First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 25 through 27

Monday, October 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

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

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

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

y014

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


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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.


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First Time at the Beet Harvest – Days 15 through 16

Friday, October 14, 2016

Today was supposed to be 71° and partly cloudy, but the sun never came out, and the temperature didn’t climb past 60°. We were clipping right along though when there was an accident on the Piler next to ours.  A dump truck flipped over on it’s side and crushed the conveyor belt, spilling beets everywhere.  Thankfully no one was seriously hurt (one woman was hit by a flying beet), but it was both a major distraction and significantly added to our workload as that piler was shut down all day.  Let me say this does happen.  It is not common, but definitely something we heard about in our orientations.   We were told very seriously to never walk between a truck and the piler when they are unloading.  I will be honest though, in the past I broke that rule on occasion in my hurry to clean up beets, but never, ever again.   On the plus side I saw was the team that was on the piler was immediately taken into a safety meeting and debriefed.  That is exactly what is supposed to happen and since I coincidentally was getting coffee on my break and was in the same location as them, I can say it was handled very well.  The team was encouraged to discuss what happened and the tone of the bosses was very very good.  They were just gathering information and not laying blame of any kind, which again is a good thing.  And although they did not call a meeting with the larger group, Bill,  my favorite foreman, came up to me personally, made sure I had seen the accident, and reinforced the importance of not getting near the trucks when they were dumping. They take it very seriously and now so do I.  Here are the pictures.  I think they speak for themselves.

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This was one of the “fifth wheel style trailers” that is very long and has a arm that pushes it up.  It is the least common type of trailer, but we do see several of these on our piler every day.

Closer view

Closer view of outer edge

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Inside edge.  As you can see they the trailer landed on the belt and bent it, and the beets completely filled the gap between the truck and the belt. If someone was standing there, and the trailer didn’t hit them they would be buried by very heavy beets. Scary

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This is the huge hitch pin on the truck. Completely sheared off. Thanks Marvin for sharing these pics with us

 

So the piler was shut down all day because they had to have a crane come and lift the trailer off the piler.  No clue if it will be fixed tomorrow, but it’s doubtful.   As I said that put a lot of extra pressure on us and to complicate things our piler was down 3 times today for at least 1/2 hour or more.  We had muddy screens, and bolts needed tightening, and once it was down over an hour.  The line of trucks was backed all the way to the road for the first time since we have been working here and it’s not a great feeling.  I will say though that because the results of the accident were staring us all in the face everyone was super careful, truck drivers, us, supervisors, everyone.  And everyone was very understanding of the delays.We still processed 172 trucks, but we left a line for the second shift that was pretty long.

 

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Crane lifting the trailer

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After it was cleared (about 3pm) the crew had to hand clear most of the beets around the conveyor. That would have sucked.

 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

I woke up after a very restless night, with some anxiety.  Seeing the pictures again and writing about it really brought home the seriousness of what happened yesterday.  The weather was good, but the wind did kick up near the end of the day and we got our first dust.  They issued us dust masks in orientation, but it’s been so muddy it’s been a non issue.  Not today.  The trucks were kicking up dust and I understand why they said they would have water trucks watering the ground at one point.  I’m pretty tired so I am just going to mention a few catch up things.

First off I found out that only Piler 2 and 3 have ventilation teams. That’s because our beets will be taken to the factory last.  Lee thinks they picked us because they thought we could handle the extra distraction and maybe that’s so, but I could live without it!  Again, the guys working on ventilation are fantastic, but there is so much going on in such a small space, it can be nerve wracking.  (Side note: I found out later that it’s only for a few more days and I am so happy. I thought it would be until the end of our working but apparently they only have to do it to part of the pile.)

They brought dinner in for us tonight, which was really nice.  The local Assembly of God church. Anything I don’t have to cook is great, but this was prepared by a local church and really good.  We gotten into some rivalry with our friends on Piler 6 about who has the best Piler. (Spoiler alert: it’s us. – Lee)  Apparently their truckers told them they were the best, which absolutely can’t be true because our truckers have been giving us candy and making us cookies! (Also, we’re the best. Our pile is a work of art, and we’re much farther down the field than they are. These are the facts in evidence, they are not in dispute. – Lee)

Finally, I wanted to talk about Bill for a minute. He is my absolute favorite foreman, not just because he is very competent and attentive, but because he is the kind of guy who will stop and help pick up beets if he is walking by.   Lots of people wouldn’t do that, and he certainly didn’t have to, but he had just finished some maintenance on our piler the other day right when I got a spill and he immediately stopped to help me.  Bill is a really good guy.

