First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 25 through 27

Monday, October 24, 2016

Today was by far the worst day we have had.  We knew it would be rough as we would be changing pilers, but none of us had any idea just how rough it would be.  We came in ready to start on #6 but were sent to Piler 2 (our “home”) until the sun came up.  I understand that call, as working on a new piler in the dark would have been tough, but in retrospect it may have been easier in the end.  Marie didn’t come in today.  Yesterday was rough, and I totally get it, but it was just the four of us until Marvin was sent over around 7am or so. At 9am, right when we start our round of breaks, our sample taker mechanism broke down, and we were told they were going to shut down our piler, and that we should go to Piler 6.  I asked if we could all have a 15 minute break to adjust our mindset and maybe have a little talk before we started, but we were told no, and to head down and get started, trucks were already lined up at Piler 6.  So down we went and walked into a new machine, new roles, and a line of trucks that had already been waiting. (Drivers who have been waiting, particularly at a machine that isn’t even running or manned are generally pretty cranky, on top of the cranky that comes from being on day 12 of this process. And I want to add here that in my opinion, this is just absolutely not OK. They have been telling us for days, to take longer breaks, and when it comes time to actually do that, they choose not to. This is exactly the sort of thing that causes accidents and ruins morale. – Lee) 

Now you might think all pilers are the same with perhaps minor differences (I know that is what I thought) but this was VERY different.  It was shorter in length and height, which means everything happens faster. The belt moved much faster, and the total travel swing from side to side on the boom was much shorter. The entire operations area was totally different.  (The best example I can give is getting into a completely new and unfamiliar car, and being told to drive it as though you were a professional driver, immediately. And faster. – Lee) Luckily Bridget and Marie had both worked on it before so we had some assistance, but Robert, Lee, and I were coming at it brand new.  What came next is not all that surprising, but even so I think we were all caught off guard.  Here we are this really strong team and we all struggled.  That would have been OK if there was any ramp up time at all, but the line was filled with Piler 6 regulars who were not happy with our inefficiency and not happy that their regular group was gone. (So add to everything else, every driver being crappy to us. It was super awesome. – Lee)  Again, I get it.  We have a great relationship with our truckers from 2 and knowing them and their trucks really helps speed things up.  More importantly, the roles were very different.  On Piler 2, two people  dumped the trucks, also cleaned up the beets, but here there was only one operator and one person dumping trucks and they were moving from one side to the other. That coupled with a very tall set of stairs made helping either one of them helping with dumps impractical.  Again, probably could have been compensated for, but we all had some really big dumps.  (What’s a big dump?  15 -40 beets on the platform, each one needing to be hand-picked up and thrown in the hopper).   The hopper was a different size, the angle is different, and worst of all you can’t see the tires from the new vantage point.  So we had large spill after large spill (where it was a rare occurrence on Piler 2). (And, the control center, instead of being in the open air, is in a cramped little closed booth where you can’t hear anything, your vision is obstructed, and much lower, so very difficult to see anything, or for drivers to see you. – Lee) 

Lee in the control center on Piler 6 with Robert on the side

Lee in the control center on Piler 6 with Robert on the side

We did have some bobcat help available for the first hour, which was great, but after that I picked up more beets from spills in the morning than I did on a whole day on Piler 6.  At least we had a third person, that is until they decided to open Piler 2 for a little while and took Marvin away from us.  This was particularly rough because we were in the middle of the lunch cycle and neither Robert nor Lee had gone to lunch yet.  Robert hadn’t been trained on the piler at all, and Lee barely knew it, so it was a matter of the blind, leading the blind, as we stumbled through lunch.  More delays which made the truckers less friendly, us more tired, which all led to more spills.  A pretty vicious circle.  I took a turn up top after lunches and finally I felt we were getting into a rhythm of sorts when Lee noticed something was very wrong with the boom.  Since day 1 we have been told to never raise it over 18 feet and suddenly it was set at 20.  This caused quite a bit of confusion and lost time to sorting it out, and bringing it back down and smoothing out the pile, but we learned about 20 minutes later a supervisor had set it at that height on purpose, and hadn’t bothered to tell anyone, and wanted it reset.  So up it went again, causing more delays.

