In October of 2012, David and I were working our first Amazon CamperForce job. There was a fellow Camper who had just finished working the Sugar Beet Harvest (SBH), and his description of the job – short term, good pay, lovely part of the country – has always stayed with us. In fact, we submitted applications in 2014 and 2015, but then declined due to other obligations. This year was our year to check off another RV’er Bucket List Adventure – The Unbeetable Experience!
So, what is the SBH? The American Crystal Sugar Company/Sidney Sugars hires 1,300 people each year, through a temp agency called Express Employment, to help with the sugar beet harvest in Montana, and the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota. These migrant workers come in their cars, vans, bus conversions, and RVs. There are also locals who use their vacation time to make extra money.
The actual jobs available for this workforce are described as follows:
Helper and Sample Taker
Collects beet samples and assists Pile Operator in cleaning. Helper will also communicate with drivers to ensure safe and accurate unloading of trucks.
Maneuvers pile control switches, orchestrates repair work and supervises and assists in the clean up of daily operations.
Operates skidsteer. Must be able to lift 50 lbs.
Now, to the uninitiated, these job descriptions don’t sound so bad. Experience will tell us differently.
The shifts are 12 hrs long, generally 8 am – 8 pm, or 8 pm – 8 am. The harvest work starts on Oct 1, and the worker commitment is for 15 days, or until one is “released”, whichever is first. In 2015, the harvest in MN/ND finished in 9 days.
The pay is the big draw. Starting pay for first year workers is an hourly wage of $12.86 for the first 8 hrs, $19.29 for the next 4 hrs of each workday. Saturday pay is $19.29/hr for the full day, and Sunday pay is $25.72/hr for the full shift. If one is dismissed from work early due to weather or other circumstances, they are paid for a minimum of 4 hrs. Rehires, pile operators and skidster operators make a bit more per hour. A completion bonus of 5% for first year, and 10% for returners is also paid. And finally, a full hookup campsite is provided. The Express Employment ads make these claims:
|Fred and Yvonne from AZ
earned over $4600
|Kay from NM had an
average wage of $16.42/hr
|Butch and Judy from SD
earned over $7100
|Paul from SD had an
average wage of $17.88/hr
One can see why people would travel to work the SBH!
Those are the nuts and bolts. The actual experience is a little bit greater than the parts.
The application process was easy. While working the Amazon CamperForce booth in Quartzsite, AZ in January 2016, we were once again next to the Express Employment booth. We turned in our completed applications with the couple there (who, as we understand it, get a $150 referral bonus for each person who completed their work commitment). Sometime in June, we were called and asked if we were still planning on working. In August, we were told that we were assigned to a campground in Stephen, MN and would be working in Kennedy, MN, a short drive away. Our expected arrival date was September 24. This early arrival was because David was expected to be a Pile Operator, and therefore would need to attend training before the actual harvest began.
We drove from Maine to Minnesota, and arrived on the 23rd. The campground is owned by the city of Stephen, and is actually quite nice. A sign was posted with our name on the site, which happened to be directly next to the wifi router (score!). We have had excellent, unlimited high-speed internet for the entire campaign.
On Saturday, Sept 24, we drove to the Express HQ in Drayton, ND to complete paperwork and watch an orientation video. We also had the pleasure of meeting up with two couples that are friends from Amazon tours in Nevada and Texas.
Here is a map to help keep the locations straight. Yes, we commuted 20 minutes each way to our work site.
We were not needed again until Tuesday, Sept 27, when we received 2 hours of onsite training in Drayton. This training actually was just a visual, standing around a piler, but there were no trucks and no beets, so we really just got a feel for how cold the wind could be, and how many more layers we were going to have to wear! We were also issued our spiffy, clean PPE’s (personal protection equipment): a hardhat, a safety vest, and goggles.
David had piler training at Kennedy on Thursday, Sept 29 for 2 hours, and I had onsite training that same day. For those keeping track, we have now been in MN for 7 days, and “worked” a total of 6 hours. We were questioning why we had to arrive so early, and how we were going to make our 2 weeks worth of food last, as the local grocery stores did not have much to offer. But we took advantage of the time to walk around the town, and to batch cook and freeze soups, beans, rice, and muffins in preparation for the 12 hr shifts scheduled to start on Saturday, Oct 1.