OK, that’s all I have in me today.  Lee just went to bed at 7:25pm and I will be following shortly.  There is a cumulative effect on these long days.  Oh, and they told us today the harvest is 45% complete.  Surprising with so many days off, but good to hear we are making progress. (Everyone pretty much agrees that this amazing progress is due in large part to our truly astounding efforts, and in spite of whatever the hell they’re doing down at 6. It’s hard to tell from so far down the field, but it looks like a clambake, or some kindly of a hootenanny. – Lee)

Bill, in the yellow hat, helping me pick up beets

Bill, in the yellow hat, helping me pick up beets

 

 


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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 5 through 6

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

It rained pretty heavily last night with some lightning, so it turned out to be a good thing we weren’t working.  We called the hotline in the evening, but they said they would assess and post by 4am, but with the amount of rain we had I couldn’t imagine working the next day.  Still that requires that one of us gets up at 4am and checks the hotline.  Kind of a bummer, but probably for the best because we don’t want our sleep schedule to change that much.  It’s worse for Kyle and Jenny on nights.  They were called off last night as well, but it’s tough for them to find stuff to keep you awake when nothing in town is open.  Even the casinos here close at 2am. Speaking of which, Jen has her casino trips down to a science.  She spends $2 on nickel slots and can sit for a couple of hours drinking free diet cokes and eating free snacks.  It’s a budget friendly thing for them to do though and when their $2 is gone they go home, I’m just not sure I have that kind of self-control.

Lee got up at 4am to check the message, they said call back at 6 and then said call back at 8.  He let me sleep until 6:15am which was nice, but then we had to shower and get ready.  We weren’t sure if the message would say come in now, with the expectation we would be dressed and ready to go or give us a time.  At 8am we called back and were told to report at noon, so we did have plenty of time to get ready.  Since I had some extra time I thought I would respond to feedback from folks and give more detail on the process.  First off  the beets are white, sugar beets (not the red kind people eat) and they are used to make sugar.   That’s the tail end of the overall process and we don’t see any of it, but I have heard it is similar to how they get sugar from sugar cane.  A pulp is created from the beets, then dried, and sugar is extracted.  That’s all I know.  We were told that that some of the end product ends up in white sugar packets, but the bulk off it is purchased by commercial companies who need sugar in their products,  like Coke or Pepsi .

We are more at the front end of the process and it goes like this.

This is a field of sugar beets. (We have no idea what the hell happens before this. Magic, I guess. – Lee)

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This is a sugar beet.

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The farmers dig up the beets.  They use a beet harvester.

Sugar beets are root tubers, and grow underground, and the timing of when they are harvested is done in conjunction between the farmers and the Agriculturist from Sidney Sugars, Catherine. They can’t be dug up if it is too hot or too cold,  or the fields are too muddy.  The tops are trimmed off in the field and loaded into trucks, either 10 wheel dump trucks or tractor trailer bin trucks. We don’t do any of that, it’s done by the farmers and then driven to Sugar Valley by employees or contract drivers, and once it gets to our piler yard, our process begins.

First, the trucks drive up to a scale and a scale house, and are weighed and given an unloading ticket. (More on the ticket later) Then the trucks drive into the yard, which is about 2500 feet long, and about 1000 feet wide, on which there are 6 “lanes”, at the end of each is a piler. At the moment, the pilers and the piles we just started are all the way at the opposite end of the yard from the scale houses, but by the time we are done, the pilers and piles will be right next to the scale houses. The truck drivers choose a piler, and a side (the pilers operate two sides, left and right), and drive up to it, where they wait their turn to be waved ahead. Once they get the go ahead, they drive over the hopper (the doors/gates are down), and stop.

Hopper is flat

Hopper is flat so trucks can drive over it

The gates are raised, creating the “hopper” and then the driver is directed to back up until his rear wheels are just touching the shorter gate, so his rear end is hanging over the hopper.

