Beet Harvest Work Kamping Overview

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! If you would like to read the details of our experience you can start at this post.

# 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) 

    We did see some amazing sunsets

    We did see some amazing sunsets

  • 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) 

    A small beet and a big beet next to each other with a can for scale

    A very small beet and a very large beet next to each other with a can for scale

  • 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. Pretty common line of trucks(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)piler-yard

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. 

pilers-aerial

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.

piler-aerial

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. 

DCIM101MEDIADJI_0002.JPG

  • 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. img_3293

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.

Piler 2 ...our favorite

Piler 2 …our favorite

Lee's labeling system for the control panel

Lee’s labeling system for the control panel

Me laying down for a minute while a loooong truck unloaded. IT was more comfortable than it looks

Me laying down for a minute while a loooong truck unloaded. It was more comfortable than it looks

The piler early in the morning

The piler early in the morning, with the full moon in the background

The folks we spent the most time with..Lee, me, Bridget, and Robert

The folks we spent the most time with..Lee, me, Bridget, and Robert. The pile is deceptive. It looks short, but it’s 20 feet tall. The bottom, where we are standing, is about 100 feet closer than the top.

Our favorite message left from night shift

Our favorite message left from night shift

Kissing a red beet for luck

Kissing a rare red beet for luck

Final time card...halleluiah

Final time card…hallelujah.  All the other ones were completely full.  This was a “short” week lol

 


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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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First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 22 through 24

Friday, October 21, 2016

Last night I asked how many straight days we had worked, Lee said “Guess”, and I said 5.  Well it was 8.  Wow.  I gotta say I shouldn’t have asked because I immediately felt tired when I knew the answer.  Our 9th straight day was a tough one.  The good news is the temperature was good, we had some sun and in the high 40’s (which isn’t as cold as it sounds when you’re working and the sun is shining and there’s no wind) and Marie came back “home” to our piler (Marvin went down to #3 and seemed to be enjoying it down there).  We had Marie, Robert, Bridget, Lee, and me, and we were jamming it.  I, however, was definitely the weak link today.  My stomach was bothering me for most of the day and I just didn’t feel well. Piler 4 was still down and then Piler 1 went down for a bulk of time and we were busy! I just was having a tough time, and even thought about asking to go home a couple of times.  I am sure they would have had no issue with it, since the crews from the down piler were available to cover breaks, etc, but since Lee and I were in one car I decided to tough it out. Since everyone on the team was super nice about it, I also felt I could rely on them to pick up the slack, which they absolutely did.  Everyone is going to have their off days, and good teams watch out for each other.   The last three hours were definitely rough though, and towards the very end of the day I was throwing a beet in the hopper, misjudged, and it hit the cross bar and ricocheted back and hit me right below the knee.   Lee and Robert didn’t even notice I was limping around, but the truck driver who pulled in asked me if I was OK and then gave me a Reese Cup, which was very sweet. (The things this woman will do for a Reese cup – Lee)

When we got home we were both exhausted and stopped and got McDonald’s for dinner. Then Lee picked up a package at the office for me from my daughter Kyrston.  As a side note, one of the nicest things about this campground is the manager Kim who will go and pick up packages at the post office for us.  Since we work the entire time the post office is open, we wouldn’t be able to get packages any other way.  Then she will come down to the office and give them to you as late as 8pm, which is really, really nice.  Anyway, Kyrston commissioned a painting Mt. Denali for me as a remembrance of our Alaskan summer.  It was very nice, and I called her and we talked until 7:45pm, then I just had to go to bed. I was exhausted.

Kyrston did say something interesting, though.  She said she heard more excitement in my voice about piling beets than she heard all summer about my camp hosting job in Alaska.  And it’s true, despite the 12 hours days and less than optimal weather conditions, I really like the work itself and the people we are working for and with are fantastic. For the record I would absolutely come back and do this again.  It really surprises the heck out of me, but it’s true.  I like it that much.  I will say though that you need to know going into this that for the days of the harvest you don’t have much of a life outside of work.  We drive an hour each day, work for 12, and sleep for 8 (the couple of times we tried to sleep less we paid for it).  That leaves only 3 hours a day for everything else.  That includes showers and dressing, eating, cleaning up after eating, laundry, EVERYTHING. You find out very quickly what’s really important to you under these conditions, because your free time is so very, very precious.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Took a couple Tylenol PM last night and slept pretty well, then woke up at 3am, so since I promised I am going to talk a little about the bathroom situation at the yard.  If you find talking about this distasteful, I definitely encourage you to skip the next couple of paragraphs, but I do think it is important.  There are no plumbed facilities at the yard.  Down near the sugar shack there are 6 port-a-potties and they are marked women or men.  Between each piler there is also one port-a-pottie that everyone (including truck drivers) uses and that’s what most people use throughout the day.  They are cleaned at least once a day, deodorized very well so the smell is generally fine, and most importantly, they are moved frequently.  It’s genuis really that as we move the pilers back to add more beets, they move the “facilities” to keep pace with us.  All that being said, they are still port-a-johns, and I know some people hate them.  I have a kid who is  “freaked out” by them and hates using them, so I get it.  (She also has a husband who hates them. – Lee) There is no better solution though, considering the work environment, so you just need to know going in that that is the deal.

