Sugar Beet Harvest Job Descriptions and Recap

A typical sugar beet. They’re white, unlike table beets. Oh, and they come covered in dirt.

Today (Saturday the 14th) was my last day working the sugar beet harvest, woohoo! Our last truck came in at 11:37pm last night, so today day crew just came in for four hours to clean the machines well. A task that would have been better if it hadn’t been cold and raining this morning, but what can you do.

Okay, some stats:

  • Total days worked: 15
  • Total hours worked: 173.25 (Including orientation: 177.25)
  • Days off: 0
  • Short days: 2
  • Average daytime high: 58 degrees
  • Nights below freezing: 3
  • First paycheck (orientation and week 1): $1,384.41*

* I had $200 withheld from my paychecks (to help cover taxes on other things), so really my paycheck would have been $1,584.41.

So. It’s finally over.

Sometimes, it felt like these two weeks would never end, and sometimes it seemed to go really fast. In truth it was a really fast harvest. It’s quite unusual to go the entire season with no off days and only one day cut short due to weather. All the long-timers kept commenting on how we really couldn’t have asked for better conditions for harvest. I personally would have loved a day off somewhere in the middle to catch up on the blog and housework (and sanity), but on the other hand it’s kind of nice to be done early. The leaves aren’t even off all the trees yet and I won’t have to worry about trying to race the snow out of here – which does happen some years I’ve heard.

Yes, it did end up being a very challenging work-camping job. More so than Amazon I’d say. There were a couple moments on the job, usually when I got cold or frustrated, that I daydreamed about walking out which I’ve never honestly considered while doing Amazon. But on the other hand, two of my fellow work-camping couples (one on day shift, one on nights) both got on better than me and are honestly considering coming back next year.

I probably won’t be.

But is that really because the job was that challenging, or is it just that it wasn’t as good of a fit for me? I think it’s probably the later. I can handle just about any type of work short-term as evidenced by my varied and extensive work-camping career, but not having a day off for that long of a period really wore on me mentally (physically, Days 2 and 3 were the hardest, and my body adjusted after that). At least I can say I learned something about myself working this job.

Was the mental fatigue (and money) worth it? Yes. I crave novelty, so just the fact that it was something completely different from any kind of work I’d done before made the job worth doing, at least this once. In addition to those low moments, I had an equal number of high moments in the form of learning how to operate the machine, talking to the drivers, and understanding a little more about how agriculture works in the US. As with many things in life, a lot of how your experience goes at a work-camping job depends on the attitude you bring to it. I always enter into a seasonal job with an upbeat attitude and deliberately look for the positives which makes a huge difference in how I see the work.

Grafton Day Crew 2017 group pic (taken last night at the end of our shift which is after sunset). I’m second to left.

* * *

And one other thing a lot of people have asked about: what exactly my job was here.

A beet piler needs five people to run well.

One person, the Piler Operator, sits in a tower at the near end of the machine and manages the chutes the drivers drop their beets in and the main conveyors. They also have controls to move the whole piler forward and backward. Each piler can handle two trucks at a time (one on the left and one on the right), so there’s a fair bit of multitasking involved. This job takes some training, there are a lot of buttons and levers to manage, but it is less physically demanding.

One person runs what I always called a bobcat, but what was called a skid steer(sp?) here. This person cleans up large beet and dirt messes and uses a special tool to place the aluminum culverts that go at the bottom of the beet pile as it’s being formed. You need to pass a test to be able to operate one of these for Crystal Sugar.

Lastly, at least three people work on the ground: two Helper/Sample Takers (one per each side of the piler as you have two trucks running at once remember), and one Boom operator. Most work-campers start as grounds crew as it’s the most numerous and least skilled job and that’s what I was hired for and ended up doing. But as people need to be able to take breaks, ideally you have four grounds people, one of whom is cross-trained as a Piler Operator.

Piler 1 on the morning of Day 13. The night crew Piler Operator is standing outside his tower box waiting for shift change.

