If you have come across the page by searching for a review on the Crystal Sugar Beet Harvest and are looking for an honest, un-biased, and truthful account – look no further. If you desire to know more, read ahead. If you want the quick and simple: it was fun. No really it was! It was also hard, but mostly mentally. The money can be worth it, but wasn’t for us due to unforeseen circumstances. Would I recommend it? Yeah, sure. Why not?! In fact, sign up here and put Yeager St John as your reference, that’d be rad! Would I do it again? Nah, probably not.
After an incredibly long drive across the greater part of Montana and North Dakota (and an incredible night camping for free in the middle of nowhere), Beth and I arrive in Drayton, ND on the night of the “Blood Moon.” I think the world was scheduled to end around this day, we’ll see. The day prior I noticed Darlene acting up – reversing while turning the wheel would result in the brakes locking up, and the steering column hissed like a snake while turning the wheel. Tonight as we drive alongside a massive sanguine orb to our East, the brakes randomly tap without input from my feet. Surely this is a witchy cosmic doing and it will pass by sun-up.
We wake alongside a farmer’s field where we had hoped to sleep unnoticed. The sound of gravel and dust furiously striking the side of the camper wakens me as a farm truck whips by us on the dirt road. I whisper at Beth to wake up, my breath visible in the morning chill.
After a hearty 6AM breakfast, Beth and I sit foggy-headed at the local park and watch the sun rise. It’s nearly 7:30 by the time we see it in this oddly flat land. We are not used to such a tardy sunrise – it feels unnatural. I miss Arizona and its disregard for Daylight Savings – what a civilized state.
We meet our employers (Express Employment) for the American Crystal Sugarbeet Harvest, submit to their stacks of paperwork, informative videos, and workplace regulations. It’s not that bad, but it takes forever.
Thirty minutes away in Hallock, Minnesota (pronounced Hāl-Lock) we find our temporary residence of Gilbert-Olsen park. Problem is, theres not a soul in sight. That’s a real big problem considering we informed our employer that we would need to catch rides from other campers since our home doesn’t move very easily if we set up to stay somewhere for a while. Our employers confidently inform us that there should be several other arrivals, they think, although they haven’t heard from said campers in weeks.
The next day we move our campsite, with our employer’s approval, to Pembina campground across the border in North Dakota. Another thirty minute drive. Our neighbors are more within our age range and we’re thankful we have neighbors at all. Friends are made, the “town” is briefly explored and Beth and I are happy. Soon we encounter our next problem: nobody who we now live next to works with us. Shit. Our shift begins tonight and so we ride the motorcycle fifteen minutes South to Humboldt, MN and hope for the best.
Fifteen minutes of bone-chilling rain, light-swallowing darkness and tire-slipping mud make our decision easy: we aren’t driving the bike here any more. Something must be done.
Luckily we befriend our piling operator, Rick, on the first night and he offers us a ride if we move back to Hallock, but this time in Horseshoe Campground. Thank the gods of adventure for kind peoples! We’re back in Hallock within an hour of our first shift ending and don’t bother telling the company that seems to barely knows what’s going on. They’d only be more confused anyhow.
The next seven days fly by as much as they seem to never end. We wake at 5:30PM, eat “breakfast” and pack our “lunch.” At 7:15PM our ride arrives and we’re on the piling station by 8PM as the sun sets on the horizon. I learn to trick my mind into thinking it’s 8AM and that it’s just very, very dark out today. Midnight becomes noon and 2AM I hunger for lunch. Between eating and our fifteen minute breaks, we shovel dirt, press buttons, shovel mud, and tend to the boom above us, dropping beets onto a massive pile. All through this the constant droning hum of the piler continues, conversation is hard and therefore short. Much time is spent within our heads – a dangerous place with such boredom.
Just as we are all about to snap and go crazy, a rainstorm comes through and pauses the harvest for a day. You see – beets can’t be harvested if the weather is too warm (above 68º), too cold (below 28º), or too wet (the trucks will get stuck in the thick mud). Beth literally cries tears of joy. We both sleep for well over 12 hours through that day.
Piling beets is something I never thought I’d add to my resume, if I do decide to do so. It will forever remain a barometer with which I compare the “suck” of other jobs to. I doubt anything will ever top this.
The mental struggle is real – not a bit of the job relies on physical strength. You will spend nearly all the twelve hours in your head. It is too loud to talk, not to mention frowned upon by the bosses. In order to survive this job you need to stay head-strong and turn everything into a game to entertain and trick your brain.
A choice can be made to work day or night shifts. Day shift is preferred by most, but we chose nights. Lacking the daily transit of the sun for reference to time, we instead look to the stars like our ancestors. At the beginning of our night the Big Dipper sits above our pile to the North West, but soon disappears – it is a Summer constellation and Orion will rise in the East. The impending dawn, and our salvation, is signaled by Venus’ rise, with Regulus, Mars, and Jupiter tagging along behind. The night shift also allows for hidden gems: we witness an incredible light show thanks to the aurora borealis, so great in fact that piling comes to a momentary standstill as every person with a pulse looks to the heavens in amazement; shooting stars are abundant, and for once we are awake and lively during the peak hours of a meteor shower – the Draconids; to top it all off our free hours are during regular business hours – which allows us to do laundry, grocery shop and be somewhat productive for the hour or so after leaving the job site.
The smell of sugar beets permeate everything we wear to the job site. The scent is sweet, earthy and somewhat enjoyable. Bees, wasps and flies seem to enjoy it more than us and invade our camper. We go through a pack of fly strips in just a few days.
The mud that comes off the sugar beets needs to be addressed. A disclaimer should be made upon hiring, but as a fellow worker says to me one chilly night, “it would probably scare people away.” It will cling to everything when moist and somehow through a miracle of physics creates a layer of non-friction. You can, and probably will, slip on this odd substance. When you have to clean the machine you will wonder if this same mud could be used to construct a structure that could survive a direct nuclear attack.
The cold. Well, it is Minnesota. We were told that production would stop if the temperature hit 28ºF. Our brief joy of a shorter shift when the temperature dipped below this was hastily cut down as our foreman stood on an elevated platform and chopped into beets on arriving dump trucks in search of pile-damaging frost. Bummer. The thermometer dropped ever more. Other nights the wind seemed to tear straight through us, and one day no work was done due to hurricane-strength winds.
Only a few days remain after our weather-induced break in the harvest. A freak warm-front heats up the weekend and steals away our over-time and double-time pay days, then rain and wind forestall work on Monday and Tuesday. By Wednesday we only have several more hours of harvest time remaining. As soon as we begin we’re suddenly done piling. We celebrate the last night by racing up the pile of sugar beets with our new friend Elizabeth, belting out triumphant primal calls of joy. The very last last shift our crew cleans the pilers of mud – during the DAY! The sun warmly lights our smiling faces as we drive away from the piling station, opposite of what we are used to at this time of day as the sun nears the horizon.
We hitch our ride home with Rick, excited to have money in our pockets even if we know half of it will go to fixing Darlene’s steering woes. We’ll never forget our time here, but we’re ready for the next adventure!