Good news, you can go to the bathroom frequently.  Anytime there is a long truck with a little ticket (no sample needs to be taken) there is ample time to walk there and back.  Bad news, on cold days, they are COLD!!  More of an issue for women than men, but first thing in the morning in particular this can be a little jarring.  Plus, it is a 12 hour day and unless you can control your poop schedule enough to do that during the 3 hours you are home and awake, that’s probably going to happen as well.  If you are a woman who still has periods, you will need to deal with that.  Sorry about the detail here, but you should think about these things before going in.  None of it is a deal breaker for me, but I never really thought those things through prior to doing this.  One last thing and then no more bathroom talk, I promise.  Absolutely, positively knock prior to entering and make sure it is locked if you are inside.  It’s easy to get a surprise or be surprised if you are not careful about those two things, and I will just leave it at that!! (I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t care if the door is locked, or says vacant, or whatever. I knock first. – Lee) 

OK, sorry about that, but as always I write the blog I wanted to read.  Saturday was on the cold side, but we were doing very well until fate played a hand.  Our piler has broken down the fewest times of any of the pilers, but today was definitely our day for slow downs and shut downs.  First, one of our first trucks of the day burst a hydraulic line and sprayed his entire reservoir of fluid on the ground. At Bill’s direction we got a bobcat to pour several loads of dirt on the fluid to keep the ground from being slippery, which was a good thing.  Then, a driver had one of his air lift bags go out. It was under the cab and I guess for the suspension, but that caused a little delay.  The next fun happening was the hydraulic line for the lift system that lifts up our piler so we can drive it starting spraying fluid.  Lee shut us down immediately and it took awhile for them to replace the hose.  That was a nice little break.  But the really long break happened when a hole developed in our big beet funnel. After the beets go up the main incline conveyor belt, they go through a series of rollers to knock the dirt off, then they drop into a big funnel that then puts them on the boom. A small hole had appeared in the funnel, dropping out the occasional smaller beet. But it kept getting bigger, and bigger, until we were losing about 30% of the beets, and making a whole new unwanted pile of beets under the piler. Eventually the pile got big enough that it stopped the boom from swinging back and forth, which is how it spreads the pile so large. Lee said he was so excited about piling beets he was making two piles.  We were shut down a long time on this one as they had to weld a patch onto the hopper.  Long enough actually that I took a little catnap.  Then I got very lucky because right when we were up and running it was my lunch time, so I got an extended break which was well needed.

Master mechanic fixing the hydraulic hose, This guy is a very busy man

Master mechanic fixing the hydraulic hose, This guy is a very busy man

Tyler checking out the hole in our hoppper

Tyler checking out the repaired hole in our funnel

During these downtimes, Piler 6 started to catch up.  Oh, and did I mention Russell has been down there for the last two days, darn him, and they are really making some progress.  We were told they weren’t going to remove any beets from our pile, just let us go all the way to the end of the field, and we are thinking that will happen sometime tomorrow.  We had no idea at that point if we will be reassigned or let go, but at least we are getting one more overtime weekend in.  They also had a church dinner again with two kinds of chili, lasagna, and some excellent pot roast.  It was a long day, but a good one, except for the wind.  It really kicked up late in the day and was full of grit.  My tactic is to bundle up as if against the cold and minimize the amount of skin that comes into contact with it.  Bearable, but still not all that pleasant.

Best picture I got get of the wind. Doesn't really show how much it's like being in a dust storm

Best picture I got get of the wind. Doesn’t really show how much it’s like being in a dust storm

This water truck seems to help a little, but it's a big yard

This water truck seems to help a little, but it’s a big yard

Sunday, October 23, 2016

It was cold today and everyone was getting tired. Thankfully though there was very little wind so the dust was at a minimum.   Even Robert who seems indefatigable had a rough day. It didn’t help that it was the weekend, and we got lots more little trucks from the smaller farms.  Couple that with the fact that Piler 1 went down numerous times and we were very busy again.  We did find out that as a group we would all be moving down to Piler 6 on Monday.  On the one hand, I was really glad they were keeping the team together, but the thought of learning a whole new machine as tired as we all are is a little daunting.  Luckily Bridget and Marie both worked down there so they can show us the ropes.  Lee went down on his break to check it out and says it is very different and will require a major change in our process.  Not looking forward to that as tired as we all are. Piler 2 is almost to the sugar shack and will only be used as a backup at that point.  There is definitely a cumulative effect to these long days and we are all feeling it. Bill thinks we may go until Friday as we are 75% done, but we will see.  We are also hearing the pace slows down considerably which would be a really good thing.  We could all use a breather from the relentless pace.  We did tell our repeat drivers where we were going and they seemed really bummed.  Got several compliments on what a great team we have been, even from the most crusty drivers, and that was very nice.

Thiis message on the back of the truck tickled Lee. I guess it's a tank thing

Thiis message on the back of the truck tickled Lee. I guess it’s a tank thing

One big, beautiful pile of beets. Farewell Piler 2 you were good to us

One big, beautiful pile of beets. Farewell Piler 2, you were good to us

 


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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.


Camper Chronicles is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, a program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. We very much appreciate any purchase you make via our website links as they support our blog. Thank you.   Search Amazon.com here

First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 17 through 18

Sunday, October 16, 2016

It’s early, 3am, but I am awake and mentally alert now.  I realize what I wrote last night probably didn’t make a ton of sense, but I am going to largely leave it alone because it goes to my mental state at the end of a long day.  One of the big surprises of this job is how mentally demanding it can be.  Well, to be clear it’s minutes of mentally demanding and then minutes of boredom. (Repeat, over and over, 200 times a day. – Lee)  Actually this seems to follow with the size of the trucks.  When we get several large trucks in a row it is more monotonous, because there is less for us to do, because they take more than twice as long to unload.  When we get several smaller trucks, of varying sizes, it is more challenging. You would think I would take advantage of the long trucks and just rest, and certainly sometimes I do, but often when we get to many in a row I start to get restless.  So I like to switch things up and have learned how to back trucks up to the hopper.