Side of hopper with missing panel. This detritus was was about knee deep on me

Side of hopper with missing panel. This detritus was was about knee deep on me

The area where the sample takers stand. It was very different from Piler 2

The area where the sample takers stand. It was very different from Piler 2

There was a hole in the hopper and beets were constantly shooting out. I did get hit in the head, thank heavens for the hard hats

There was a hole in the hopper and beets were constantly shooting out. I did get hit in the head, thank heavens for the hard hats

After that things really seemed to break down.  Thankfully, we were all nice to each other and looked out for each other the best we could, but it was one problem after another.  We all made mistakes we rarely if ever have made before and I personally had two spills that crested the back of the hopper which I have never done.  The worst mistake was we only unloaded half a truck full of beets and the poor driver had to come back into line to finish dumping.  Despite our mistakes the attitude of the drivers actually got better.  We didn’t see the most impatient ones again, and our Piler 2 regulars who followed us, mixed with some 6 regulars who were patient enough to give us a chance to learn were very encouraging.  One truck driver actually got out of her truck and helped us clean up a huge spill, which I have never seen before.  The extra encouragement was great, but we were all exhausted by late afternoon.

Tyler stopped by and asked how we were doing and today the poor guy got more than he was expecting.  I walked him through the specifics of what had gone wrong during the day and explained that tomorrow we still wouldn’t be back to pre-move productivity levels.  You can’t change people’s roles and environments and not expect some productivity loss.  Ramp up time is needed no matter how dedicated or hard-working the people are.  I could be wrong about this, but I think the managers thought they could move us and we would pick up right where we left off.  And maybe if we weren’t all in our first year and three of us had only worked on one piler that may have been true.  Unfortunately it was not the case and really it shouldn’t have been that surprising to any of us.  It was hard though, and from my limited view the volume of trucks still seemed pretty high.  We keep hearing about how there is a steep drop-off in the number of trucks per day, but we haven’t seen it yet.  As a matter of fact in the last three days from 7am on we have not had one moment when trucks weren’t at the piler.  OK, I am done.  It’s 8:49pm and I have to go to bed.  The last thing I need is another day like today on little sleep.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

I “slept in” this morning and didn’t get up until 4:30am.  I was too tired to take a shower and too tired to make my lunch.  My left wrist was so sore from picking up beets yesterday that I couldn’t even hold a cup of coffee in it.  I was standing in the kitchen feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of another day like yesterday and just started to cry. Lee walked up and just held me for a few minutes.  Then I took a deep breath, put on my wrist brace, and went to work.

Thankfully someone decided to put us back on Piler 2 and although it was just the four of us, (me, Lee, Robert, and Bridget) things went very well.  The volume was slower for one thing, and we all through common consensus slowed our pace.  Lee was the operator and covered one side and either Robert or I backed up trucks on the other.  We kept two on the ground most of the day so Bridget wouldn’t have to run back and forth and actually kept a nice pace without exhausting anyone.  It was also the last day for many of our favorite truckers as their harvests were complete.  Starting in the afternoon many came in with their last loads and it was bittersweet saying goodbye to them.  Two of the supervisors had their last days as well and we said goodbye to Tyler and Dave.  The people we have gotten to work with has really been one of the best parts of this experience.

Oh and in case you are worried I didn’t eat lunch, it’s OK.  I keep forgetting to mention that there is a small food truck at the job site and although we didn’t eat there earlier in the season the last three days we have taken advantage of the low-priced, home cooked meals.  Every day there is a different dinner special which is $8 and includes entree, drink, side, and desert.  They also have homemade sandwiches everyday and today I had the egg salad, chips, drink, and cookies for $6.  Can’t beat it really, although certainly from a budget perspective I am glad we saved eating there until the end.  It’s a nice option to have when you’ve run our of time or food and not only us, but the truckers take full advantage of it.  Since about 50% of our regulars finished today, we will see what tomorrow looks like.  I could use a slow day.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

So obviously I have hit a wall that last couple of days.  It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t come back and do this, but it has slowed my enthusiasm down a bit. So in the interest of the full story let me tell you what I am tired of. These are in no particular order.