Helpers/Sample Takers have a few key functions, which I’ll go into more in detail as I have personal experience:

  • Help guide trucks into a chute to dump their loads at the near end of the beet piler, then once they’re in place mark their receipt with the piler you’re working on so everyone knows which pile those beets ended up on. Grafton is a smaller site and only has two pilers, I worked on number one.
  • When the driver hands you their receipt, they may also hand you a sample ticket. Because these are sugar beets, farmers get paid based on the sugar content of their beets. So 40% of each farmer’s loads gets tested via a sample. You’ll take the sample ticket, place it on the side of a heavy industrial bag, then stick the bag at the end of a chute on the side of the piler and press a button. A sample of beets streaming past on will be directed into the chute and bag. Then you close the bag and place it in a designated area to be picked up later (it’s the skid steer person’s job to haul the bags off once in a while).
  • The piler has several screens inside of it that separates the beets from the dirt, as beets are a root crop and naturally come with dirt on them. When the driver is done unloading their beets, you’ll guide them into place at the far end of the machine to pick up their dirt, which runs on an overhead conveyor into their truck. You press a button to run the conveyor, and once the dirt is delivered, wave them off.
  • Between these tasks, you’ll clean up small messes of beets and dirt that collect around the piler using shovels. On wet days, the dirt becomes sticky mud and it takes a lot more effort to keep the area clean.

A selfie of the work uniform, as it were.

The boom operator manages the long conveyor running out the far end of the machine, which drops the beets on the beet pile. The boom needs to be swung left and right to create an even pile of the desired height overtop of the culverts the skid steer person has placed, and also pulls the back half of the beet piler away from the pile as it grows, so that the boom doesn’t get stuck in the pile (the Pile Operator has to watch the Boom Operator and pull the front half of the beet piler back regularly so that there’s always room for the Boom Operator to pull the back half of the machine as needed – it moves kind of like a gigantic metal inchworm with the back half creeping forward, then the front half creeping forward).

Besides these positions, there are people who work the scale house, where trucks weigh in and out when entering and leaving the site (the most coveted position on site as you get to sit and the scale house has heat). Then you have the foreman (direct supervisor), agriculturalist (one step above foreman), and on-call mechanics in case the machines break down.

That’s about it! I’ll be updating the main beet harvest article with this newer information soon, and if you have any additional questions, comment below and I’ll write a follow-up post at some point. If you’ve e-mailed me (or commented on a post) with a question within the past couple weeks, expect answers tomorrow or Monday as I work on catching up on everything. Also keep an eye on the YouTube channel, I filmed a video about the beet harvest today too (edit: it’s now up!). For right now though, I’m going to bed… and I’m not setting an alarm for the morning. Life is good.

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45 Responses to Sugar Beet Harvest Job Descriptions and Recap

  1. Barb October 14, 2017 at 8:11 pm #

    Really happy you made it through to the end! Congrats!

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:17 pm #

      Thanks!

  2. Steve October 14, 2017 at 9:00 pm #

    Skid-steer is the more generic term. BobCat is a brand name of one manufacturer of skid-steers and other equipment.

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:17 pm #

      Thanks for clarifying Steve.

  3. Paul Karl October 14, 2017 at 9:14 pm #

    On to the next adventure,

  4. Bob October 14, 2017 at 9:23 pm #

    Great write-up and thanks. Where now. Personally heading south to warmer part of the country to Sedona

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:18 pm #

      Yep, generally south. Still working on the details.

  5. Anne October 14, 2017 at 9:55 pm #

    Congrats on surviving! You deserve that morning sleeping in!

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:18 pm #

      It felt so good Anne!

  6. Teri Live Oak Fl October 15, 2017 at 2:32 am #

    Whoo.. you’re done. 15 days straight is long. Glad you can relax now and enjoy some travel.

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:19 pm #

      Me too, phew!