Truck drives over

Hopper is opened

As you can see, at the bottom of the hopper is a conveyor belt, and once the truck is in position, the driver is instructed to either lift his dump truck, just a little, or open the rear door on his bin trailer. The dump trucks are hinged at the top, and once they are lifted, all the weight of the beets pushes the door open and the beets just started spilling out, so we start slow otherwise the beets will fill the hopper and overflow, and will then need to be picked up by hand, which is not fun.

 

Lifts the gate and the beets come out

Truck gate Lifts and beets come out. This bin-type truck has a conveyor belt of its own which pushes the beets out.

The beets go up that short hopper belt and are dumped onto the main conveyor, which runs perpendicular to the hopper belt. The main conveyor takes them up to about 12 feet, and dumps them into a screening area, which is a series of rollers that knock most of the dirt off onto a holding tank. Then they go up another conveyor belt on the boom, which then dumps them down on to the pile. At the very beginning, the boom is parallel to the ground at about 6 feet, but as the pile grows, it’s lifted up to a final height of 18 feet. The boom also swings left and right, creating a semicircular pile. Once the pile gets close to touching the boom, the system is shut down, and all of the components of the rig are lifted with hydraulics, and then giant tracks like a tank have can roll the entire rig backward about three feet and we continue the pile. So at the end of the harvest, there will be a pile about 2000 feet long, and about 200 feet wide, and 18 feet high. That’s a bunch of beets.

Go along the conveyor belt


The beets stay cool in the pile and eventually metal pipes are added under the beets to keep them cool.  Don’t know anything about that yet, because I haven’t seen it but we were told the beets stay pretty cool in the pile.  The agriculturist is responsible for monitoring that and she does it with a temperature gun. Again, that’s about all I know because thankfully it’s not my problem 🙂

While the beets are on the conveyor belt we get a ticket from the driver and if it is a certain type of ticket we have to take a sample.  The farmers get paid based on weight and sugar content and the samples are tested in the lab and determine the sugar content.  No clue how that works, it’s done in a different place.   The only reason we pilers care about the samples is because it adds an extra step to our process. Essentially when the beets are traveling down the conveyor belt, a mechanical arm grabs some and puts the “sample” down a funnel, which you catch in a burlap bag at the end. Sounds easy, but you need to make sure you get beets from the right truck so you really can’t dawdle.  Plus the beets come down in a rush and it’s hard to hold the bag in place.

Sample ticket goes in pouch in bag

Sample ticket goes in pouch in bag

MArie is putting the sack around the funnel

Marie is putting the sack around the funnel

We push a button and the catcher comes out and grabs some beets

We push a button and the catcher comes out and grabs some beets

Then places it in the funnel

Then places it in the funnel

The beets rumble down and we get a sack full

The beets rumble down and we get a sack full

I just don’t like it because the beets hit fast and you have to hold on hard to keep the sack on.  Then you carry the sack over to the sample cart. Once the truck is empty, it pulls forward under another belt which is attached to the dirt holding tank. Then we dump the dirt back into their truck so they can be weighed on the way out. The farmers are paid based on a variety of factors, and one of them is how much dirt comes along with the beets, so that weight is subtracted from their starting weight.

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So that’s the basic process.  We went in at noon today and the fields were pretty muddy.  My boots are great in that they are water proof, but man do they pick up a lot of mud.  I told Marie her step counter should give us extra steps because sometimes even walking was an effort.  The first hour was ok, about 50 but in layers I was plenty warm, but then it started to drizzle.  And it didn’t stop, so I added a poncho to my layers which helped some but didn’t totally keep me dry.  After another hour when trucks started to get stuck in the mud they called it and I was happy to go home.  It truly gave me a new appreciation for the four hour “stay pay” we get if we get called off.  If my choice is stay home and be bored or work in the rain and mud, I choose staying at home. And in case I have inadvertently made this all sound glamorous, here’s my end of shift photo from today. I’ve still got my smile, but it was only two hours.  -Trace

Check out the amount of mud on my boots

Check out the amount of mud on my boots.  It was several inches thick.