When the smaller trucks come through, a person stands on the platform, above the truck, and below the piler operator,  and tells them when to stop once they’ve crossed over the folded down hopper gates, and back up once the hopper gates are raised, and then raise their truck bed to drop the initial load of beets into the hopper. Since the beets tend to come out in a rush, if you do this wrong you can cause an overspill which requires manually picking beets off the ground.  Which involves climbing down from the platform, walking all the way around the hopper, and getting down on the ground to pick up the heavy, muddy beets. This sucks and is to be avoided. So it’s a challenge and a bit of a puzzle to raise the trucks just enough to fill the hopper but not overflow it.  I like puzzles, and I love challenges where you get an instant fail/succeed result, and this totally qualifies.  Most of the time the truckers follow your commands completely, but on occasion they go “rogue” on you and then: beets all over the ground.  It’s definitely mentally challenging and when you start to get tired, more spills occur, which require more physical labor picking up beets, which make you more tired.  So I like to take turns at it, not only to keep myself interested but also to give the primaries a break.

Which leads me to something I have been wanting to discuss which I find interesting.  Day shift is almost exclusively Boomer and Gen-Xers, and the roles we have taken seem to fall along more traditional lines.  The women are generally the helpers on the ground, directing trucks off the hopper and taking tickets, and taking the samples, and backing them up to the dirt return conveyor belt, all of which requires the most walking, but is the least physically demanding job.  The operators who run the machines are almost all men and the folks that back the trucks up into the hopper and cover for the operators on breaks are again men.  The reason I mention this is that the night shift is totally different.  They are almost all Millennials and most of the operators seem to be women.  From my limited vantage point, it seems the women are definitely running the show on night crew which is the complete opposite of what is happening during the day.  To be clear, no one told us what roles we had to take.  Lee was assigned initially as the operator because he raised his hand to volunteer and on day shift, only men volunteered to learn how to be operators. In retrospect I am not sure why I hung back, but I do know that sticking to one role all day, every day is really not in my nature.

Thankfully Marvin and Robert are pretty understanding about it. I am sure at times they aren’t thrilled about taking another role, not everyone likes to switch things up after all, but they are kind enough to switch out with me when I am getting restless.  Overall the day shift truckers seem to be dealing with it pretty well, then again, the ones that didn’t like a woman directing them would just start going to another piler.  As I mentioned, truckers develop favorite pilers and we get lots of repeat “customers”.  Mainly our truckers are on the younger side and we have several women truckers who always come back.  A few of the older guys who used to come through aren’t coming anymore and I know it is a major leap to assume any one reason for that, but these are the things I wonder about in idle moments.  Anyway, the most important thing I wanted to mention is that anyone can do any role, so if you ever do this don’t be afraid of cross training.  It makes the team stronger. and I believe it’s good for most individuals  to keep things fresh.

So, when we went into work Sunday, it was nice and slow in the morning.  I am not sure if it was the sprinkles of rain or the fact folks were in church, but the pace was great.  Marie took advantage of the slow time and was trained on how to back up trucks and dump them into the hopper.  She spent a few times going through it with different types of trucks with Robert and then she was on her own.  She really did great, and it was fun to see her do her happy dance when she dumped some trucks with no spills.  Hey, we all like that.  No spills means no climbing down the ladder and picking up beets which is always a good thing.  It was completely coincidental that she chose today to start and since I wrote the above in the morning I was thrilled to see it.  Now it’s all girl power on our piler and I feel less weird about it!! (As an added bonus, when they’re both up there, I’ve got ALL the chicks. – Lee) Marie is really great, but I am mad at her for one thing.  She has lost 8 pounds since we got here and I have lost ONE!!  Now maybe that’s because truck drivers keep giving us candy and stuff and I keep eating it, but still I think that’s really unfair!!

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Marie bringing in the trucks

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Thumbs up tells them to raise the dump bed. Look at her acting with authority!!

I, on the other hand, spent very little time backing up trucks today because my feet have been really hurting me.  I am in the Merrill’s but it was muddy and the mud just sticks like glue on the bottom and throws off how I walk in them.  I did bring in a small camp stool though, and was using it to prop up my feet.   I also sat on it sometimes, tucked away behind the ladder and away from all trucks, and wow, it really helped!  I was worried that Bill or another supervisor would have a problem with it, but they didn’t care at all.  Thank heavens!

I know I look like a slacker, but this is a 12 hour day on your feet. Gotta take these moments when you can

I know I look like a slacker, but this is a 12 hour day on your feet. Gotta take these moments when you can.

So, we were having a nice day when something really special happened.  As I have mentioned, we get repeat truck drivers who come through and some we see as many as 10 or more times in a 12 hour shift.  Our conversations are very short (I get their ticket and say hi and we may exchange a few words), but I always try to be nice, no matter how I feel, because it’s not their fault it’s cold, or raining, or whatever.  So I went to get this one driver’s ticket and he had a piece of paper in his hand.  He very hesitantly asked if he could take me to dinner, and he was so sweet when he asked.  I immediately said “Oh I am so flattered, but my husband is right there” (pointing at Lee) and the poor man looked crestfallen. It was really sweet though, for a couple of reasons.  I always wear my wedding ring, but for this job I am going ringless so he really thought I was single.  Second, here I am, hard hat, covered in dirt, and looking about as non-sexy as possible and he wanted to go out with me.  I know what you are thinking, truck driver, horn dog, whatever, but it wasn’t like that.  It was truly a genuine moment and he was so shy, it was really nice.  Hey, I just turned 50, and haven’t been asked out on a date in many, many years, so married or not, that’s a nice feeling.  The trucker didn’t come back through our line for the rest of the day and I felt really bad.  Thankfully he did come the next day and I got to tell him I was so glad he came back and I was really flattered. He said, “It’s just really nice to be greeted with a smile when I drive through here.” How awesome is that? (It’s pretty awesome, I think. I told Bill the foreman this story, and his response was “Where are they going for dinner?” Bill is a funny man. So funny, that guy. – Lee)

The rest of the day was fine, still pretty mellow, and then about 5pm we saw some really dark ominous clouds off in the distance.