  7. Aunt Bea October 15, 2017 at 6:33 am #

    I’m glad it was worth all the work. The worst job I ever considered walking off of was as a corn de-tassel-er in the Summer in eastern Iowa. Long days in the sun, slugging through irrigated field mud and pulling rogue and female tassels, cutting your hands on the wet corn leaf edges. But i made it, I learned something and I got paid well. (And all that walking through mud improved my figure immensely) You should try that next year!!
    I just started reading your blog and I am really enjoying it and learning a lot.

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:20 pm #

      Never heard of that job before Bea, it sure does sound like hard work!

      Welcome to IO, it’s good to have you here. I hope you continue to find it useful and inspiring. 🙂

  8. S. Kaeseman October 15, 2017 at 6:49 am #

    Congrats on a job well done to you and your entire crew-mates. It is always good to try new experiences, that way you learn what you would like to do again. Hope you got some good rest last night and your day is peaceful as well. Be safe when you head out on your next adventure.
    Respectfully,
    S. Kaeseman

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:21 pm #

      Thanks! I did have a deliberately relaxing day today. Tomorrow I have work to do to prepare for traveling again, but that’s a good kind of work.

  9. Rhonda October 15, 2017 at 6:50 am #

    You went, you saw, you worked, you’re done! Yay! On to new adventures! Can’t wait to ride the trail ahead along with you…:-)

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:22 pm #

      Speaking of trails, I’m missing hiking something fierce. Will need to find some of those to indulge in on the way south!

  10. Dawn in MI October 15, 2017 at 6:54 am #

    Wow! That’s a huge pile of sugar beets! Glad you made it safely to the end. I bet that feels good, and bet today feels even better! How long will you stay there before you pull out, and where are you headed next!

    You should feel very proud of yourself for trying this job. Now you never have to do this again! LOL Thank you very much for sharing all this information about it. We have sugar beets here in Michigan (and by the way it was never as cold as you had it here, so maybe you should try something in this state some time!) and it was fun for me (maybe less fun for you) to learn more about the whole process.
    Dawn in MI recently posted..This didn’t have to happenMy Profile

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:25 pm #

      Pulling out Tuesday probably and heading south to Sioux Falls to pick up my mail for starters. From there, who knows!

  11. Darren October 15, 2017 at 7:59 am #

    Glad you made it through safe! Get some well deserved physical rest and mental relaxation.

  12. JimM October 15, 2017 at 8:08 am #

    Happened to drive over to Boise and darned if I didn’t pass a bunch of beets in a pile, several trucks loaded with beets ready to unload, and a giant piler operating. Also passed fields where 10’s of field hands were working doing something(?) in the beat fields.

    Kind of neat to read your stories and then get to see most everything you’ve been telling us about the process. But the weather was fine – likely why they had so much help available.

    Thanks for the stories!
    JimM recently posted..Around and about…My Profile

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:39 pm #

      Interesting Jim. Yeah the cold temps were really the worst part for me, I hate being cold!

  13. Jan October 15, 2017 at 9:57 am #

    Thanks for publishing the article. Have enjoyed your adventures and challenges. Keep traveling!
    A fellow Casita traveler,
    Jan Denney

  14. Jodee Gravel October 15, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

    Glad you survived it and the pay was worth the effort. Certainly the unique experience is a bonus when looked at the right way.

    Get rested up and treat yourself to something decadent!
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..A Fabulous Final Day in Torrey, UtahMy Profile

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:43 pm #

      Sleeping until 8 felt pretty decadent, does that count Jodee? 😀

  15. Dave October 15, 2017 at 1:10 pm #

    I used to love watching Mister Rodgers Neighborhood. He would often visit factories and mills to show kids the processes and effort that went into producing the simple everyday products we take for granted. In so doing, he put the spotlight on regular people whose talents and labor usually went unappreciated. If Mister Rodgers were still around today, his question for you would be, “do you ever think about all the people who will enjoy those little crystals you’re helping to make?”

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:44 pm #

      I remember that show with fondness Dave, it was good stuff.

