First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 17 through 18

Sunday, October 16, 2016

It’s early, 3am, but I am awake and mentally alert now.  I realize what I wrote last night probably didn’t make a ton of sense, but I am going to largely leave it alone because it goes to my mental state at the end of a long day.  One of the big surprises of this job is how mentally demanding it can be.  Well, to be clear it’s minutes of mentally demanding and then minutes of boredom. (Repeat, over and over, 200 times a day. – Lee)  Actually this seems to follow with the size of the trucks.  When we get several large trucks in a row it is more monotonous, because there is less for us to do, because they take more than twice as long to unload.  When we get several smaller trucks, of varying sizes, it is more challenging. You would think I would take advantage of the long trucks and just rest, and certainly sometimes I do, but often when we get to many in a row I start to get restless.  So I like to switch things up and have learned how to back trucks up to the hopper.

When the smaller trucks come through, a person stands on the platform, above the truck, and below the piler operator,  and tells them when to stop once they’ve crossed over the folded down hopper gates, and back up once the hopper gates are raised, and then raise their truck bed to drop the initial load of beets into the hopper. Since the beets tend to come out in a rush, if you do this wrong you can cause an overspill which requires manually picking beets off the ground.  Which involves climbing down from the platform, walking all the way around the hopper, and getting down on the ground to pick up the heavy, muddy beets. This sucks and is to be avoided. So it’s a challenge and a bit of a puzzle to raise the trucks just enough to fill the hopper but not overflow it.  I like puzzles, and I love challenges where you get an instant fail/succeed result, and this totally qualifies.  Most of the time the truckers follow your commands completely, but on occasion they go “rogue” on you and then: beets all over the ground.  It’s definitely mentally challenging and when you start to get tired, more spills occur, which require more physical labor picking up beets, which make you more tired.  So I like to take turns at it, not only to keep myself interested but also to give the primaries a break.

Which leads me to something I have been wanting to discuss which I find interesting.  Day shift is almost exclusively Boomer and Gen-Xers, and the roles we have taken seem to fall along more traditional lines.  The women are generally the helpers on the ground, directing trucks off the hopper and taking tickets, and taking the samples, and backing them up to the dirt return conveyor belt, all of which requires the most walking, but is the least physically demanding job.  The operators who run the machines are almost all men and the folks that back the trucks up into the hopper and cover for the operators on breaks are again men.  The reason I mention this is that the night shift is totally different.  They are almost all Millennials and most of the operators seem to be women.  From my limited vantage point, it seems the women are definitely running the show on night crew which is the complete opposite of what is happening during the day.  To be clear, no one told us what roles we had to take.  Lee was assigned initially as the operator because he raised his hand to volunteer and on day shift, only men volunteered to learn how to be operators. In retrospect I am not sure why I hung back, but I do know that sticking to one role all day, every day is really not in my nature.

Thankfully Marvin and Robert are pretty understanding about it. I am sure at times they aren’t thrilled about taking another role, not everyone likes to switch things up after all, but they are kind enough to switch out with me when I am getting restless.  Overall the day shift truckers seem to be dealing with it pretty well, then again, the ones that didn’t like a woman directing them would just start going to another piler.  As I mentioned, truckers develop favorite pilers and we get lots of repeat “customers”.  Mainly our truckers are on the younger side and we have several women truckers who always come back.  A few of the older guys who used to come through aren’t coming anymore and I know it is a major leap to assume any one reason for that, but these are the things I wonder about in idle moments.  Anyway, the most important thing I wanted to mention is that anyone can do any role, so if you ever do this don’t be afraid of cross training.  It makes the team stronger. and I believe it’s good for most individuals  to keep things fresh.

So, when we went into work Sunday, it was nice and slow in the morning.  I am not sure if it was the sprinkles of rain or the fact folks were in church, but the pace was great.  Marie took advantage of the slow time and was trained on how to back up trucks and dump them into the hopper.  She spent a few times going through it with different types of trucks with Robert and then she was on her own.  She really did great, and it was fun to see her do her happy dance when she dumped some trucks with no spills.  Hey, we all like that.  No spills means no climbing down the ladder and picking up beets which is always a good thing.  It was completely coincidental that she chose today to start and since I wrote the above in the morning I was thrilled to see it.  Now it’s all girl power on our piler and I feel less weird about it!! (As an added bonus, when they’re both up there, I’ve got ALL the chicks. – Lee) Marie is really great, but I am mad at her for one thing.  She has lost 8 pounds since we got here and I have lost ONE!!  Now maybe that’s because truck drivers keep giving us candy and stuff and I keep eating it, but still I think that’s really unfair!!