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We weren’t that worried until I saw lightning, and then I really got kind of scared.  I know of two people who were killed by lightning, and it is no joke.  We are in the middle of a giant field, on a giant metal rig…not good.  I should say here this was never covered during our orientation.  Everyone should know what to do in severe weather situations, but we didn’t. Well, Robert and Lee did, but the rest of us didn’t.  Suddenly, these clouds which were way out in the distance were on top of us with no real warning, and the wind kicked up like a solid, serious midwestern spring storm. It went from totally calm to insane in the blink of an eye.

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The winds were probably in the neighborhood of 60 mph, and a gust blew off Lee’s hardhat, and the boom started swaying. The side of the rig that was getting the wind didn’t have a truck on it, but the other side did, and it was halfway up, so the driver was trying to lower it, and having trouble, and Robert and Marvin were trying to help er, and Lee hit the emergency stop button on the rig. (I was worried that beets might start flying off the belt, which goes up to over 25 feet. That’s some big damn things to be falling one people from 25 feet. In any case, it felt like it was an emergency, and that’s what those big red buttons are for. – Lee) I ran and got the hard hat and immediately got into my car.  Marie quickly followed and got in hers and Marvin was gathering up our personal objects. Lee though stayed on that platform, and seriously looked like a captain going down with his ship. I’ll let him tell you the rest but I will say that although I think it was completely idiotic, I also thought it was kind of sexy! (There’s not really that much more to tell. The operator platform is a good 15 feet off the ground, and the wind was just insane. I kept trying to face the wind to be able to see what was going on, but there was so much dust and debris that I couldn’t. Before it got too bad I looked at the rail yard to the side of the piler yard, and saw some pretty big stuff moving around in the wind, and thought my best bet was to stay put. My first concern was that the only way I could keep the wind from blowing me off the rig was to hold on, and I wasn’t going to chance trying to get down all those slick, steep metal stairs and risk getting blown off and hurt, so I was just trying to stay put and wait it out, and hope that it didn’t get worse, because I was just barely hanging on. But there’s a rubber mat up there that’s about an inch thick and 5 feet square, and if I didn’t stay in the center of it, the wind would lift it up and throw it against me, and if I stood in the center of it, I couldn’t really reach a rail to hang on. It sucked. I would crouch down, and lean back, and as soon as I started to reach for a rail, the wind would start to push me, then the mat would smack me in the back and start acting like a sail, and push me harder, and so I would lean back farther, and I was thinking if this wind dies down a little I’m going to fall over backwards and then just get blown right off. And the whole time, I’m thinking, I’ve got to get to that emergency stop button so I can pull it back out, because Robert was trying to lower the boom to rest on the pile, it was swaying like crazy and could have just snapped off because it’s so long and just held up by metal cables, like a suspension bridge. This was all about three minutes. And then, because all that wind didn’t suck enough, it started to hail. I’m looking at my lovely wife, safe and sound in truck, with my hard hat, and I am just getting pelted in the back of the head with one inch hail. It was awesome. And then the drenching rain. And I start thinking, “Hey, tornadoes come after heavy wind and hail and sideways rain,don’t they???” I finally managed to get to the button, and pulled it out, and Robert got the boom down, and then *poof*, it was over. The sun came out, and we got a nice big double rainbow we could see from start to end.- Lee)

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The agriculturist was zipping around from piler to piler to make sure everyone was OK, and letting us know that they were shutting down the yard for the day. Primarily because everyone had scattered to their vehicles, and it was very close to the end of the shift, and the yard was pretty slick now. Although we didn’t get a ton of actual rain because it was over so fast, other areas in the vicinity got more, and that makes it hard for the harvesters to dig up the beets. It was only 45 minutes early, but I was thrilled to have the extra time.  I am starting to feel bad for the agriculturist though.  She certainly has had her share of weird happenings.  Shutting the yard for a freak storm at 5pm is definitely not the norm, although again, I will say there really should be a protocol in place for this sort of thing, so that everyone knows what to do. Not everyone comes from place where they get weather like this, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to talk about the possibility, because it can clearly happen.

  Monday, October 17, 2016

When we came in Monday morning everything was exactly the way we left it. I was somewhat surprised that the night shift wasn’t brought in, as there was no more rain or storms that evening, but I get there are other factors at work.  The ground was very muddy, and things were complicated by the fact that the piler and the grounds did not get their normal nightly cleaning and scraping.  Let me take some time to explain this because it is a huge deal to me personally.  As the day wears on and the boom swings back and forth dropping the beets into the pile, we stop every once in a while and move the piler back about three feet, and then continue. It happens about 8 time a day. Lee lifts the hopper gates, we back up about 3 feet and then keep going.  The problem with the backing up is the detritus from the machine along the sides starts working it’s way towards the stairs and the front of the piler is full of beets that have flown out of the hopper or boom during their trip on the conveyor. Depending on the amount of mud coming from the beets as they travel, this material can be calf high on me, and if it isn’t cleaned up, I am walking through it to get to the other side to take samples.  If we allow loose beets from trucks to lay on the side, it is even worse as it is mud, pieces of beets, and large loose beets.   The loose beets are a major trip hazard and that’s why, despite the extra physical effort, we work so hard to manually throw them into the piler.  If every truck loses 2-3 beets for example and we do 22 trucks an hour then eventually when we have moved back far enough we are dealing with 50 plus beets in our walkway.  Not good.

