out which I’ve never honestly considered while doing Amazon. But on the other hand, two of my fellow work-camping couples (one on day shift, one on nights) both got on better than me and are honestly considering coming back next year.
I probably won’t be.
But is that really because the job was that challenging, or is it just that it wasn’t as good of a fit for me? I think it’s probably the later. I can handle just about any type of work short-term as evidenced by my varied and extensive work-camping career, but not having a day off for that long of a period really wore on me mentally (physically, Days 2 and 3 were the hardest, and my body adjusted after that). At least I can say I learned something about myself working this job.
Was the mental fatigue (and money) worth it? Yes. I crave novelty, so just the fact that it was something completely different from any kind of work I’d done before made the job worth doing, at least this once. In addition to those low moments, I had an equal number of high moments in the form of learning how to operate the machine, talking to the drivers, and understanding a little more about how agriculture works in the US. As with many things in life, a lot of how your experience goes at a work-camping job depends on the attitude you bring to it. I always enter into a seasonal job with an upbeat attitude and deliberately look for the positives which makes a huge difference in how I see the work.
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And one other thing a lot of people have asked about: what exactly my job was here.
A beet piler needs five people to run well.
One person, the Piler Operator, sits in a tower at the near end of the machine and manages the chutes the drivers drop their beets in and the main conveyors. They also have controls to move the whole piler forward and backward. Each piler can handle two trucks at a time (one on the left and one on the right), so there’s a fair bit of multitasking involved. This job takes some training, there are a lot of buttons and levers to manage, but it is less physically demanding.
One person runs what I always called a bobcat, but what was called a skid steer(sp?) here. This person cleans up large beet and dirt messes and uses a special tool to place the aluminum culverts that go at the bottom of the beet pile as it’s being formed. You need to pass a test to be able to operate one of these for Crystal Sugar.
Lastly, at least three people work on the ground: two Helper/Sample Takers (one per each side of the piler as you have two trucks running at once remember), and one Boom operator. Most work-campers start as grounds crew as it’s the most numerous and least skilled job and that’s what I was hired for and ended up doing. But as people need to be able to take breaks, ideally you have four grounds people, one of whom is cross-trained as a Piler Operator.
Helpers/Sample Takers have a few key functions, which I’ll go into more in detail as I have personal experience:
- Help guide trucks into a chute to dump their loads at the near end of the beet piler, then once they’re in place mark their receipt with the piler you’re working on so everyone knows which pile those beets ended up on. Grafton is a smaller site and only has two pilers, I worked on number one.
- When the driver hands you their receipt, they may also hand you a sample ticket. Because these are sugar beets, farmers get paid based on the sugar content of their beets. So 40% of each farmer’s loads gets tested via a sample. You’ll take the sample ticket, place it on the side of a heavy industrial bag, then stick the bag at the end of a chute on the side of the piler and press a button. A sample of beets streaming past on will be directed into the chute and bag. Then you close the bag and place it in a designated area to be picked up later (it’s the skid steer person’s job to haul the bags off once in a while).
- The piler has several screens inside of it that separates the beets from the dirt, as beets are a root crop and naturally come with dirt on them. When the driver is done unloading their beets, you’ll guide them into place at the far end of the machine to pick up their dirt, which runs on an overhead conveyor into their truck. You press a button to run the conveyor, and once the dirt is delivered, wave them off.
- Between these tasks, you’ll clean up small messes of beets and dirt that collect around the piler using shovels. On wet days, the dirt becomes sticky mud and it takes a lot more effort to keep the area clean.
The boom operator manages the long conveyor running out the far end of the machine, which drops the beets on the beet pile. The boom needs to be swung left and right to create an even pile of the desired height overtop of the culverts the skid steer person has placed, and also pulls the back half of the beet piler away from the pile as it grows, so that the boom doesn’t get stuck in the pile (the Pile Operator has to watch the Boom Operator and pull the front half of the beet piler back regularly so that there’s always room for the Boom Operator to pull the back half of the machine as needed – it moves kind of like a gigantic metal inchworm with the back half creeping forward, then the front half creeping forward).
Besides these positions, there are people who work the scale house, where trucks weigh in and out when entering and leaving the site (the most coveted position on site as you get to sit and the scale house has heat). Then you have the foreman (direct supervisor), agriculturalist (one step above foreman), and on-call mechanics in case the machines break down.
That’s about it! I’ll be updating the main beet harvest article with this newer information soon, and if you have any additional questions, comment below and I’ll write a follow-up post at some point. If you’ve e-mailed me (or commented on a post) with a question within the past couple weeks, expect answers tomorrow or Monday as I work on catching up on everything. Also keep an eye on the YouTube channel, I filmed a video about the beet harvest today too (edit: it’s now up!). For right now though, I’m going to bed… and I’m not setting an alarm for the morning. Life is good.