First Time at the Beet Harvest -Waiting

Thursday, September 22, 2016

We were scheduled for an orientation at the piler site at 9am on Thursday and we were both eager to get more information on what we were going to be doing, and possibly more importantly, when we would be doing it.  The shifts are 6-6, and we knew as new people there was a good chance we would be on the night shift.  We did get to put our preference for days on our paperwork during our meeting Tuesday so we were holding out some hope for day shift, but also wanted the time to adjust to nights before actually starting work.  

So we got up, got dressed, and sat and waited until 8:20am when we wanted to leave.  We were told the job site was around 20 minutes away across the MT-ND border, but we wanted extra time just in case.  It ended up taking us about 30 minutes and we really weren’t sure we were at the right job site because no one was there, and there was no signage.  We decided to call the phone number we were given, and yes, there was a message saying it was too wet to have the training and it was moved to Monday.  Now just to be clear, we were specifically told we needed to call the hotline number every day to see if the job site was open, and shame on us for not doing that.  It just never occurred to either of us that that would apply to training.  (As a side note,  I  found a voice mail on my phone from our coordinators Steve and Karen stating orientation would be moved.  It was nice that they called, I just totally missed it.)

It makes sense though.  The piler site we will be working, Sugar Valley, is just a huge field and has 6 pilers on it, and a couple of very small check-in buildings.  Otherwise it was a large field of dirt, well mud because of the rain.  We also felt OK about our trial run driving there. It’s mostly 2 lane county road, with a speed limit of 65, but at the very end, right before the piler site is a little town with quite a few traffic lights and a speed limit of 25. That adds almost ten minutes to the drive. But, we got a feel about how long it would take to get out the door and to the job site, but needless to say we were not thrilled about waiting another 4 days to find out what our jobs would be, and what shift we would be working. We also would lose any opportunity to adjust our sleep patterns ahead of time if we were on nights.  It also occurred to us that this was what we had read folks complaining about.  Once we officially start we will be compensated 4 hours per day straight time when called off, but the time lost prior to the job start was on us.  Mostly I am fine with it, but I did leave Alaska a little early to get here on time and theoretically I could have stayed there and made money these days I am waiting.  Again, I’m not completely upset about it because at least we have a free place to stay, but the time lost should definitely be taken into consideration.  We will see how that plays out over time.  

I decided to take the time and run a couple of errands.  I got a really great haircut and eyebrow wax at Planet Hair and Salon on Main St and then went to the Good Cents consignment store and got 4 flannel shirts.  They didn’t have a great selection in clothes in my size, but they did have some boots there.  (Everything we’ve heard is that our clothes will get completely destroyed working at the piler site, so we’re trying to pick up a little here and there that we can just throw out when we’re done.) Not that I needed them, but thought it was worth mentioning and the people in both the hair salon and consignment shop were super nice.  I was worried folks would have an edge because we were just there for the harvest, but even when they found out they were super nice.  Carol, who cut my hair, said her husband usually worked in the oil fields but he loved taking a break from that and driving for the beet harvest.  It was a good break from what he normally did.  I also hit the motherlode  in used cookbooks at the consignment shop and went a little crazy.  I have been seeing the same stuff over and over, but this store had two shelves full of titles I had never seen, and many of my favorites which are locally produced fundraiser cookbooks.  I was super excited and the ladies that worked there got a kick out of it.  The rest of the day we just watched TV and did other domestic stuff. -Tracy

Friday, September 23, 2016

Justin and Trisha stopped by last night and invited us to a group potluck here at the campground.  They are a very nice couple in their 30’s and this is their third year doing the beet harvest.  We particularly wanted to meet them because they worked at Amazon with our friends Bill and Kelly and actually worked at the same campground in Alaska as B/K last year.  Sometimes it’s a small community.  Trisha said they keep coming back to the beet harvest because “they love it” which was really good to hear and this year they are working nights for the first time because Justin was selected to be a foreman.  Unfortunately they are at a different job site than us, but it was nice getting to meet them.  I guess you really bond with the small group that works your shift and specific piler and I am really looking forward to that.  I asked for any advice and was told wear layers  (Trisha said on some days she went from warm coat to T-Shirt in the course of a day) and they also talked about how they took a crockpot to the their piler and the group had hot food throughout the day.  I also heard at the hair dresser yesterday that day shift in Sugar Valley has a food truck with a different home cooked meal every day and for $10 you can get a complete meal that’s really good. Not that we would want to spend that money everyday, but it’s nice to know there are options.  Twelve hours is a long time and a little hot food would probably go a  long way.  They stated their first year they waited 5 days and then worked 21 days straight and last year they got called off almost every third day for rain.  Since the fields are a muddy mess when it rains, Trisha said we wouldn’t want to work in it anyways.