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Muck along the piler

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With some extra truck beets thrown in for good measure. We pick these up but not everyone does

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This is the side I have to walk through to get the drivers tickets

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The pile starts to creep towards the stairs

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It’s hard to see but in places it is past ankle high

Although we can pick up the loose beets, I cannot pick up the other material and we need a bobcat for that.  And unfortunately one of the three  bobcats seems to constantly be out for service, or being used for something else. Seriously, as soon as one is fixed another goes down, and so there are only two, for six pilers.  Of the two, one is used almost exclusively by the ventilation team (although my buddy Russell who works on that team will occasionally sneak in a quick clean for me when he has a little down time, because he is the MAN!) and the other one is used for cleanup, and to haul sample beet bags back to the shack.  It’s darn near impossible for those guys to clean up and although it’s not their fault, this is probably my major complaint (except the bad weather days) about the job.  This job is hard enough, but adding slippery work conditions makes it so much less pleasant.  It’s not just the safety issues though, I am just so much less efficient.  In a pinch I can run the helper job for both sides of the piler.  This requires moving quickly from one side of the right to the other over and over, and can be done for stretches of time IF the ground is clean.  Add mud and mess to the mix and I just can’t do it, and Monday was the worst of both.

Huge pile of beets at the end. I sometimes walkthrough here if the ventilators are working as you can see. Very tight spaces

Huge pile of beets at the end. I sometimes walk through here if the ventilator team is working, as you can see. Very tight spaces and way worse with lots of beets on the ground

 

Russell sneaking in a clean for me. The coordination is tough because we have to stop trucks for a couple of minutes for him to do this

Russell sneaking in a clean for me. The coordination is tough because we have to stop the  trucks, at least on one side, for a couple of minutes for him to do this, but you can see the before and after makes a huge difference.

I did the best I could under the circumstances, and then around 9am Bill came and said he were shutting out piler down, to move it way back, basically the length of the rig itself, so they could bring in the bobcat team and the full size front loader to completely clean the “grounds” which is what they call the working area under and around the piler. This is what they normally do at night. I cannot even tell you how happy this made me.  The ground was still a little muddy and sticky, but so clean, and it stayed that way for several hours!!  Hooray! (I haven’t seen her so happy in a long time. She was jumping up and down like a little kid and clapping here hands. Clearly she cares about this. – Lee) Look, I know it’s a busy place, and the nature of the work is that a mess is created, so no way it will be clean all the time, but I will say again that having it somewhat clean makes the whole experience so much better.  Happier, safer, and more efficient helpers is a really good thing.  So I hope it continues to be a priority.

Lee moving back the piler

Lee moving back the piler

We had to bobcats and the big machine. How cool

We had two bobcats and the big machine. How cool

See how far back we are from the beet pile

See how far back we are from the beet pile

Major, major difference

Major, major difference

Pretty on both sides

Pretty on both sides

I am super happy

I am super happy

Lee's hat says it all!!

Lee’s hat says it all!! (We’re supposed to have our names on our hats, but I don’t do that, because I don’t do that. Instead I put….other things on my hat. It’s fun to see who knows my name and never even sees what’s on their, and who doesn’t, and looks up there and then laughs. But I put the really good stuff on the back of the hat. – Lee)

 



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First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 12 through 14

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

I woke up at 5:30am…luxury!!  They are reassessing because of snow and wow, that extra couple of hours was needed.  I sort of keep talking about this, but let me give you an idea of our schedule in the morning.

  • Get up 4am (I get up at 4am. Tracy does not. Then I call the hotline to see if there’s any news, but even though it’s supposed to be updated at 4am, it never is. I have to keep calling every five minutes waiting for the update. – Lee)
  • Take 15 minutes or so to wake up (Facebook, emails etc) (I have no idea what she’s talking about. I drink coffee, smoke, and read internet. I’m almost caught up. – Lee)
  • (Wake Tracy up at 4:30am. This is not a fun thing to do, and is not recommended for amateurs, or those without appropriate personal protection equipment. If there is any delay or we aren’t working at all, I don’t wake her up. – Lee)
  • Lee showers while I write a little in the blog about the morning and eat breakfast (toast and pre-cooked bacon for me.  Occasionally Lee will have oatmeal)
  • Lee dresses while I shower (rinse off, I don’t wash my hair)
  • I dress while Lee starts to pack his lunch  (since we are doing soups quite a bit we need to pre-heat the thermoses (thermi?) with hot water before heating the soup and putting it in.
  • I pack my lunch.  Generally at this point we have an extra 15 minutes and we complete some small household task like dishes, sweep the floor, something small and quick.
  • 5:15am we leave for the pile yard
  • 5:40am we arrive at yard, Lee clocks us in (we do get paid for up to 15 minutes prior to the shift fyi)
  • 5:45am arrive at our piler, take over for night shift, quick clean up of area, check equipment)
  • 5:55 am usually taking our first truck, if it’s slow may be a bit later.  If the night shift has our piler open might be a bit sooner.

