For those who aren’t interested in our daily descriptions of our beet harvest work kamping experience, we have provided an overview. It is important to note that there can be significant variations from company to company, yard to yard, and even between the shifts. In particular the remuneration will vary from harvest to harvest, depending on weather conditions. If you are thinking about accepting a position, I would pay particular attention to whether “Stay Pay” is paid, and whether OT is time and a half or double time as these factors can significantly impact how much money you will make. This post summarizes our experience working for Sidney Sugars, at Sugar Valley, on day shift, for the season of October 2016. I can guarantee you your mileage will vary. So let’s start with the numbers!
# of days in Sidney: 39 – We were required to be here on the 19th, and we stayed until the end. At the very last minute they asked another team to stay one more day, but we aren’t counting that, because it only affected 3 or 4 people.
# of partial work days: 5 – These were days that we were asked to start late, or leave early due to weather. We did not see anyone being asked to leave early due to equipment malfunction, instead those people were reassigned until the problem could be resolved.
# of non work days: 9 – These were days that we did not work at all.
# of full 12 hour work days: 20 – 16 of these were in a row, with no days off.
Total Gross Income as a couple for the October 2016 season: $ 10,081.86
This does not include the bonus, which is NOT guaranteed. We were told on our first day that the bonus is completely at the discretion of the foreman. I doubt there’s anyone that doesn’t get it, but until it’s in the bank, it doesn’t exist. The bonus is 5% of the gross for the first year and 10% for subsequent years completed consecutively. Our estimated bonus is around $500 total. I will update this post at a later date to include the bonus if we receive it. Update: Lee received his $250 bonus and I eventually received $227. At first glance, the gross is a lot of money, and we agree it is not insignificant, but let’s break that down a little bit.
- Gross Income earned as a couple for only full days worked (22 days) : $7693.81 This does not include stay pay, partial days, or orientation.
- Gross Income earned as a couple per day for only full days worked (22 days): $350 This was for a 12 hour day with two 15 minute breaks and a half hour lunch. Some days (especially towards the end) we got longer breaks, but many days we received the minimum, and one particular day we didn’t even get the morning 15 minute break. $14.58 an hour
- Gross Income earned per day as a couple for the entire length of the engagement: $ 227 People will have varying opinions on this, but we feel because we had to be here and there was very little we could do with our time off that this number is important. Yes, it does include getting paid for hours not worked, but even on those days one of us still had to get up at 4am to check the daily work status phone message. $9.46 an hour
- Campground Savings: This is also a very subjective number. We budget $600 a month for campground fees and you can certainly add that into the overall revenue made. Since all of our work kamping jobs include a free campsite, I consider that a wash. Lee doesn’t consider it at all because we could have boon docked for free somewhere. There is also the fact that this is not a campground we would have ever paid for for more than a couple of nights if we were not required to stay here. So your call whether or not to include it in your analysis as a benefit.
- Other fringe benefits: We received four very nice free dinners at the yard and coffee was provided for free throughout the day. We also received two nice cooler bags as a parting gift.
(We’re in disagreement on this. My position requires a lot less reading. We were there for 39 days, we grossed $ 10,081, which works out to $ 258 per day as a couple. – Lee)
Now that the numbers are complete, let’s talk about our experience. As much as possible I am going to try to keep this summary to the facts as I understand them. If you are more interested in the details and the emotional arc, I encourage you to check out the daily postings starting with First Time at the Beet Harvest – Soft Opening.
