First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 19 through 21

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

When I pictured these blog posts I really thought they they would be short little paragraphs per day with a weather report and me saying how tired I was in a variety of ways. That has obviously not been the case, as interesting things keep happening. My biggest problem has been finding the time to squeeze in writing about it, so this is another 3:30am posting, and bear with me if it’s a little jumbled.  Overall all of the happenings is a good thing because the job is definitely not boring.  Tedious at times yes, but rarely boring.  So the next thing that happened is about mid-day on Monday we found out that the teams were going to be switched up a little.  Folks are starting to leave for other jobs or obligations, or for whatever reason, and the supervisors need to fill in the gaps.  These choices were definitely done with some thought, and we were told that Marie and Marvin would be moving to Piler 6 and Bridget (Robert’s wife) and one of the ventilation team, Austin, would be coming to work with us.  Obviously we were sad to see Marvin and Marie go.  We have great teamwork happening and our communication was outstanding, but it was good that Bridget and Robert would finally be working together, plus at least Marie and Marvin would be with our friends Jim and Judy on 6, and they also got to stay together.

There wasn’t much time for everyone to adjust though, as we came in Tuesday to the operation in full swing already (that doesn’t always happen, sometimes get 15 minutes or so to saddle up and settle in before the first trucks show up – Lee) with a full line of trucks waiting behind the two that were on the piler already, and we seriously did not have one break in the truck traffic all day.  Since they allow every team to develop their own methods and style, it wasn’t surprising that it was a bit of a struggle.  We do things differently than they do on Piler 6 and Lee, Robert, and I were scrambling to teach Austin and Bridget our method, while we were simultaneously running the operation.  So the morning was incredibly frustrating and both Robert and I worked our asses off, training and working at the same time.  Lee got as frustrated as I have seen him, and we were both pretty short tempered by lunch time. (Not anyone’s fault, but it takes time to develop a way to communicate with people, and when we swap out a couple of them, the “vets” have to be patient while the new folks get up to speed, and the new folks have to learn something new, all on the fly, and with no real breaks to review and assess. – Lee) 

That is one of the downsides to allowing each team to do their own thing. I get it.  People really like the more relaxed set of rules (versus an Amazon environment that is super rigid), but when there is a switch-up, to some extent you have to start all over with team dynamics.  As much as I appreciate the freedom, I have given this a lot of thought and I do think a few things should be standardized across the yard.  First off, the signals with the truck drivers should all be the same.  They visit different pilers all the time, based on line lengths, and the variation must drive them crazy.  Someone should poll the drivers on what hand signals they would like to see and then everyone should be trained on the basics in orientation.  (What Tracy doesn’t remember is that they did give us standardized hand signals for the drivers in the first day orientation, but let’s face it, older people are more inclined to do what they’ve always done, and not what they were told one time in a brief training class. Especially people who are backing up and helping to back up motorhomes and trailers all the time. They just revert to their way of doing it. I think it says a lot about the drivers that we manage to not end up with trucks upside down or dumping beets into other trucks, frankly. – Lee)  I  honestly don’t remember the hand signals from orientation at all.  I think they should give us a handout with our orientation packet that we can refer to later – Tracy

Secondly, we should all have the same rules on when the piler is moved back.  In the beginning we were given very basic instructions on “not burying the boom in the pile” and then everyone had to figure it out on their own.  The reason it is such a big deal is that the booms have sensors on them and when they get to close to the beets the entire machine shuts down, and a supervisor has to come and either walk out on the boom to reset it, or worse, if it gets buried, they have climb up the beet pile and dig it out by hand. All the while with trucks waiting. Even worse, if you have a truck or two trucks on the piler in the process of unloading, so they can’t even pull out of the line to go to another piler.  It is a completely avoidable work shutdown and one that Lee is adamant we never experience again after it happened a couple of times early on.

Finally, about 3pm or so we all settled in and everyone relaxed a little.  I will say here that the absolute best part of the day was now that the ventilation crews are done, Russell is on the bobcat full time. I am not overstating when I say that more than anyone else Russell has made this experience more pleasant for me.  He is technically proficient on the bobcat, but more importantly he is constantly working in it. (Bullshit. Lots of people are technically proficient. Russel is an artist with that thing. It’s like he was born in it. – Lee) Since Piler 3 is always having problems and the other Bobcat practically lives down there, Russell is covering the other 5 pilers.  That’s a lot of ground to cover, but not only did we see him several times during the day, but he also kept our area very clean.  Since everything else was extremely chaotic (and it was a very muddy day) having a clean area to work in was such a blessing.  Truly.  About 3:30pm, I finally walked down to him and thanked him for everything he has done.  I got a little gushy about the whole thing since I was having such a rough day, but he handled it with grace.  Really that guy is great and at 33 seems to be able to communicate easily with both the older and younger groups. (I think it’s worth mentioning that he also has a truly epic bright red beard, and I don’t even like beards. – Lee)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