This morning was a weird one however, because Lee let me sleep in as we were delayed for reassessing until 6am.  Normally when this happens, it’s a 2 or 4 hour delay, but today when he called at 6 the message said be there at 7am and that put us in a bit of a rush.  In the past we have had 2 hours to get there, but not this morning.  I am proud to say we got out the door by 6:15 am, but not so proud to say I forgot my pants.  Oh yes, it’s true, we pulled out and I laid my hands on my legs only to discover I had long johns on, but no jeans.  So back we went and I threw on some pants.  Truly it was hysterical, but that gives you an idea of of how harried I was.  Robert made it in time as well, so we started the piler with just the three of us, but Marvin and Marie didn’t make it until 7:30.  They have a dog and since the last thing they do is walk the dog before leaving since the campground hosts only walk the dogs one time per 12 hour, it made perfect sense. Almost everyone with a dog took longer, and truly they need to give us 1-1/2 hours notice.  It’s a 20-30 minute drive and we are supposed to clock in and be at our piler by 7am ( we try for a little earlier) so really they gave us 15-20 minutes.  It was OK though because both Kathryn and Bill apologized profusely and we know they are trying their hardest.

It started snowing almost immediately and by 7:30am it was really coming down.  It was pretty, big fat flakes, like I had in my childhood in Ohio and for a little while it was actually kind of fun.  The truck drivers were super careful and sweet about it and one of our favorites even through a tiny snowball at Marie.  But after about an hour, not so fun anymore.  Everything was super wet and cold and the slippery conditions were making it dangerous.  Luckily, Kathryn called it right away and as soon as the yard was clear we all got to go..roughly at 9:30am.  They are paying us for 6 hours, which is a pretty good deal, and we got out before it was too bad.  I will say though that if you decided to do this, waterproof gloves are mandatory (mine aren’t) and snow pants are highly recommended. (Even if it isn’t raining or snowing, the beets are damp all the time, so waterproof gloves or glove liners are a really good idea. – Lee)

The snow started

The snow started.  Big truck on the right and standard truck on the left by the way

Big fat flakes

Big fat, wet flakes.  I am on the right hand side under the stairs in a tiny snow free zone

What it looked like by the time we left

What it looked like by the time we left

When we came home, we took one look at the house and got to cleaning.  Since we both worked on it, it only took 1-1/2 hours to finish and we both felt better to have a clean environment.  Plus we get to hang out today, watch movies, catch up on laundry, and rest a little.  All in all, I’m happy things turned out as they did!!  I feel like a kid who got a snow day from school, but I will not be going outside to play in it!! (On the one hand, we came here to work 12 hours a day for 20+ days straight to make a lot of money fast, so any day that we’re not working a full 12 we aren’t making money. Especially on weekends where the money is overtime for all 12 hours. On the other hand, I would rather be paid for 4 or 6 hours straight time to sit at home and be warm and comfy as opposed to working in the rain or snow. We make at least $160 on days we don’t work, and we aren’t paying for a campsite, AND we get the day off, so that’s really something to consider. I doubt I will change my mind on this between now and the end, though: I definitely enjoy doing this if the weather is decent. I’m outside, it’s loud and fast paced, and at the end of the day there’s a much bigger pile than when I started. A definite sense of accomplishment. And it requires intense focus and precision, which I really love. But when the weather is not decent, as in REALLY cold, or REALLY windy, or ANY precipitation, it just sucks. I won’t know if this was worth it until the last day when I can see total money earned and total days spent here. And since the timeline is open ended, the harvest is done when it’s done, it also matters if you have a prior commitment that you might have to leave for that would require you to leave before the end and lose work days on the back end. If for example we leave as scheduled on October 30, and they work for 5 more 12 hour days, we lose $2000, and that’s if none of those days are weekends. On the other other hand, if we weren’t here doing this, we wouldn’t be making ANY money, so we’re better off no matter what, I suppose. Again, we’ll see what the numbers say at the end, because that’s all that really matters.  – Lee)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

I slept for a glorious 10 hours last night. We were called off because the ground was too muddy from the snow yesterday. Ironically today was a gorgeous day.  Sunshine, a little wind, and even though it is 33 degrees it’s not a damp cold, which is the worst.  Since I am catching up on emails and blog reading, I will also take the time to finish out our 12 hour day schedule.  As you have seen we haven’t had many of those, but we need to act as if every day off is our last, because people who have been here before tell us that they’ve worked 21 days straight without a day off. It’s all dependent on the weather.

Our schedules during the work day itself have settled into a regular pattern.  Because we have five people on our team we can give each other breaks and still keep the lines moving, but we need to take the breaks concurrently.  Around 9am I take the first 15 minute break and then everyone else goes, with Lee going last.  After three hours I do feel like I need a break and the only exception to this is when we have a mechanical issue of some sort and then we all get to take a break together.  That doesn’t happen daily, but it does happen, and you take advantage of those moments when they come.  The lunch breaks are more difficult.  We all get a half hour, so it’s 2-1/2 hours worth of breaks.  I go first at 11:30 which is a little early for me, but ensures Lee gets to eat by 2pm.  When we were setting these up we talked about what people wanted and since Marie likes to go later in the day, I took the first one.  Then Robert, then Marvin, Marie, and then Lee.  It sounds like a small thing but it’s really not.  It’s hard taking a break when you have a line of trucks, but if the first person goes late then everyone is delayed and folks start to get tired and hungry.  Being tired in particular is a problem, because you start to make mental errors and in this environment that can lead to safety risks.  We all keep an eye on each other to and if someone is struggling, we move them up on the break schedule, give them an extra few minutes, or switch out jobs for awhile.

The afternoon break is the worst.  Things start to get rough after about 3:30pm as we all get tired, so I like to switch jobs for a little while then break around 3:15pm.  It’s hard to come back after that one, because I know I still have a couple of hours to go.  Taking breaks and switching jobs seems to help some, but the mental errors definitely increase at the end of the day, and we all have to slow down a bit.  Unfortunately this is also the busiest truck time and for whatever reason we start getting more sample tickets.  Sample tickets require an extra step to the process and extra physical labor and that can be rough with a long line of trucks and tired feet.  Still, I love that as a team we have worked through this with minimal conflict. We all take care of each other, which is the absolute best part of this team.