- Weather: The temperature, on day shift, was between 35 and 50 degrees. Beets are very fussy crops and cannot be harvested when it is too cold (sustained temps below 32 degrees) or too hot (sustained temps above 70 degrees). We did work in some rain, but generally were sent home once the ground became extremely muddy because the trucks were not able to harvest. We had snow once (were sent home), high winds twice (both times sent home), and never worked long in what I would consider pouring rain. The key to dealing with the weather is the right clothing, and I have provided a recommended shopping list at the end of this post. (Here’s my take: start in the dark, end in the dark, only a few had sun or partial sun, so it was overcast and cold and windy all the time. It’s not hellish weather, but it’s not pleasant, either. – Lee)
- Physical Exertion: Almost everyone at some time or another picks up beets. Many people pick up beets all day long. They vary in size from very small to quite large and I routinely picked up beets weighing 10-15 pounds. There is also a significant amount of walking in many positions (12,000 step days were not uncommon), and a significant amount of scraping. As relatively young, somewhat out of shape people, we were very sore in the beginning, but nothing worse than several days worth of working out would cause (I lost 6.5 pounds and Lee lost 10 pounds). It is also important to note that we were NEVER asked to do something that we physically could not do. To the contrary we saw numerous people who were less physically fit being allowed to adjust the way they worked to accommodate. All that being said, I would not recommend this work to anyone with a chronic medical condition. The combination of weather and physical exertion definitely takes a cumulative toll. (This was a much bigger deal for me. I have a back injury from 2004 that makes repeated bending over pretty painful, and all of the beets that need to be picked up are on the ground. One of the reasons I specifically wanted to be an operator was to avoid being in that position. After spending the season watching people do it, and having picked up some myself, there’s no way I could have done what they did, not even for a half day. – Lee)
- Work Pace: Overall we processed an estimated 4500 trucks through our piler. (For numbers junkies, a “regular” dump truck, like the green one on the left in the picture below, holds about 35,000 pounds (17.5 tons) of beets, and a long truck, like the one on the right, holds about 65,000 (32.5 tons) of beets. We think the distribution of trucks is about half and half, and when I was counting them, we were doing about 200 trucks on a full day. So our very rough estimate is 5000 tons a day, for a total of about 113,000 tons of beets on our Pilers during the entire season. – Lee) For most of the day, this involved processing a truck every 3-5 minutes. We routinely had lines of 5 or more trucks waiting to dump and had very few periods where there were no trucks at all. Our Piler was shut down for maintenance around 7 hours total for the 21 work days, but other Pilers were down significantly longer, which gave other teams additional breaks. No one ever said work faster or harder, but a supervisor would generally appear whenever there was a slow down caused our line to get longer than usual. Also, the truck drivers just sitting in line waiting (sometimes up to an hour) brought some pressure to work faster. If you are the type of person who can work at their own pace regardless of outside factors, this will be a non issue for you. If, however, you respond to perceived need with an increase in pace, the constant line of trucks can be difficult. My best description of most days we worked (based on my having the latter personality type) was that the pace was often relentless. Update: 2016 broke records for pounds of sugar beets harvested. (Those numbers above might be hard to wrap your brain around. They’re just numbers, after all. Here’s a better way to explain it. The picture below shows the piler yard from Google Earth, empty. Well, not completely empty. Let me orient you; the pilers are lined up on the right hand side, where they were at the beginning. And luckily, one of the pilers, #3, shows the very beginning of a pile. The sugar shack is the little white building on the left near the top. The little black dots are the light posts arranged in rows between the pile lanes. That’s also where the power connections are for the pilers. For scale, the little dots at the sugar shack are cars, and the thing below the 4th piler from the top is a long truck. Tractor plus 53′ trailer. The entire piling yard, from the edge of that small pile on the right, to the sugar shack on the left, is half a mile. – Lee)
Here’s a picture of the pilers all lined up, rotated 90 degrees counter clockwise from the original. Again, that thing on the right of piler 4 is a tractor trailer.
And here’s a close up of the pile being started.This is what it looks like before the piler is moved back three feet for the first time.
This is a picture of the piler yard taken with my drone the day after the last day of work. It’s rotated 90 degrees counter clockwise, so the sugar shack is at the bottom of the image, although you can’t see it, and you can see a long truck in the lower right. At this point, the second pile from the left is as far as it can go. Any farther back and the trucks couldn’t make the turn to get onto the ramps. And as you can see, pile 2 is a pretty good looking pile. I don’t count the top, because it had been groomed, but it’s relatively straight and consistent width. The “dimple” at the halfway point is something that happened overnight, no clue what happened there. As far as consistency goes, I think 1 is the best, but it’s also much narrower, they could only accept small trucks. 6 is also narrow. I think we did a great job on 2, and this picture doesn’t show that they took beets away several times to make more room. Then we spent a few days on 6 and then 3 days on 3.
But anyway, the point of all these pictures is to illustrate, just on pile 2 alone, what 113,000 tons of beets looks like.
- Quality of Work: Again this is completely subjective, but overall I enjoyed the work. I was never bored and actually found many aspects of it quite challenging. I have never worked in a “blue collar” position before and frankly had no idea how much thinking goes into this type of work. Yes, there is repetition of process steps, but the unique nature of the trucks, drivers, team members, and pilers themselves causes enough variation that you really need to be able to think on your feet. More importantly, unlike a pink or white collar job, a mistake here could cause serious injury or death, so the work needed to be taken very seriously.
- Safety: The company we worked for, the managers, and fellow employees took safety very seriously. The only time I had serious concerns about my safety were after I witnessed a truck turn over. That incident (where thankfully no one was hurt) really impressed on me how important it was to be safety conscious at all times. Safety gear (hard hat, safety vest, ear protection, and eye protection) was provided by the company and I wore it at all times.