  16. Linda Sand October 15, 2017 at 3:03 pm #

    Now you can say, “been there; done that” about another type of job. Good for you!

  17. RGupnorth October 15, 2017 at 6:26 pm #

    Now that the beets are harvested – where to for the winter? Weather in the North is starting to change fast – we are probably only one wind shift away from winter as they say in MI.

    Where ever it is – safe travels.

    • Becky October 15, 2017 at 6:49 pm #

      South to Sioux Falls first to pick up my mail. Still working out the details from there.

  18. JuDee Janowitz October 15, 2017 at 11:02 pm #

    Woo-Hoo another chapter in the book of life accomplished. Well done.
    I was wondering how your trailer is treating you? I can imagine you have had some cold weather lately. What have you done to prevent freezing pipes. And of course how well are you able to keep it warm inside? Do you run your heater when you are not there? Is your trailer insulated?
    I hope you have had time for a hot shower and a very long nap!
    JJ

  19. Steve October 17, 2017 at 2:45 pm #

    So how much will you make in total?

    • Becky October 18, 2017 at 6:35 pm #

      I’ll let you all know when my second paycheck and bonus come in. It’ll be a while yet.

      • Steve November 10, 2017 at 7:42 am #

        Just curious what your total pay was? Was it worth it?

        • Becky November 10, 2017 at 11:53 am #

          Bonus doesn’t come until the end of December so I still don’t have the total yet. After taxes right now I’m at about $2,400. My stance remains the same as when I originally wrote this article: I’m glad I did it this year, probably won’t do it again.

  20. Upriverdavid October 18, 2017 at 11:49 pm #

    Way to go Becky!

  21. TDT Fan October 20, 2017 at 2:14 pm #

    I’ve watched the recruiting video from Express Personnel and was wondering how you overcame being a lone workamper. The agency really wanted two workers per campsite due to capacity of camping areas.

    Enjoy the YT videos and the blog – looking forward to more.

    • Becky October 20, 2017 at 7:15 pm #

      They started hiring singles later when not enough couples applied. This has happened to me before actually, it never hurts to inquire even when an opportunity states couples only! Worst they can say is no.

  22. JP Smith October 22, 2017 at 4:42 am #

    Enjoyed reading about it! What were the typical hours per day?

    • Becky October 23, 2017 at 7:31 pm #

      12 hours per day, 7 days a week if the weather’s good.

  23. Terri October 22, 2017 at 6:52 am #

    Love all the details! And of course, your candidness and in assessing the situation, and your always positive attitude. It really does make a difference to your work, that is for sure. And you learned more about yourself in the doing of it too.

    I think I’m like you – I would probably not do a job like that for more than one year, but for me it would be because of the weather and how far north you were. I’m so glad for you that the weather stayed as good as it did while you were there.

    And I love the youtube channel! Did you always consider having one, because you have all these videos from when you first started?
    Terri recently posted..Comforting animals at the end: a plea for themMy Profile

    • Becky October 23, 2017 at 7:34 pm #

      You and I are kindred spirits Terri, a lot of things you talk about on your blog I find myself nodding to, we share a similar outlook on life.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the videos! Yes, I always considered having a YouTube channel. Or at least, having some place to share the videos. But writing is my passion so I always prioritized this blog and it ended up taking a lot longer than I originally planned to get working on the videos.

  24. Martshal Kohn October 23, 2017 at 11:02 am #

    Martshal, of the perpetually sore feet says: Becky, it was great meeting you at the harvest. Your bright outlook always made you a joy to work around. I don’t know that I’ll ever do that again (only if necessity continues to be a mother), but it was worth surviving at least once. Happy Trails young lady. I hope to look in on your blog and see exciting, fun adventures.

    — mjk

    • Becky October 23, 2017 at 7:37 pm #

      Heya Martshal, nice to hear from you!

      Safe travels and happy trails, hopefully our paths will cross again somewhere down the road.

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