After work we go clock out and then make the 25 minute drive home.  If we are unlucky we have to stop at the store, but usually we go straight home.  Logistically this is tough as I am filthy and we both have muddy boots.  Usually, we grab an armload of stuff from the truck and do the best we can to wipe off our boots.  I leave mine right inside the door and then strip in the kitchen.  Anything that needs washed goes in one pile and anything that can be worn again goes on the chair.  I then take a long, hot shower before Lee comes in with the rest of the stuff.  I don’t care how hungry I am, or how tired, the shower comes first and I always wash my hair twice to get it completely clean.  By the time all this is done though, it’s usually close to 7pm.

So we have to eat, and eat well, but that is kind of tough.  When I cook I make extra so some nights we can have leftovers and we also got pizza one night and deli chicken another.  Anything that has leftovers, because the last thing you want to do is make a complicated dinner.  Afterwards, I blog a little and then we watch a little TV, but are in bed between 8pm and 9pm depending on how tired we are.  There is very little time to do anything else and I should probably say here, thank heavens we have a washer/dryer combo unit in the rig.  I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to squeeze laundry into this schedule if we had to go somewhere, but we can do small loads every day right in the rig.  Some people wear the same clothes over and over again, but I just can’t do that for more than a few days.  The inner layers get sweaty and the outer layers get crusty with mud, and nope, not going to happen.  It’s a pretty intense schedule and doesn’t allow for room for the unusual.  One of the benefits of all this down time we have had is it gives us time to stay caught up on chores, cook in advance, do extra laundry etc.  This would be brutal if we never had a day off.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

I got up at 3:53am (yes sometimes I do get up before Lee) and called the hotline, which was still from last night.  Then at 4:02am I called again and it said to report as normal at 6am.  We completed our morning routine and drove to our piling yard only to find the sugar shack locked up and closed.  Upon arriving there were already a few other people who told us the message had been changed and they would re-evaluate at 8am.  It was only 27 degrees, too cold for the beets, so we went back to the RV.  Once we arrived back home, our neighbor Jim told us he had called at 4am, 4:20am, and again at 4:40am and the message continued to say come in at 6am.  It must have been changed afterwards.  Oh yes we are definitely going to ask to be paid. When we called again at 8am the message was to come in at 10am. (My initial thought was…super. Once again we will lose 4 hours of the day, which is the OT, which is the primary reason we’re here. The up front information says nothing about this. It’s all “Hey, it sucks to work in the cold and the rain and the wind, but you will be working 12 hours a day 7 days a week, and make tons of money.” Well, that just isn’t the whole story, and I want to be sure we get that message across. Waking up at 4am in order to find out if you’re working, and then having to wait another 4 hours to find out you’re working two hours after THAT, is not what is advertised. I can see why it would be necessary, but I don’t know that I would have still come here if I knew that would be the case in advance. I don’t feel they are completely honest up front. I don’t mind so much the days where we are completely off, but the days where we go in for just part of the day really suck, because you can’t really do anything else, and you lose however many hours you lose. Once we actually got there, we were told that we would be getting paid the full 12 hours, which is certainly the best way for them to handle it, in my opinion. I still don’t like the sitting around doing nothing, but it’s hard to complain out loud about it if I’m being paid. -Lee)

Update:  When we got into work I talked to the agriculturist and she immediately said that we would be getting paid the full 12 hours. They recognized the problem and made it right and   I have to say that I feel overall Sidney Sugar has been a great company to work for.

 


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First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 10 through 11

Sunday, October 9, 2016

As many of you know I am an efficiency expert by trade.  I spent my career helping make processes better and this is exactly the kind of place I would love to apply those skills.  You’ve got good people, with a complicated process, and lots of variation, and that variation is what has me itching to help.  One of my favorite parts of my job was changing something simple which had a huge impact on the people doing the work, but here, because of my role as a helper, that’s tough.  I am just another person in the crowd without the mandate to help make change.  I can’t stop myself though from thinking about things and to be honest it kind of makes me sad.  So when an opportunity arose to make one little change I just had to try to fix it, but it all happened in a convoluted way.

One of the major problems on the ground here is getting the attention of a Bobcat operator when there is a spill.  Yes, we can clean them up ourselves, but it takes time, the trucks have to wait, and it takes a physical toll on the operator. (Each beet is slick with dirt and mud, they’re irregularly shaped, and large and heavy enough that you can really only pick one up at a time.) It’s not the Bobcat operator’s fault.  They are in a small cage and don’t always see when help is needed.  So over the course of a couple of days, we started brainstorming ideas on how to make this better.  Those conversations took place on the yard, and in the grocery store where several of us met up in the Deli department.  Thankfully one of the skid steer operators is a guy named Russell.  He is a solo full timer, 33, and has a wonderful work ethic.  He wanted to fix the problem also, and had gone to the foremen.  They weren’t allowed to spend any money though so the obvious solutions like walkie talkies were out.  (Walkie talkies also just don’t work well here in general, because of the noise). Each piler does have an air horn to “toot” to get the attention of a bobcat or a supervisor, but often you hear them and because of the distance and noise can’t tell which piler it came from. As a group though we had this idea about creating flags people could wave, and Russell went and scrounged stuff from the maintenance area and made every piler an orange flag stapled to a dowel rod.  Awesome!!  Problem solved (or at least much improved) and now we all have a flag to wave when we need help.  It was a small thing, but really made me feel great, because I helped facilitate it. (Just waving the flag turned out to not work so well, because, again, it’s a very large area, and it’s unlikely anyone is going to see your flag randomly waving from a few hundred yards away. But tooting the horn gets everyone to look around, and then they see it. It works perfectly. – Lee)

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It’s a fine line helping out in these situations, because the foremen get bombarded with people older than them who think they can solve all their problems.  My approach has always been to watch and learn the process first before throwing out potential solutions.  Otherwise the good ideas get drowned out in the “noise” of ideas that have been tried and dismissed for whatever reason in the past.  Now that we have had a little success, maybe there will be more opportunities in the future to help, but still it’s not the same as really stepping back, seeing the whole picture and going from there.  I miss that.