Wednesday, October 6, 2016

I keep talking about Jen and Kyle because I think their night shift experience is important.  Keep in mind we didn’t know until the very end we would be on days, so their experience could have been ours.  I say that in particular today because they went in at 6pm last night to scrape and clean and oil the machines.  It was raining, extremely windy, and 43 degrees by this point and I felt for them.  They were done by 7pm and they are getting paid 6 hours for the shift which is a good thing.  Hopefully we are getting paid for 6 hours yesterday as well.  I should also mention that I heard second hand that the other pile yards without a night crew have to do their own machine cleaning at the end of their shift.  That would be a tough way to end a 12 hour day, which makes me very glad we have a night shift we can rely on. (I think this is a very important thing for people who are considering doing the beet harvest to remember. Every piling site is different, so you don’t know what you’re getting until you get assigned, which happens generally in early to mid August. -Lee)

I woke up at 3am and got up to let Lee sleep.  When I walked outside to smoke it was 37 degrees, very windy, and miserable.  My first thought was: I really hope we don’t have to work in this.  I am no stranger to the cold.  I lived in New Hampshire for 13 years and as a smoker went outside in all kinds of weather, but there is a big difference between standing outside in cold for 5 minutes and doing it for a 12 hour shift.  This was my biggest concern all along, the weather impact. I understand why people do this though.  Yesterday Piler 4 was down and that work crew was sent to other pilers.  I spent some time talking to Mike who has been full timing for 10 years.  Over those 10 years he has done every kind of work to supplement his retirement and this is his fourth beet harvest.  Prior to this he worked Amazon for 3 years and MUCH prefers the beet harvest.  Mike spent many years working for himself and hated the micromanagement of the Amazon environment.  Here at the beet harvest, he comes out and does his thing, with minimal oversight.  Compare that to mandatory “rah-rah”speeches (his words) and stretching and exercises of Amazon, and for him it is no contest.   I get it.  I like the relaxed atmosphere as well and the level of respect we are all treated with.  I just don’t know if I can hack the weather, but if these cold temperatures persist I am certainly going to find out.

(time slowly passes, and we watch an episode of The Walking Dead waiting for the update. Watching The Walking Dead at 7am is surreal…-Lee)

Thankfully not today.  We called at 8am and the message said it was too windy to run the boom and the grounds were too muddy, so no work for safety reasons.  As Lee said, we went from “We’re bored” to “Thank God we don’t have to work” in less than 24 hours.

(I have to say, I’m struggling with this quite a lot. My work ethic and my desire to pretty much always be doing something productive makes this sitting around doing nothing really unpleasant, and it doesn’t help that it’s a LOT of time for us to be cooped up in the camper together. We’re going on 2 1/2 weeks of this, it’s reminiscent of our time in the redwoods last fall. On the other hand, the site is free, and we do get paid 4 hours each to just sit here and kill time, so at least there’s that. The weather forecast calls for cold and partly cloudy for the next two weeks, with no real chance of any rain, so once this stuff dries up we’re probably looking at two weeks or more of 12 hour days, 7 days a week, so I suppose I should appreciate the down time now. – Lee)

 


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First Time at the Beet Harvest – Day 1

Friday, September 30, 2016

We were given our assignments first thing in the morning and were on Piler #2 with Marie, Marvin, and Robert.  Lee was assigned to be the operator and the rest of us were helpers.  Since the area around our piler (Piler #2) was still a muddy mess, they put us on Piler #3 with a very experienced team who had done the harvest several years in a row.  They were super helpful and around 11 the foreman was comfortable enough with us that we were able to open one of the two lanes of our piler.  The whole team seriously did great.  We communicated well, helped each other, and were really having a good time. The weather was also great, in the 60’s, and overcast with the occasional sun breaks.  We even had a rainbow or two.  The work is also not nearly as hard as I thought it would be.  There are places and times between trucks to sit down, and you are encouraged to do so during any down time, or when a big truck is dumping its beets, or if there’s a large enough gap between trucks. Our vehicle was close by so we could get water and snacks whenever we needed to, and the port-a-john was very close and at least for now extremely clean. Yes, the work is dirty, but it’s clean farm dirt, and their processes were excellent.  As someone who studies processes and efficiency professionally, I do not say that lightly.