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Marie bringing in the trucks

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Thumbs up tells them to raise the dump bed. Look at her acting with authority!!

I, on the other hand, spent very little time backing up trucks today because my feet have been really hurting me.  I am in the Merrill’s but it was muddy and the mud just sticks like glue on the bottom and throws off how I walk in them.  I did bring in a small camp stool though, and was using it to prop up my feet.   I also sat on it sometimes, tucked away behind the ladder and away from all trucks, and wow, it really helped!  I was worried that Bill or another supervisor would have a problem with it, but they didn’t care at all.  Thank heavens!

I know I look like a slacker, but this is a 12 hour day on your feet. Gotta take these moments when you can

I know I look like a slacker, but this is a 12 hour day on your feet. Gotta take these moments when you can.

So, we were having a nice day when something really special happened.  As I have mentioned, we get repeat truck drivers who come through and some we see as many as 10 or more times in a 12 hour shift.  Our conversations are very short (I get their ticket and say hi and we may exchange a few words), but I always try to be nice, no matter how I feel, because it’s not their fault it’s cold, or raining, or whatever.  So I went to get this one driver’s ticket and he had a piece of paper in his hand.  He very hesitantly asked if he could take me to dinner, and he was so sweet when he asked.  I immediately said “Oh I am so flattered, but my husband is right there” (pointing at Lee) and the poor man looked crestfallen. It was really sweet though, for a couple of reasons.  I always wear my wedding ring, but for this job I am going ringless so he really thought I was single.  Second, here I am, hard hat, covered in dirt, and looking about as non-sexy as possible and he wanted to go out with me.  I know what you are thinking, truck driver, horn dog, whatever, but it wasn’t like that.  It was truly a genuine moment and he was so shy, it was really nice.  Hey, I just turned 50, and haven’t been asked out on a date in many, many years, so married or not, that’s a nice feeling.  The trucker didn’t come back through our line for the rest of the day and I felt really bad.  Thankfully he did come the next day and I got to tell him I was so glad he came back and I was really flattered. He said, “It’s just really nice to be greeted with a smile when I drive through here.” How awesome is that? (It’s pretty awesome, I think. I told Bill the foreman this story, and his response was “Where are they going for dinner?” Bill is a funny man. So funny, that guy. – Lee)

The rest of the day was fine, still pretty mellow, and then about 5pm we saw some really dark ominous clouds off in the distance.

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We weren’t that worried until I saw lightning, and then I really got kind of scared.  I know of two people who were killed by lightning, and it is no joke.  We are in the middle of a giant field, on a giant metal rig…not good.  I should say here this was never covered during our orientation.  Everyone should know what to do in severe weather situations, but we didn’t. Well, Robert and Lee did, but the rest of us didn’t.  Suddenly, these clouds which were way out in the distance were on top of us with no real warning, and the wind kicked up like a solid, serious midwestern spring storm. It went from totally calm to insane in the blink of an eye.

