First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 28 and 29… The Final Days

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Today was Lee’s worst day at work so far.  He woke up in pain for the first time, because Piler 6’s operator room was too small for him to pace.  He moves around a lot to help ease pressure on his back, but that just wasn’t possible in that small of a space.  Knowing what he was going through, I gave him his space and when we arrived at Sugar Valley we were told we would be on Piler 3.  Two of the crew members on 3 had left, so there was only one lady left.  She has been working the beet harvest for 11 years and we were told she was an expert at boom management.  Well, this should have been great since Lee is very conscientious about the boom, but it was dark and the woman uses very small hand signals.  Now, when working with an experienced crew, this probably works fine, but this was our first time on the piler except the brief break we gave them yesterday.  Lee was getting frustrated, and so was she, but unfortunately she speaks very little English and it was difficult to communicate.  From her perspective I’m sure everything was fine until us newbies showed up, but it was not a good way to start the morning.  I think we could have eventually worked it all out but then they sent the night kids over to Piler 2.  As you know, we have been working that Piler for almost all of time here, and so we were struggling on a new piler, while “ours” was being run by someone else. Playing musical pilers is particularly difficult for the operator since the setups are so different, and yes, I know, night crew switches pilers all the time, but they generally don’t have the additional pressure of an unending line of trucks they need to process quickly and efficiently.

Lee finally threw up his hands, went down and worked on the ground, and let Marvin (who had Piler 3 experience) and Robert operate.  (I had defnitely reached the point where I was about to start being less than professional, polite and respectful to people who didn’t really deserve that, so I decided to just step back and remove myself from the situation. It’s only beets, not rocket surgery. – Lee) And that’s how it stayed most of the day.  It’s important to note here that most Pilers have two operators and they often switch out to other positions.  Lee has worked 95% of the time though as the operator, and frankly he was due for a little break.  It did have us scrambling though to reorganize and the situation was not helped by the fact that both sides of Piler 3 had major issues.  I wasn’t planning on writing about this, but since they sent us over there I suppose it’s time to talk about it.  These Pilers are old (mostly from the 1970’s) and in various states of disrepair.  I get that.  I also freely admit I know nothing about fixing a Piler and cannot in any way speak to why the repairs haven’t been made.  What I do know is that some of the rubber seals on the left side of the piler were missing and the long one on the right side as well.  This resulted in spills so large on EVERY truck dump that we had at least one and often two bobcats standing by all day to help clean up the beets.

Piler #3 has a wider operating area and often two operators work in conjunction

Piler #3 has a wider operating area and often two operators work in conjunction.  You can see there is a missing flap and the beets are pouring out next to the truck

One of the "smaller" piles that the bobcat was cleaning up

One of the “smaller” piles that the bobcat was cleaning up.  This took several minutes on every load.

It was great we had bobcat help, but since the day before I couldn’t get a bobcat for love or money, the inefficiency of the setup was driving me crazy.  We would wait until the bobcat picked up what they could then walk up and pick up the few remaining beets.  It took forever, but we still processed 180 trucks.  The other positive thing about having a bobcat on site was it was super clean.  I loved that.   Eventually the scalehouse started telling the little trucks to stay away, which helped some.  The other thing I should mention is the impact of the spills.  I love dumping the trucks, it’s my favorite part of the job, but knowing nothing I did would stop a major spill took all the fun out of it.  That might not mean much, but if you are know in advance you are going to do terrible job on something, it’s hard to really care that much.  With major finagling, we might reduce a spill to 10 beets or so, but that was a rare occasion, and mostly involved the perfect match between the condition of the hopper and the design of the truck.

So Lee stayed on the ground and did the job I usually do.  We had 6 people so we did take 30 minute breaks three times, which was nice, but almost everyone was pretty cranky.  Lee in particular was bothered by the fact we weren’t on 2 and at the end of the day when we drove to clock out and he saw Piler 2 completely against the shack he was pretty upset.  (Imagine you worked really hard on something for two solid weeks, 12 hours a day, slowly progressing your way three feet at a time for half a mile, and at the last minute someone else came in and took it from you for the last 50 feet. Again, in the big picture, it’s only beets, but the difference between doing something really well, and doing something poorly is usually nothing more than motivation. It was bad enough that I didn’t get to finish the job, what made it was worse was that there was no reason our team wasn’t doing it, and we were right next door, watching. – Lee)  After he worked so hard on operating that piler I totally get it, and frankly it was not cool that it happened.  I know they have a business to run, truly I get that, but the returning crews on Pilers 1, 3, 4, and 5 never got moved around.  Yes, to some extent we were paying our dues, but they could have let us finish it off. And honestly it probably would have been fine if someone would have explained why.  This management team holds information very close to the vest, and although I understand that is to keep their options open, there has been several times when some explanation would have helped quite a bit.  Gen Xers like to know “why” .  We don’t need to have our way all the time, but we do like someone to explain to us what is happening. Once we know we generally dig in and get the work done.  Not knowing, however, makes us crazy and makes us feel like we are working for people not with people, which ultimately makes us less productive.  As the work kamper demographic gets younger, hopefully employers will adjust their management styles. For those who don’t buy into all of that, several scientific studies have been completed on the generational differences and I encourage you to check this out.  To be clear we have run into this problem in all of our work kamping jobs so far.  We are different than the retired work kampers that have come before us, and employers are not quite sure what to do with us at first.  I think this management team tried very hard, but the long days took their toll on them as well.