For those of you wondering why this is all taking so long, I did get a little information from one of the larger farms that we see every day.  Danielson Farms has the nicest truck drivers, so I asked a couple questions.  According to the driver the farm has around 900 acres and uses 7 truck drivers for the harvest.  Each driver makes around 10 round trips in a 12 hour day. When I asked how long it would take to harvest the fields (with no weather delays), he said around 21 days.  Wow!  Let me do some quick math here and that is 1470 truckloads of beets from one farm.  That’s a crazy amount of beets.  It sort of answers one of the questions I have has as we traveled the country. We see lots of farmland, but I always wondered how it could possible be enough to feed everyone.  I had no clue the fields could produce that kind of volume, fascinating. (It also helps to keep in mind that throughout this process, our piler yard, which is one of SIX locations, gets around 1200 truckloads a day. And the harvest is typically 14-20 days. We are generally doing 200 a day on our piler alone. And with almost no exceptions, that’s nonstop. So in a 12 hour day, we’re doing 16 trucks an hour, which is a truck about every 4 minutes. Someone mentioned to us on the first day that all together it’s about 13 million tons. That’s the scale. – Lee)

It was cold again today, in the 40’s, but we started out great as we got Russell!!  He was taking a bobcat break and worked on our piler.  Since he had never done any of the jobs before I got to train him, and of course he did great on them all.  Our communication as a team was really solid, which was a good thing since Piler 4 was down and we were steady busy all day. Bridget and I were communicating well, and she did an excellent job watching the boom, which was great for me because I didn’t need to worry about it hardly at all.   Oh, and I have lost 2-1/2 pounds and I am pretty psyched about that. (I appear to have found it. – Lee)

Russell backing up trucks. You can see a hint of that epic red bear

Russell backing up trucks. You can see a hint of that epic red beard

Remember the other day I was talking about ventialtion pipes? Well to give you an idea that's how far we have traveled (with night shift also) since they stopped laying those pipes. Amazing

Remember the other day I was talking about ventialtion pipes? Well to give you an idea that’s how far we have traveled (with night shift also) since they stopped laying those pipes. Amazing

Me holding a pretty big beet. We haven't gotten any of the huge ones, and they aren't normally this big, but I can lift this one with two hands and I am not even that strong. It's an excellent upper body workout

Me holding a pretty big beet. We haven’t gotten any of the huge ones, and most of them aren’t close to even this big, but it’s worth saying I can lift this one with two hands and I am not even that strong. It’s an excellent upper body workout

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Today was another busy day at the beet harvest.  I have been saving a post on port-a-potties for a slow day, but we simply haven’t had one yet.  It started off cold, in the 30’s, and we had freezing fog all morning.  One of the experienced truck drivers said we have had very unusual weather this year and it stayed foggy until 11:00am.  The fog made it cold and it was a damp cold, so it was tough to remain cheery.  I did break out my super cute cat hat though and had a fun time with it as the ears stuck out from under the hard hat. We also had quite a long break early on when the piler boom starting smoking.  Part of the piler had started to get clogged with mud, and there was too much weight on the boom, so it was just sitting there while the motor drive belt was spinning, but the conveyor wasn’t moving. Thankfully Lee saw it right away and shut the motor down so there was no damage done.  I sat in our truck, across the lanes so folks would know we were shut down, and soaked up the heat.  That helped a lot. After we got up and running again, and things slowed down a bit, Russell came over and learned how to be an operator from Lee.  Lee’s system is a darn good one in my opinion, but pretty complicated, but Russell is a smart guy and picked it up right away.

This hat made people smil and incidently was extremely warm. I really had to jam down the hardhat though to get it on :)

This hat made people smile and incidentally was extremely warm. I really had to jam down the hardhat though to get it on 🙂

So we were jamming right along when one of the foremen told us our beet pile was actually getting a little to close to the sugar shack. (Keep in mind that we are all in a giant rectangular dirt  field, and we started at one end, and when the pile gets too close to the boom, we crawl back 3 feet. Every day we get a little closer to the sugar shack, which is just a fancy name for the place we clock in and out and can take breaks. – Lee)  We were way in front of the other pilers and actually in danger of our truck line cutting off access to Piler #1.  He asked if we could really “tighten” the pile by waiting until the very last second to move back to get every beet we could into the small amount of remaining available real estate. This means letting the pile get much closer to the boom end than we ever have. Now, Lee hated this.  After a random beet bounced and smacked our sensor and shut us down in one of the first few days, he has always played it safe and we move the piler back when there is a safe margin. (They also welcomed us by saying “Hi! Welcome! Don’t bury the boom in the pile.”  and “Here’s where you clock in. Don’t bury the boom in the pile.” Clearly this is important to them. – Lee) I like to push that envelope though, so I was excited about the challenge, and since we had direct orders from a supervisor, Lee couldn’t argue with me about it.