  • Being in dirty clothes
  • Being cold
  • Getting up at 4am (or earlier) and going to bed at 8pm
  • Being sore
  • Having a messy house (and usually I don’t care about that but the dirt everywhere is even getting to me).
  • Having “no life” outside of working the 12 hour days
  • Not having a sex life (the spirit is willing, but the body is not)
  • Not knowing what is going on with my friends and family.  I am barely keeping up with texts and looking at Facebook a little on breaks, but I have only the vaguest idea of what everyone is doing.  I did find a few minutes this morning to read Howard’s lovely tribute to the passing of his father, but that is the only blog post I have read.
  • The unrelenting pace of trucks at work.  We get to shut the piler off when there are no trucks and it has been many days since we had a few blessed moments of quiet.
  • Not having real dinners. We are eating, although I am less hungry than I expected, but it’s all prepared food.  I will say Lee has lost 10 pounds and I am below 130 (129.50 counts!!).  At least I get to say once when I was 50 I was below 130 pounds.
  • Picking up beets.  I know it’s the job, but wow, I am tired of that.
  • Not having any time to myself.  I am having social interactions every few minutes or so and although I like people, I could use some serious quiet time.
  • Always feeling behind.  The one thing I have somewhat managed to stay on top of is these blog posts, but everything else in my life I feel like I am behind on.
  • Not having a drink.  We aren’t big drinkers, but I would love to just have a beer or a glass of wine.  I am not throwing alcohol on top of all the rest of this.   For one thing it’s hard enough to stay hydrated and for another working a 12 hour day on a hangover of any kind sounds unbearable.
  • I’m tired of being tired.  Not just I need to take a nap tired, but bone weary. My stamina is so much greater than I though it would be.  Really, I have completely shocked myself because prior to this I wasn’t in that good of physical shape, but even the 20 year olds are showing the wear and tear.
  • Being here.  We both really like Sidney, Montana.  The people are great and seriously every interaction we have had with the townspeople has been a good one.  It’s a great community and they really rally behind the beet harvest.  I want new vistas, though, and a new place, and most of all I miss nature. We do see pretty spectacular sunrises every morning, but aside from that it is work, home, work, home.  One of the reasons I became a full-time RVer in the first place was to get away from that rat race.

All that being said, I know this is all for a limited time.  The main question remains is, is it worth it, and we won’t really know that until the final numbers come in.  I am really glad I did it at least once, for the challenge and experience if nothing else, just not sure how I feel about making this part of our annual routine.  There are definitely easier ways to make money, but perhaps not in this time frame. Like I said, we will need to wait and see.


So we went into work and I am not sure if it was dumb luck, Bill, or God was watching out for us, but they had lots of extra people.  Bill put us on Piler 6 with 3 kids from night crew and after some fumbling in the morning, Bridget worked out a deal with them where our 4 and their 3 would switch every 2 hours.  It was fantastic.  We had two-hour long breaks and wow was that overdue.  If that sounds excessive, keep in mind our piler was only down for repair about 6 hours this season and others were down for days.  When your piler is down you get long breaks, but we never experienced that so in aggregate we were overdue.   Again, I loved it and walked away from the day with so much energy. I made a beef BBQ recipe I haven’t had the energy for, and even did the dishes.  Lee on the other hand not so good. He complained for the first time of his back hurting and he was super tired when we got home.  Those of you who have worked with him know he has two modes: on and off (but really still on, just thinking about other things).  He simply didn’t know what to do with the two hours and just wandered about aimlessly.  (A 12 hour of day of non-stop work is nothing to me. Ask me to take more of a break than I actually need, and I completely fall apart. It’s stupid, but it’s how I’ve been my entire life. – Lee) I, on the other hand sat quite contentedly in the car and read my book.  In the afternoon, Bill did ask us to give an extra break to Piler 3, which we did, and then he asked us if we could stay until Friday.  Since Bill has been so great to us, we said whatever you need, so Friday will be our last day.  We all would have been perfectly content to call today our last, but since 5 other people wanted to leave us well and we are the youngest in the original day crew, we decided to stay.  It’s just a couple more days, and personally I feel rejuvenated from today.  Lee, of course, not so much, but he really likes Bill and wants to make sure we leave on a good note.  Just to be clear, no one said anything about our bonus being affected.  Since we are all going to other jobs, that probably would have been a non-issue.  We’ve made it this far and we are just trying to do the right thing here.  Oh and if you have lost count we just completed our 14th straight 12 hour day.  Wow, I really didn’t know I had that in me.

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6 thoughts on “First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 25 through 27

  1. True troopers. Yeah, we all p&m about our daily grinds, but you’ve managed to, for the most part, soldier on an do a yeomans job in extraordinary conditions. Look forward to your next job selling Christmas trees, and except for possibly unloading trucks, that should be not so bad. At the least, the weather should be better…for the most part. Keep your chins up and know you’ve done a great job. Congratulations!

  2. Wow, the time I got to read this, you are done with the harvest. I hope you made it through without getting hurt. I know from a career in manufacturing that most accidents happen at the end of the day, and you seemed to be aware of that. Hopefully you have time in Texas to get caught up on chores. Manhandling Christmas trees will be like sorting toothpicks with all of the moosecles you two have built up! 💪😀

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