My body seems to be settling back into eastern time.  I woke up yesterday at 3am MT and this morning at 4am MT.  That bodes well if we get on days, but is going to be a complete pain to adjust if we get on nights.  It’s also been raining on and off for the last couple of days and we are starting to get a little pool in the campground in front of our rig.  So far it is sloped below us, but we are keeping an eye on it. Since Lee can’t work on the RV outside, he’s getting a little stir crazy, but today he’s got some errands to run that will take him out of the rig.  As I have mentioned before it’s a small space when you are “cooped up” together and that, coupled with some low level anxiety about what the job will be like, is making us extra cautious to be nice to each other.  Today I am going to work some more on Photoshop training so I can make some more progress on my recipe book. Oh and on a side note, we received our first package from the post office and they wouldn’t drop it off at the campground.  We got a slip in our box and had to go to the post office and pick the package up. I went and talked to Kim the campground manager about it and she said she would come down in the evening if we got a slip and we could sign it and she would pick up the package for us which was really nice.  Oh and the high school football stadium was close by and the place was rocking on Friday night. We could hear the band playing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from our site which was kind of fun. If it wasn’t raining I might have gone to see the game, but not worth getting wet for. -Tracy

Saturday, September 24, 2016

This is a lot of time to kill and with the constant rain not much to do.  Our spot has pretty poor drainage and we are practically surrounded by water at this point.  I need to use my new boots to take the trash out (they work great), but other than that we are just staying inside.  This is the most unusual gathering of RVers I have ever experienced.  Get a bunch of full timers together and it usually is very social, but as far as I can tell not here.  There are no campfire rings, for one thing, and certainly the rain isn’t helping, but the vibe is really that of a work camp versus a campground. From what I can gather you really only see the people you work directly with once this gets started, so folks don’t take the time to get too friendly. It’s very different than Amazon for example, where people in the campground really bonded together.  That’s not a bad thing in our case, because honestly I am not feeling very social.  Normally, I would be running around gathering information but in this case I really don’t want to know.  Without knowing my shift and specific job all I can learn is how to withstand the elements, and I don’t really think anyone can teach me that.  I’m either going to be able to handle it or I wont. On the plus side it is not nearly as cold as I thought it would be.  When the wind isn’t blowing it’s actually very pleasant and I think I could stand outside in this.  The problem of course is it won’t always be like that and add in the extra factors of 12 hours on your feet (which I haven’t done since I was in my early 20’s) and possibly night shift (which I haven’t worked since I was 30) and it’s all a little nerve wracking.  So thinking about all that doesn’t make the waiting easier, and mainly we are just trying to push it aside and get through the day without running out and spending a lot of money. For those who have had children it’s not unlike the ninth month of your first pregnancy.  You know labor is coming, and you know it’s not going to be pretty, but you are committed so you are just waiting it out.

We have passed the time by errands, computer stuff, and binge watching Walking Dead from episode one. One good thing about Walking Dead is it helps put things in perspective.  Feeling a little sorry for yourself, watch a show about the zombie apocalypse to realize it could always be worse. Plus I can half pay attention and go through my new recipe books at the same time.    I am also excited about the potluck, not only to meet some people, but also to try out new recipes for the Potluck section of the cookbook I am working on.  One of the things that is slowing me down a little is the need to buy the ingredients for some of these recipes.  I can absorb them into the regular budget if I try a few a week, but every meal can’t be something new.  Well, it could be, as wonderful as Lee is about being my taste tester, but sometimes you just want to eat something tried and true.  Anyways, the potluck gives me an excuse to both try new things and cook in scale.  Potluck recipes need to readily scale up or down and with a smaller oven and limited pans that’s not always possible in an RV. Anyways, it’s harder to fill the time than I thought it would be, mainly because of the rain and desire to not spend money.  We could shop or eat out of course, but sitting here not making money and then on top of that spending additional money seems like a losing proposition.  Our default free things to do just aren’t available because of the conditions and location. As Lee would say we are doing a whole lot of nothing, which isn’t our favorite thing under the best of circumstances.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

It rained from 8am – 2am yesterday.  And not just rain, but lots of wind, so we couldn’t even keep the awning out.  As smokers we do have to go outside occasionally, and it was wholly unpleasant.  I did try a couple of new recipes, but neither really made the cut and the whole day just dragged on. This morning though the skies were completely clear and for the first time in days we could see the sun.  The wind was blowing and cold, but the forecast called for 65 degrees.  So instead of going to the potluck we are getting out and visiting the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  I really want to attend the potluck and meet some other people, but we just can’t pass up the opportunity to get out of here for awhile.