Ah well.  It’s 43° today and a full 12 hour day of work.  I am SORE and off to work.  It was 43 when we got there and the weather just got better as the day went on.  I kept taking layers off until around 3pm I was in just a Tshirt.  Doing this work on nice days is soooo much more pleasant.  We were jamming today also, processing 236 truck loads in 12 hours.  (This count is not 100% accurate, because I counted large trucks as 2, and regular trucks as 1. Tomorrow I will do an accurate count.) They actually had to shut us down twice so they could clean our rollers because we were pushing so may beets through.  We all enjoyed the extra breaks when they came.  Our communication was great and I really enjoyed both the work and the people I was doing it with.  Around that 11th hour though…wow it gets tough.  We all slow down a little and it’s a study in perseverance to get through that last hour.  In response to the soreness I am now taking 6 advil a day instead of the 4 earlier in the week and the two hot showers a day are helping immensely.  My feet though are starting to cause me real trouble.  When the mud dried up, walking got easier, but the ground got harder and since it’s not totally even I had some unsteady moments.  Maria switched to her hiking boots mid-day and I think I am going to need to do that as well.  I hate to put that kind of wear on my Merrill’s, but my feet definitely need a break from the rubber boots.

Monday, October 10, 2016

I had a very restless night last night, probably because I watched the second presidential debate before going to bed which was upsetting for a variety of reasons.  Anyway, I rolled over at 1:30am and groaned so loudly I woke Lee up, which hardly ever happens because he is such a sound sleeper.  I have deep tissue aches everywhere.  Seriously, from my feet to my hairline. the hardhat rubs there. At 4am we got up and walked outside to 41 degrees but a strong, cold wind.  Wow.  Not what you want to feel on aching muscles. Thankfully there are no serious sharp pains as of yet, so it’s Advil, hot shower, and heating pad on the mid shoulders which seems to be the worst of it. Why did we decide to do this again?  Alright time to woman up, and get moving. I did decide to wear my Merrill’ Hiking Boots and wow was that a great call.  My feet felt so much better at the end of the day.

It was cold today and the work was complicated by the ventilation pipes they are adding.  They started yesterday and a crew is adding these metal pipes which later in the winter they use to blow air through to keep the piles from getting too warm. It’s organic material, and it wants to decompose, so keeping the the piles cold stops that process. The group doing it is very conscientious, but there is a lot going on.  We have trucks coming through and them moving pipes in the same smallish area.  It requires heightened vigilance and although I understand the necessity, I am not a fan.  Still that’s the way it will be from now on, so I might as well get used to it.  We are still jamming trucks through though.  We did 107 standard dump trucks and 88 double length trucks for a total of 195.  That’s roughly dumping a truck every 3.7 minutes.  We felt we were doing well, but today that was validated by the Agriculturist Kathryn.  She came to our piler, gave us all a huge Snickers bar, and told us that the driver’s feedback was that we were the fastest and most efficient piler.  That felt really great, since we are all very new and there are some crews that have been together for a long time.  It was just really nice to be told good job, even in a small way.

And really all the supervisors are great.  I have worked for many people in my life and been treated so much worse by people who had little cause.  These folks are working extremely long days in difficult weather conditions and are always pleasant, helpful, and supportive.  I don’t think that is the same at every yard, so I am super glad we ended up at Sugar Valley.  Oh, and I had a conversation with one of the supervisors today and was told that “stay pay” (four hours for days we are called off due to weather) is a Sidney Sugar perk, but is not universal.  Personally, I don’t know if I would do this without the stay pay, so that is definitely a question I would ask before accepting one of these positions.

The best part of my day though wasn’t the Snickers bar, or the work, it was Marie telling me about Icy Hot Roll On.  I had no idea such a product existed and man, was it great.  Late in the day I knelt down to pick up a beet and felt a pull in my back thigh/butt muscle.  When I mentioned it, she offered her roll on Icy Hot and suggested I go into the porta john and put it on.  I asked if she was fine with me using her product on my ass, but she just laughed.  Now that’s a nice person!  It started working instantly and that really helped get me through the end of the day.  It did, however, cause some serious pain when I jumped in the shower.  I had forgotten how showers and Icy Hot don’t mix.  Anyway, we stopped on the way home and I am using it in several locations with great success.  Between suggesting hiking boots and the Icy Hot, I am dubbing Marie the queen of the great ideas!!

I’m going to leave you with some pictures of the ventilation process.  I am sorry if these posts are a little disjointed, but we have so little free time I am squeezing it in when I can/ I hope the flavor of the experience is getting through.

The team working with the pipes

The team working with the pipes, pretty close to trucks

The pipes are carried by a bobcat and placed very carefully

The pipes are carried by a bobcat and placed very carefully

They lay them slightly in front of our pile

They lay them slightly in front of our pile, then another row, and another

Then as we pile more beets they are covered. so they have to be close to the pile, but still leave room for trucks to pull out

Then as we pile more beets they are covered. so they have to be close to the pile, but still leave room for trucks to pull out


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