For those who are thinking about giving the harvest a try, here is my recommended shopping list. These items should be purchased in advance as they may be costly or difficult to find locally. Many of these items can be sourced at thrift stores, but others may have to be purchased new. I have listed them in what I feel is their order of importance.
- A very warm winter coat one size bigger than you normally wear to accommodate for the extra layers (I typically wore a T-shirt, long john top, flannel shirt, heavy fleece jacket, and top coat, and was cold all the time. – Lee)
- Head scarf/Face protection. This can be multiple articles of clothing as the temperature does vary throughout the day. Even on the “warmer days” I often wore face protection though to protect against the wind. (They provided at no charge very nice balaclavas. – Lee)
- Brightly colored, waterproof, winter gloves (2 pair). Gloves are provided, but they were not waterproof and not warm enough for me on most days. The gloves should be a bright color because almost everyone directs truck drivers and they have a hard time seeing black gloves, especially early in the morning. (I wore two pairs of gloves all the time, and had two backup pairs in case they got wet. – Lee)
- Thick rain coat and rain pants. The cheap poncho versions ripped almost immediately, and although you may not have many rain days, you will thank me on the days it does rain.
- All weather boots, calf high AND lighter weight work shoes (waterproof hiking boots work). I absolutely recommend having two pairs of shoes so you can switch back and forth. They should both have Gel Insoles. (I took two pairs each day, thick heavy work boots for the morning and evening, which were warm, and regular hiking boots for during the day. Being on your feet for 12 hours, it really helps if you can change shoes a few times a day. – Lee)
- 8 pairs of calf high socks. I wore mine doubled under the higher boots to help protect my calves from friction. I wore thicker socks with my hiking boots
- 3 sets of long johns. I had one lighter weight set and two heavier sets and the cold necessitated wearing them every day except one.
- 4 flannel shirts (I preferred the men’s version since they had more pockets) and the heavier the material the better
- 4 tshirts. Several days it got warm enough to only have a T-Shirt on mid-day and that shirt will get dirty. You can either use old shirts you have or buy some cheap ones.
- A big bottle of Advil. I took two – six of these a day and it made a huge difference.
- Moisturizer/sun screen/lip balm. Even if you have never used it in your life, buy moisturizer. The wind and cold take a toll on the parts of your face that are exposed and moisturizer made all the difference. If you don’t have a brand you use, I absolutely recommend Celestial by Lush. It worked great for me.
- Roll on Icy Hot was a godsend.
- Heating Pad. I used first thing in the morning and in the evenings to help with sore spots.
- Thermos for hot soups for lunches.
So now we enter the completely subjective part of this blog post. I am sure the big question on everyone’s mind is “Would you do it again?”. My answer is a qualified yes. I liked the people and the work enough that I would return. I felt the compensation was fair and can even live with the fact that every single season would be a different experience. For me the major issue is the quality of life during this time period. For 39 days we had almost no life outside of this job. During the 15 straight work days in particular our life consisted of work, sleep, and approximately 3 hours of “free time” in which to accomplish everything else. For the people who only work a few months a year to supplement their income this may not be such a big deal, but because we work most of the year, quality of life outside of work matters. I gave up a well paying corporate job because I had “no life” outside of work and signing up for that again, even for a relatively short period of time, is a challenge for me. (I loved the work, but really didn’t like the fact that in the last couple of days we got moved from “our” piler and put on two others. I think if someone asked me to do it again, I would say it would be dependent on working the same piler for the entire time. The rest of it I could manage. – Lee)
(Here are some additional things I wanted to include that should be considered. – Lee)
Things we didn’t really expect: very little time left after work and a decent amount of sleep, no time to make real meals or keep the house clean. Work, eat, sleep, laundry is all we did for 16 straight days.
Mail and other errands (oil change, banking, groceries) can be tricky with a 6-6 schedule.
Here are some nice things we didn’t expect: free coffee for the breaks, being able to park right at the piler, the porta johns were pretty close, and kept very clean, no micro managing, we could smoke any time and anywhere we wanted, the camp ground manager was VERY nice and helpful with getting our mail at 7pm or later. Surprise breaks, some of them pretty long, when the piler needed to be worked on. The work is not as brutal as we thought it would be, but a 12 hour day is still a 12 hour day. And a string of 7 or more of those takes a toll.
Pizza hut and McDonalds right next door to our campground, although the McDonald’s didn’t open until 6am, so that didn’t help us with breakfast, which is probably a good thing, or we would have gotten breakfast every day.
Unbelievably friendly people in Sidney, MT.
Really affordable speeding tickets, if you have to get one. – Lee
So that’s our summary. We may feel differently after some time passes, but felt it was important to capture our thoughts as close to the assignment ending as possible. For now, I’ll leave you with some pictures that I couldn’t get a chance to put into other blog posts.
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