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

 


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 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

 


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 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 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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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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