That decision for me is very different than one I would have made in the past,  but in my current state of mind it it was an easy decision.  The forecast calls for at least 10 days of clear weather, so once we start working we won’t be stopping anytime soon.  Nature helps ground me and reminds me of why we are doing this, so an infusion of that prior to starting something very hard is always a good thing.

We know we may not start tomorrow.  It is unclear if the field will be dry enough and for some reason lyrics from a Garth Brooks song “American Honky Tonk Bar Association”  keep going through my head.  “If your paycheck depends on the weather or the clock.” the song says, and although I have certainly punched a clock in my life I have never had a job where my paycheck depended on the weather.  It truly is a whole different mindset and one we are getting a little taste of.  The stakes are much higher for the farmers of course.  The beet harvest is a $5 Billion (yes billion with a B) industry and what most of these farmers live on for the whole year.  So as hard as this is for us, they have much more at stake.  Of course they also have much more experience dealing with the variability of Mother Nature than we do. Objectively, it’s interesting.  Subjectively, it’s pretty darn annoying.


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First Time Working the Beet Harvest – Orientation

Monday, September 19,2016

By design we arrived at the Bagnell RV Park  very early, because we wanted to be able to change our spot if it was a first come, first serve situation.  We lost an hour to time zone crossing the border and now we’re settled into Mountain Time for the duration.  The campground is pretty small and being an “in town” RV park, it’s hemmed in on all sides by roads and businesses.  Our site did have 50 amp (a big concern for us while the furnace is broken) and also backs up to a road.  It definitely has a trailer park feel with many permanent units people are living in and a general rundown appearance.  Honestly it didn’t bother me because I had pretty low expectations, but the folks a couple of spots down in a very high end Class A seemed a little agitated.  We are supposed to have cable (currently not working although I was told a repair man would be coming today and he showed up less than an hour later and now we have 50 channels), supposed to have WiFi (we can’t get it to connect, but that may be on our end), and we have a lovely view of the giant trash cans across from us. Seriously though, we are here to work and sleep, so the only things that concerned me were a neighbor with a permanent structure and a barking dog, and the road noise. There are rumble strips on the road very near us and since people refuse to slow down that noise will probably be a permanent fixture and anything that interferes with sleep will probably be a big deal.  On the plus side, there is both a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut within walking distance, and there is a very nice full size grocery store in town.  We also have 4 bars of ATT 4G.    The camp host (associated with the beet harvest operation) was very nice and was slightly apologetic, but again, we weren’t expecting much, so I went out of my way to thank her for her help.  It’s not her fault.  We were thrilled the RV park has mailboxes and accepts packages, so with a $25 refundable deposit we got a box and a key. Folks have been wanting to send us stuff for a while, and I have a couple birthday presents coming my way!  Our information packet says we have a paperwork meeting at a nearby hotel tomorrow at 1pm. So that’s what we will do, and get some information about what shift we will be working, and what our jobs will be. Our next door neighbor Juan is really nice and he has done the beet harvest four previous seasons, so that is encouraging.  He says we will have fun.  I hope so.  – Tracy

Lots of beet fields

Lots of beet fields

The campground

The campground

Our front view

Our front view

Our back view. Despite the rumble strips cars go flying down this road right outside our windows

Our back view. Despite the rumble strips cars go flying down this road right outside our windows