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The winds were probably in the neighborhood of 60 mph, and a gust blew off Lee’s hardhat, and the boom started swaying. The side of the rig that was getting the wind didn’t have a truck on it, but the other side did, and it was halfway up, so the driver was trying to lower it, and having trouble, and Robert and Marvin were trying to help er, and Lee hit the emergency stop button on the rig. (I was worried that beets might start flying off the belt, which goes up to over 25 feet. That’s some big damn things to be falling one people from 25 feet. In any case, it felt like it was an emergency, and that’s what those big red buttons are for. – Lee) I ran and got the hard hat and immediately got into my car.  Marie quickly followed and got in hers and Marvin was gathering up our personal objects. Lee though stayed on that platform, and seriously looked like a captain going down with his ship. I’ll let him tell you the rest but I will say that although I think it was completely idiotic, I also thought it was kind of sexy! (There’s not really that much more to tell. The operator platform is a good 15 feet off the ground, and the wind was just insane. I kept trying to face the wind to be able to see what was going on, but there was so much dust and debris that I couldn’t. Before it got too bad I looked at the rail yard to the side of the piler yard, and saw some pretty big stuff moving around in the wind, and thought my best bet was to stay put. My first concern was that the only way I could keep the wind from blowing me off the rig was to hold on, and I wasn’t going to chance trying to get down all those slick, steep metal stairs and risk getting blown off and hurt, so I was just trying to stay put and wait it out, and hope that it didn’t get worse, because I was just barely hanging on. But there’s a rubber mat up there that’s about an inch thick and 5 feet square, and if I didn’t stay in the center of it, the wind would lift it up and throw it against me, and if I stood in the center of it, I couldn’t really reach a rail to hang on. It sucked. I would crouch down, and lean back, and as soon as I started to reach for a rail, the wind would start to push me, then the mat would smack me in the back and start acting like a sail, and push me harder, and so I would lean back farther, and I was thinking if this wind dies down a little I’m going to fall over backwards and then just get blown right off. And the whole time, I’m thinking, I’ve got to get to that emergency stop button so I can pull it back out, because Robert was trying to lower the boom to rest on the pile, it was swaying like crazy and could have just snapped off because it’s so long and just held up by metal cables, like a suspension bridge. This was all about three minutes. And then, because all that wind didn’t suck enough, it started to hail. I’m looking at my lovely wife, safe and sound in truck, with my hard hat, and I am just getting pelted in the back of the head with one inch hail. It was awesome. And then the drenching rain. And I start thinking, “Hey, tornadoes come after heavy wind and hail and sideways rain,don’t they???” I finally managed to get to the button, and pulled it out, and Robert got the boom down, and then *poof*, it was over. The sun came out, and we got a nice big double rainbow we could see from start to end.- Lee)

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The agriculturist was zipping around from piler to piler to make sure everyone was OK, and letting us know that they were shutting down the yard for the day. Primarily because everyone had scattered to their vehicles, and it was very close to the end of the shift, and the yard was pretty slick now. Although we didn’t get a ton of actual rain because it was over so fast, other areas in the vicinity got more, and that makes it hard for the harvesters to dig up the beets. It was only 45 minutes early, but I was thrilled to have the extra time.  I am starting to feel bad for the agriculturist though.  She certainly has had her share of weird happenings.  Shutting the yard for a freak storm at 5pm is definitely not the norm, although again, I will say there really should be a protocol in place for this sort of thing, so that everyone knows what to do. Not everyone comes from place where they get weather like this, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to talk about the possibility, because it can clearly happen.

  Monday, October 17, 2016

When we came in Monday morning everything was exactly the way we left it. I was somewhat surprised that the night shift wasn’t brought in, as there was no more rain or storms that evening, but I get there are other factors at work.  The ground was very muddy, and things were complicated by the fact that the piler and the grounds did not get their normal nightly cleaning and scraping.  Let me take some time to explain this because it is a huge deal to me personally.  As the day wears on and the boom swings back and forth dropping the beets into the pile, we stop every once in a while and move the piler back about three feet, and then continue. It happens about 8 time a day. Lee lifts the hopper gates, we back up about 3 feet and then keep going.  The problem with the backing up is the detritus from the machine along the sides starts working it’s way towards the stairs and the front of the piler is full of beets that have flown out of the hopper or boom during their trip on the conveyor. Depending on the amount of mud coming from the beets as they travel, this material can be calf high on me, and if it isn’t cleaned up, I am walking through it to get to the other side to take samples.  If we allow loose beets from trucks to lay on the side, it is even worse as it is mud, pieces of beets, and large loose beets.   The loose beets are a major trip hazard and that’s why, despite the extra physical effort, we work so hard to manually throw them into the piler.  If every truck loses 2-3 beets for example and we do 22 trucks an hour then eventually when we have moved back far enough we are dealing with 50 plus beets in our walkway.  Not good.