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Lee, me, Marvin, and Marie first thing in the morning Day 1

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Robert and Marie – Day 1

 

Our piler

Our piler #2

This is a piler

This is a piler

Around hour 9 though (3pm) we all started to get a little tired and by hour 10 it was getting a little tough.  Marie had a step counter watch and by 3pm she wa at 8,000 which was pretty good. She said most days she had to got to some effort to get to 6,000.  Around 4:30pm,  I went to take a beet sample, and picked up the sack wrong and felt a sharp pain in my left shoulder muscle.  I let my team know and they were great.  I wanted to finish the day so I just asked the others to take the sample and focused on tasks I could do mostly one-handed.  I told Bill my foreman (who is absolutely awesome by the way) about it right away and he said I could stop and fill out an incident report, but I really wanted to wait.  It actually started to feel a little better, but at 6pm when we were relieved I went and filled one out.  All I can say was it was 100 times better than I thought it would be.  Yes the weather was great, and yes, it was day 1, but I kind of liked it. I will say though that I am not a huge fan of wearing a hard hat 🙂  – Trace

We all enjoyed the rainbow

We all enjoyed the rainbow

 

Trace wanted me to explain how I got to be an operator. It’s not really that complicated, first they ask everyone if they’ve ever had any experience doing it, and then they ask if anyone would like to be considered for training if an opportunity comes up. I had been up in the cockpit of one of the pilers when we did our orientation, and it looked less complicated than a 10 input video switcher, so I figured I could learn it pretty quick. Besides, it’s beets, not rocket surgery. So when they asked for volunteers to be trained I raised my hand, assuming that after a few days they would put me next to an operator to observe and get trained. The next day we came in and they had posted the list of crews, and it was me as the operator, and Trace and three other new people as ground crew. But the guy that taught me did a great job, and it’s really not that different from directing live television, but with more dirt and less bitching from audio engineers.

The pay is $1 more per hour, which is not a ton, but it adds up, especially when 4 hours of each 12 hour day is OT, and all 12 hours on Saturday and Sunday are OT. Plus there’s a 5% bonus at the end of the harvest, so that’s also pretty cool. I’ve worked less for more money, and harder for less money, but it’s still a blast. Today one side (lane) of our piler was not used because it was too muddy, so I’ll be very curious to see what it’s like operating both sides instead of just one. I really think it will be a little easier, because once you get into a rhythm it’s easier for me to stay focused non-stop and go back and forth between the two lanes than constantly be stopping and resting every five minutes. Sort of how like driving interstate is less tiring than stop and go city traffic. We’ll see. I identified some likely places to mount a Go Pro and I’m figuring out when and where I can grab footage here and there over the next few days so I can put together a short video that shows the entire process of bringing a truck through. Because that’s what we do. Over and over and over and over. 800 trucks in each 12 hour shift, on 6 pilers. I have to say it was really a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to doing it again tomorrow. Sorry this little blurb wasn’t all that funny, but I’m really tired, and really hungry, and besides, beets aren’t all that funny either. Beets are serious bidnizz, ya’ll. – Lee

In the meantime here’s some pictures of the process – Trace

 

Truck drives up

Truck drives up

Beets come out of the truck into a hopper

Beets come out of the truck into a hopper

These are the beets

These are the beets

Marvin directs the drivers to pour their beets into the hoppers.

Marvin directs the drivers to pour their beets into the hoppers.

When there is an issue we can get s spill. Thankfully that doesn't happen often becaus we have to pick up the beets by hand and some are the size of a football

When there is an issue we can get s spill. Thankfully that doesn’t happen often because we have to pick up the beets by hand and some are the size of a football and pretty heavy

If it's a bad spill we call over a bobcat to clean them up

If it’s a bad spill we call over a bobcat to clean them up.  We only had to do this a couple of times and usually it was something wrong with the truck that caused it

Go along the conveyor belt

The beets go from the hopper to the conveyor belt

Where the dirt comes out and goes into the empty truck

The dirt comes out the side and goes into the empty truck which we help back into place

Out the boom which rotates slowly left to right then back

The beets (sans dirt) go out the boom and onto the pile.  The boom rotates slowly left to right then back

The beets make a pretty piler

Our pile was super pretty!  As helpers we raise the boom periodically to get the top as even as we can

Lee operates the boom and the hoppers that the trucks put them in

Lee operates the boom and the hoppers that the trucks put them in

Lee's controls

Lee’s controls.  He can’t see the entire pile so we are his eyes on the ground.

Our pile was almost 18 feet tall by the end of the day

Our pile was almost 18 feet tall by the end of the day!!  When it gets that high we move the piler backwards a few feet, but we haven’t done that yet

So all in all good day with a great team. It’s Day 1 but feeling good so far.


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