A couple of cool things came out of the day.  Lee did come back up top with me the last two hours and taught me how to operate.  If we ever came back we would definitely come as a husband/wife operating team and it was slow enough I got to practice.  The crew was great about it, helping me out and Robert wasn’t even upset when I almost dumped a load of dirt on his head!! Truly I had no idea how much was going on in that position.  You are managing two trucks in varying stages of the process, the boom in relation to the height of the beet pile and every 14 truckloads or so you have to move the whole thing back. Not to mention that the machinery you are operating could hurt or even kill someone. I am a great mutli-tasker and I REALLY had to pay attention.  We also got to see the “snow cat” grooming the piles.  We had heard that they sent a machine like the one they use to groom ski trails on top of the pilers and we got to see that happen over at Piler 2.  One of the supervisors said you really didn’t know how good of a job you had done, until they saw the top of the pile.  I would have loved to have heard some feedback on how we did, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.  Still it was cool to see it in action.

"Snow cat" grooming top of Pile 2

“Snow cat” grooming top of Pile 2

Friday, October 28, 2016

We both woke up pretty sore and somewhat dreading the last day. (Today was the first day since we’ve been here that I really wished I could take some pain medication. My back was screaming at me, and when it’s that bad first thing in the morning, it usually takes several hours to improve. Nothing specific to the past day or two caused it, it’s just a very old injury that I know how to manage, but if circumstances prevent me from being able to do the things I normally do to keep it from getting out of hand, then there’s a cumulative effect. – Lee) Then on the way to work Lee got pulled over for going 36 in a 25 in Sidney.  He hasn’t gotten a ticket in ten years and just accelerated a little too fast off the light.  The very nice woman police officer saw we were from out of town, took our information, and told us she was writing us a citation before she even checked his record.  We are both thinking $200 or more which would mean we were mostly working today for free, but she cut us a break and wrote it up for under 10 miles above the speed limit so it will only be $20.  I know right, $20, but it was super nice of her.  When we got to work we told some folks and tickets in Sidney and Fairview are pretty common.  Not speed traps or anything but the towns you have to drive through are 25mph and the road in between them is 65mph.  So it happens.  (I wasn’t even mad. I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of it. I was tempted to say, “I’ll just give you forty. Twenty seems low to me.” Also, as I have always said to my kids, you aren’t paying that ticket for the time you go caught, you’re paying for all the times you didn’t get caught. – Lee) 

I asked one of the supervisors what piler we would be on and we were told Piler #3.  Communication was a lot better and we were making decent progress, even having a 30 minute and 20 minute break in the morning and then 45 minutes for lunch.  At 1:05 though, a strange thing happened.  They shut down the Piler and replaced the rubber strip on the right side.  This strip is what was causing all the spills on the right side and it took 1 hour and 10 minutes to fix.  Once again, I know nothing about fixing pilers, but the timing was…odd.  We were 5 hours away from the end of our last day and now they fix it?  Again, what do I know?  Maybe they didn’t have the part, or maybe there were other priorities, but I will say once it was fixed that side was great.  The first truck (driven by my favorite driver, Anita) no spills.  And later I went up and had 5 trucks in a row with no spills (7 was my previous record).  Things started going faster and despite the pretty cold weather, everyone’s mood improved and we even fit in another round of 30 minute breaks for everyone.

My favorite truck driver Anita

My favorite truck driver Anita

Then at 5:15pm a supervisor came over and Lee asked what happened at 6pm since the night shift no longer existed. Their last night ended on our morning and since we have had a line of trucks everyday at 6pm we weren’t sure what would happen.  We were told the scale house stopped taking trucks at 6pm, but when asked what happened with the ones on the yard we simply didn’t get an answer.  OK, so at that point we all assumed we were working until the trucks were gone and that hit everyone pretty hard.  Each truck was taking at least 5 minutes with the bad side still dumping huge piles and at 5:53pm we had two trucks on the pad and 6 additional ones in line.  5 minutes each was another 30 minutes of work and we still might get a couple more trucks between then and 6pm.  Bridget in particular was concerned because she had a dog she had to get home to.  The local camphost was walking the dogs twice a day, but there were so many dogs sometimes they got walked early.  We all were just standing there, processing trucks,  not really knowing what to do when the agriculturist showed up with a few people and said they would finish out our trucks. She said it was a pleasure working with me, I was pretty confused at this point and just said “Thanks, you too,” and then we went to our cars.  We walked into the shack and there was a pretty large group there and we asked who to turn our stuff into (hard hat, safety vest, and locks).  The bull dozer driver said he could take them and pointed to a container.  Then we saw some boxes with duffel bags or coolers that we knew others had gotten, took two cooolers and we were done.