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Muck along the piler

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With some extra truck beets thrown in for good measure. We pick these up but not everyone does

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This is the side I have to walk through to get the drivers tickets

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The pile starts to creep towards the stairs

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It’s hard to see but in places it is past ankle high

Although we can pick up the loose beets, I cannot pick up the other material and we need a bobcat for that.  And unfortunately one of the three  bobcats seems to constantly be out for service, or being used for something else. Seriously, as soon as one is fixed another goes down, and so there are only two, for six pilers.  Of the two, one is used almost exclusively by the ventilation team (although my buddy Russell who works on that team will occasionally sneak in a quick clean for me when he has a little down time, because he is the MAN!) and the other one is used for cleanup, and to haul sample beet bags back to the shack.  It’s darn near impossible for those guys to clean up and although it’s not their fault, this is probably my major complaint (except the bad weather days) about the job.  This job is hard enough, but adding slippery work conditions makes it so much less pleasant.  It’s not just the safety issues though, I am just so much less efficient.  In a pinch I can run the helper job for both sides of the piler.  This requires moving quickly from one side of the right to the other over and over, and can be done for stretches of time IF the ground is clean.  Add mud and mess to the mix and I just can’t do it, and Monday was the worst of both.

Huge pile of beets at the end. I sometimes walkthrough here if the ventilators are working as you can see. Very tight spaces

Huge pile of beets at the end. I sometimes walk through here if the ventilator team is working, as you can see. Very tight spaces and way worse with lots of beets on the ground

 

Russell sneaking in a clean for me. The coordination is tough because we have to stop trucks for a couple of minutes for him to do this

Russell sneaking in a clean for me. The coordination is tough because we have to stop the  trucks, at least on one side, for a couple of minutes for him to do this, but you can see the before and after makes a huge difference.

I did the best I could under the circumstances, and then around 9am Bill came and said he were shutting out piler down, to move it way back, basically the length of the rig itself, so they could bring in the bobcat team and the full size front loader to completely clean the “grounds” which is what they call the working area under and around the piler. This is what they normally do at night. I cannot even tell you how happy this made me.  The ground was still a little muddy and sticky, but so clean, and it stayed that way for several hours!!  Hooray! (I haven’t seen her so happy in a long time. She was jumping up and down like a little kid and clapping here hands. Clearly she cares about this. – Lee) Look, I know it’s a busy place, and the nature of the work is that a mess is created, so no way it will be clean all the time, but I will say again that having it somewhat clean makes the whole experience so much better.  Happier, safer, and more efficient helpers is a really good thing.  So I hope it continues to be a priority.

Lee moving back the piler

Lee moving back the piler

We had to bobcats and the big machine. How cool

We had two bobcats and the big machine. How cool

See how far back we are from the beet pile

See how far back we are from the beet pile

Major, major difference

Major, major difference

Pretty on both sides

Pretty on both sides

I am super happy

I am super happy

Lee's hat says it all!!

Lee’s hat says it all!! (We’re supposed to have our names on our hats, but I don’t do that, because I don’t do that. Instead I put….other things on my hat. It’s fun to see who knows my name and never even sees what’s on their, and who doesn’t, and looks up there and then laughs. But I put the really good stuff on the back of the hat. – Lee)

 



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9 thoughts on “First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 17 through 18

  1. All the Damn Beets in the world is not worth a injury. Glad you guys are safety minded.The company will get over it. And be happy to have a good safety record. God be with you.

  2. Where are you piling beets at ? I forget, but what a shock I had today reading another RVer’s story about the same thing she’s doing! She’s in Drayton, North Dakota ! Her name is Beth. don’t want to give her whole name, but am curious!
    I’ve been following your travels, and this is the 1st time I’ve spoken up! I think out of all the blogs people write of their daily life on the road, in your case the full time living in your RV and workcamping, I love your more detailed experience, the picture’s that go along with your story of the day’s experience, your writing skills are exceptional, to say the least, and you make someone feel like their right there with you! Thank you!!!
    We’ll be going full time this coming June 2017, and I can’t wait! I see our new experience through your eye’s as you travel! And only hope we have as much fun as you seem to be having, even though some days are harder than other’s! I’m sure it’s not all roses and sunshine on the road!
    Thank you for your blog. I look forward to your postings everyday!!

    Jami B

    • Thank you so much Jami and I am so glad you commented. We are in Sidney, Montana but the beet yard is right across the border in North Dakota. I really appreciate the kind words. Sometimes I worry I give too much detail so it’s nice to hear you are enjoying it. Good luck with going full timing. It’s certainly not without its challenges but it’s been a terrific experience for us so far!! Thanks again for reading 🙂

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