Well, about 20 minutes in to this new and improved process, of course a beet bounced wrong and smacked the sensor,and we were shut down.  (See? 18 days of working and this didn’t happen. I told you it would all end in tears. -Lee) It’s not really a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but we do have to make the truck drivers wait while a supervisor climbs up and sets the reset switch.  Tyler drew the short straw, but he was really cool about it and so merrily I continued.  Things were going OK for awhile and then Tyler came up and said they had some extra folks (Piler 4 was down) and wanted us all to take a 30 minute break in the afternoon.  Well sure, I’ll take an extra break, but while I was switching with Robert and trying to explain the break schedule change, I ran the boom into the pile.  Now this is more serious, as hitting the pile with the boom can cause permanent damage, and at the very least you end up with the boom end covered on all four sides by beets which have to be dug out by hand. (Remember, they’re heavy, slippery, oddly shaped, and muddy. And the supervisors have to climb 18 feet up a 45° hill of these things, and then dig the boom out by hand. This is why they don’t want you to do this. – Lee) .  They call it “burying the boom” and it is something we had never as a team done.  And boy it was buried.  I went on break and it took two foreman and a couple of helpers about 30 minutes to get it unstuck.  Thankfully there was no permanent damage, but Lee definitely had an “I told you so” look on his face, even though he was smart enough not to say anything.  OK, so maybe we were getting too close, so we backed it off a bit and tried to strike some middle ground. (Update:  I notice no snarky comment here…see smart man – Trace)

The next thing we found out was that we had run out of room and at 5pm they were shutting our piler down for the day.  Their plan was to bring trucks in overnight to take beets away, so we would have enough room for us for what they think will be a heavy weekend, and to get us through to the end. This was pretty exciting.  Just to be clear, I know this is no way a race, and safely processing trucks is THE most important thing.  But we were all pretty excited and I felt in some way we had “beat the beet yard”.  I celebrated by singing “We beat the beets” as the last truck went through and there may have been some spontaneous dancing.  I wasn’t the only one, Bridget was pretty excited also, and we all posed for a group picture in front of our finished pile.  I know goofy, right, but these are long days and it was quite the feeling of accomplishment. (I get it, too. Even though some of the pilers break down more than others, and we didn’t all start at the same time, we are still quite a bit farther down the field than everyone else. I’m proud of us. But I did not dance, because I do not dance. – Lee)

If you look at the end of the row you can see the pickup trucks they had blocking our aisle so no more trucks came

If you look at the end of the row you can see the pickup trucks they had blocking our aisle so no more trucks came

Lee, me. Bridget, and Robert. I am sorry we couldn't get Marie and Marvin in the shot as obviously they were a huge part of the accomplishment, and the night shift jammed out several nights with lots o'beets...so seriously hooray for all of us!!

Lee, me. Bridget, and Robert. I am sorry we couldn’t get Marie and Marvin in the shot as obviously they were a huge part of the accomplishment, and the night shift jammed out several nights with lots o’beets…so seriously hooray for all of us!!

After we shut down, we moved the piler back the length of itself to give the trucks room to get in during the night, and then we met everyone up at the sugar shack and we all had a safety meeting.  I was glad to see they had one, because folks are getting tired, and a little lax about safety, so it was good for the supervisors to reinforce it’s importance.  They encouraged everyone to slow down a little, be extra careful, and take more breaks. They also thanked us for doing such a great job.  It was really nice.  Oh, and there was pizza. Lots and lots of pizza, which was fantastic.  It was a good day right before what looks like a very long weekend, and I promise I will write about the porta-potties soon.  I know you can’t wait.


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13 thoughts on “First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 19 through 21

  1. Just in case you missed it: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/22/your-money/retirement-migrant-workers-recreational-vehicles.html?_r=0

    On Fri, Oct 21, 2016 at 6:44 AM, Camper Chronicles wrote:

    > Lee and Tracy posted: “Tuesday, October 18, 2016 When I pictured these > blog posts I really thought they they would be short little paragraphs per > day with a weather report and me saying how tired I was in a variety of > ways. That has obviously not been the case, as interestin” >

  2. Thanks so much for these detailed posts in the midst of your heavy work schedule. It’s fascinating reading and I’ve really been enjoying it. After years of reading about the harvest, I finally have a much better understanding of how it works!

  3. Well, I think that after all the work involved in creating that great BIG pile of beets it is time for LEE to start DANCING!!!! Great post and can’t wait for the porta potties;o))

  4. Team dynamics make all the difference, I am sure you are putting your project leader skills to good use. Your post reminded me of an area we used to hunt in SE North Dakota where they grow beets. Those truck drivers are crazy, you do not want to get in their way or be behind them going down a gravel road. Even seen a beet bounce out of a truck and come bouncing towards you at 50mph? Not a pleasant experience!

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