The whole thing was very anti-climatic.  We said goodbye to a couple people, and then left.  As much as I appreciated them not making us work until past 6pm, it bothered me.  I didn’t expect a party or anything, but a handshake and sincere good job would have been nice.  Heck, if anyone had bothered to talk to us, we could have helped out by staying a little later.  Once again the lack of communication caused a problem where one really didn’t need to exist. Simply put, we worked 15 straight 12 hour days and we worked hard.  We came in 10-15 minutes early every day, piled a lot of beets, stayed all the way to the end as asked,  ( a lot of people left before the end) and generally had a positive attitude.  The last few days, however, I went from feeling like a valued team member to a just a cog in a machine.  Not a great feeling and to be honest it hurt my feelings a little bit.  Yes I know it’s a job and we got compensated for it, but a little extra appreciation goes a long way.  Anyways, our next steps are to get some sleep and finish our financial analyis.   Then we will be writing a summary, where I will try and  look at this experience as objectively as possible.  No promises on Lee’s thoughts! (I do not look at things objectively if I can possibly avoid it. It just makes no sense to me. – Lee)

For those of you who have followed along, thank you.  For those who took the time to comment, your support helped very much.  Having this format to express my feelings about this experience was incredibly important to me and no matter what we decide about returning in the future, I will never regret the experience, in no small part because I had the opportunity to share it with all of you.

One red beet in the pile

One red beet in the pile


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27 thoughts on “First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 28 and 29… The Final Days

  1. Awesome information. I almost felt like I was there ( though not as sore and cold as you).
    I really appreciate your candor.
    Glad you guys survived the beet harvest 😀

  2. I enjoyed the journey with you and look forward to your final wrap up on how you did financially. Maybe Hubby and I will give it a try one year.

  3. Thank you so much for posting all the details about beet harvest work. We now have a very clear picture of what to expect if we decide to do the same.

    Constant process improvement is always something to do. Some just don’t do it much or wait until their is a problem. And then just guess at what caused the problem before looking for the root cause. I’m a Dr. Deming disciple and also don’t like to see waste – such as of people’s time and energy. Suppose when you workamp one has to put aside our own ways of operating. From what I’ve read, those that employee workampers generally are not interested in opinions of how to improve things. Or maybe there are jobs out there that are actually searching out those that know process improvement. If there are, they would be getting a major bonus by hiring you guys to work for them.

    • Thanks Mark. We are still coming to grips with our new work reality. I can’t turn off that part of my brain though, so I’ll continue to try in my own small way to improve, regardless of the environment.

  4. You must be exhausted! I will say”job well done” even if your employers didn’t. What you and Lee accomplished is very impressive. Congratulations!

  5. Boy, reading your account of this experience was like reading a good adventure novel. You kept me glued to the story and couldn’t hardly wait for the next chapter. Enjoy your time off and safe travels on your way to Texas.

  6. I for one did enjoy each and every posts (as always), I really learned a lot. Love and hugs to you both….Now it’s onward to the Christmas trees!

  7. You DID it! How awesome is that?!? So happy you are free to move on to the next adventure! And warmer temps! That’s a good thing!
    Can’t wait for the final analysis!

  8. This blog should be the first things any future beet harvest workcamper reads!!! Great job on the post and fantastic job on those beets. You really did challenge yourselves and exceeded what you thought you were capable of. That is always our measure of success…have we been challenged and did we meet the challenge!! Now, time to recoup and move on to the next adventure:o))

  9. Congrats on a great job keepin’ the beets! I totally get the need to pace around rather than stand still. I have found a chiropractor here in Campbellsville to get me through peak. Safe and happy travels to the Lone Star state!

  10. Well even though you did not get a formal “job well done”, you know you rocked it and did an awesome job! You had fellow coworkers and truckers that appreciated you and the work you did.

  11. I am really enjoying your blog and feel the need to apologize. We were the couple who left early in 3, and yes, it was a huge spill every truck and had been for 3 years. I do not see a change coming. This job was so horrible…we are going to do it again to make sure we were not exaggerating! This time we are going to MD where we hear the equipment is newer and maintained. I was the “helper” picking up a hundred beers each load. Aaarrrgggh! Hoping to follow you in the tree experience.

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