After getting set up we took a little tour of the town to try and acclimate ourselves.  It didn’t take long.  It’s a typical small town farming community, and it’s also the county seat, so it did have a Main street and a couple of other business areas.  We stopped in a store called Shopko Hometown  (which is like a mini Kmart) and found my Corelle dishes pattern on sale for 40% off!!! We originally only bought 6 of everything and occasionally when we have larger dinners I don’t have enough plates.  Plus, they had a serving platter in the pattern which I had never seen.  Score!!  We also decided to go ahead and buy a new Igloo ice machine.  Ours has not been working well for awhile (we have owned it three years) and they had one on clearance for $139 which was actually cheaper than what we had seen online. We found the bank, grocery store, a Mexican restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, hardware store, car parts store, and they even have a local Ford dealership which is great, because we need another oil change. We went into the car parts store and bought some cheap seat covers for $24.99.  Everyone says you get very dirty doing this job, so no point in messing up our upholstery.  We also stopped at M3 Meats.  We love local butchers, but this was more of a processing center and they don’t have a storefront.  The clerk came from Alaska though, and when she found out we had just come from there she went in and checked their freezer.  We bought some great looking local Montana ribeye for $12.99 a pound.  Can’t wait to try it out.  Just to be clear, this isn’t really a butcher shop, but they do sell meat if they have it, and are planning to expand and add a small storefront in the next couple of months. I really liked the whole vibe of the town.  Everyone we met was very friendly and it had the small town feel of where I grew up.  – Tracy

The residential streets are nice

The residential streets are nice

Our temporary seat covers

Our temporary seat covers

Picked up 4 of these beauties. Hope they taste as good as they look

Picked up 4 of these beauties. Hope they taste as good as they look

The nice strip mall in town

The nice strip mall in town.  The main street is a little rundown

My new ice machine

My new ice machine

And the serving platter I have been looking for forever!!

And the serving platter I have been looking for forever!!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Well the first night sleeping with the road noise was ok.  With fans on, I only heard a truck once, but again this was at night the road was much busier during the day.  This probably wasn’t an issue for most folks because their bedrooms are in the front, but ours is in the back so keeping an eye on it.  It may turn out to be a complete non-issue because we will be so tired, and otherwise I like our site because it is wide, so for right now we are going to stay where we are.  Will see what happens.

Our orientation was at 1pm at the hotel next door.  They had rented two small rooms and one had chairs and a TV and the other a couple of desks.  The room was full with 17 people and they walked us through filling out the paperwork.  It was pretty extensive and afterwards we went into the other room 4 at a time and presentation our ID’s for more paperwork. Then we watched a training video and walked through a short quiz.  We were told we would be paid at the end of the harvest for a two hour orientation but it ended up taking 3 hours.  Not sure if the pay will be adjusted or not.  We also found out that the lowest level helper this year would be making a base rate of $13.35 (32 cents more than last year) and for other jobs the base rate was $14.27 or higher.  Unfortunately we were still not told what our jobs or shift would be, but we were told that our site would be Sugar Valley. We were allowed to request day or night shift and we were told our foreman would take our preference and our job preference into account.  Whether or not that is the case, we will see.  I know the folks who come back for a second year all get to pick their jobs, shifts, and locations and I would imagine we will all take what is left.

What surprised me the most was the age range of the people in the room.  Over half were in their 20’s or early 30’s and the oldest of the rest of us was what looked to be a pretty healthy 70.  The kids were fun.  Some had RV’s but most lived in worker housing (bunk style trailers) provided by the harvest. Most of the people here knew someone well who had done this before, so we heard some secondhand information, but until it’s all official I am not sure I trust it.  We did find out that our trucks would be parked close to the sites and we could bring food, extra clothing, etc and it would be accessible to us during the shift.  Overall for me it was fine.  It did run a little long, but it was a large group and I actually thought the safety video was pretty good, from a content standpoint at least.  Looking forward to getting to the training on Thursday and seeing how that goes. Oh and I know I am saying we will see how it goes lot, but honestly there isn’t much point in speculating.  In my mind at least we have done as much as we can to prepare getting all worked up isn’t going to help.  – Tracy

Wednesday, September 21, 2016  

We had nothing scheduled for today and briefly talked about visiting the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is an hour away, but it was both cold and rainy.  Instead we both worked on housekeeping items that had built up.  I did spend several hours on learning Adobe photo shop for my recipe book and Lee spent some time on the phone with the nonprofit he used to work for, helping them with their annual report.  We didn’t mind the extra downtime at all, but I can see why some folks might be annoyed with the downtime.  Since we have a free place to stay and things to get done, it is fine by us.  It actually have been hard to come straight from Alaska and jump right in, so we are grateful for at least the first couple of days.  Tomorrow we have training at 9am and hopefully will find out our shift.


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