There was a mix up on job assignments before we even got to work on our first day. When I awoke on the morning of Oct 1, I noticed a voice mail from the Kennedy site. Apparently, I had been assigned to the Night schedule, even though no one had contacted me. I called in and said that I was working days, and we were on our way. When we reported to work at 7 am on Oct 1, I was listed on both the day and night schedule, and David was not listed on the schedule at all. Everything looked correct when we left training on Thursday, so we have no idea what happened between then and the start of the campaign.
Day 1 ended at 12:45 pm, as the temperature was too warm for the beet harvest. Apparently, the outdoor temperature cannot exceed 68°F , or the beets will be too warm in the pile and rot. Oct 2, our work day lasted from 8 am to 12:30 pm, again due to heat. This was a bummer for multiple reasons, but primarily because those two days were premium pay days, and thus our opportunity for maximum income was reduced. But this is farming, and mother nature does not always cooperate. These short work days helped break our bodies in to the process, so it was not all bad.
We were surprised to find that David was not assigned the job of pile operator even though that was the training he received, as there was a returner assigned to that position instead. In fact, on the first day, David and I were assigned to different pilers. This made life a little more complicated, as the pilers are not close, and one or the other of us would have to walk a good distance to get to the truck for food and water. This was remedied the second day when we asked the foreman for a switch. David joined me on piler 3, and that completed our crew of two couples. David was relief for our pile operator when he needed breaks and for lunch.
The weather did not cooperate for the SBH for three more days. We had Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off completely. We took time to meet up with friends for lunch at a brewery in Grand Forks, ND and to restock the pantry and fridge. We have now been in MN 12 days, and worked a total of 16.25 hours.
Finally, on Thursday, Oct 6, we have the go ahead to report to work at 11 a.m. for an 8 hour shift. We dress in layers, as it is cold and windy. And the truck won’t start. The batteries are dead! It took two trucks (thank you, fellow work camper Walt!) to get us moving. We recharged on the drive into work, but needed a jump at the end of shift to get us on the road back to the closest Walmart, in Grand Forks (1 hr drive). Two new batteries later, and we were driving home, and in bed by 11 pm. That was a complication that really could have buried us!
From Friday, Oct 7 through Sunday, Oct 16, we worked every day, 12 hr shifts. What did our jobs entail? Well, here are the tools of our trade:
And our workstations? Well, they were the sample taking station:
The Truck Area:
And the Piler Tower and End Dumps:
Now to explain what the actual job entails. As this was our first year, the couple that was working with us, returners, set the stage for how our piler would operate. Piler 3 had a crew of 4: the piler operator (Karl), the boom operator (Colleen) , and two additional grounds people (David and I). A truck full of harvested sugar beets would come through the end dump and stop. There are end dumps on either side of the piler, so David was on one side, I was on the other. I primarily worked the side with the boom and the sample taker. We would greet the truck, write the number of our piler on the trucker’s receipt, and take a sample ticket from the trucker if he had one. The operator would signal for the truck to dump his load, and the conveyors would sift the dirt from the beets, sending the beets up the boom to end up in the growing beet pile. The dirt, or tare, would be returned to the truck and the truck would drive away. We would help direct the trucks forward, backwards, and then clean around where they ignored us. And repeat.
Before, during, and after the unloading of the beets, we would use shovels to keep our work area and the area where the beets would be piled, clear of dirt and other organic material. If it rained (and it did), the area would become more slippery than ice. The dirt is amazing, a black mix of clay that is sticky and globs with amazing thickness. We had dirt and hydraulic fluid raining down on us all day, and were thankful that we were wearing clothing that could be ruined – because it was!
The sample bags would weigh about 20 – 25 lbs each. I could barely lift one when we first started, but by the end of the run, I had no problem with them.
The shoveling, standing for hours, and sheer physicality of the job surprised us. We had been told by many previous “Beeters” that it was the elements that would be most challenging. The wind, the cold, the rain all proved tough, that is for sure. But we layered up, and had really good boots that got us through that part. We probably could have done with better gloves, but once I layered some good fleece gloves under my work gloves, I was much more comfortable.
The length of shift was tough, too. 12 hrs outside is a long time, but we got to see the sunrise and the sunset most days. An incredible bonus was the view of the Northern Lights we had one night on the drive home. It was too spectacular for a picture, so this sunset will just have to do:
It was a challenge to keep David fueled. He burns calories faster than I do (clearly), and I worried about how cold he was. I will let him talk about the effect of the job on his Parkinson’s, if he is so inclined, in a separate post. For me, I burned about 3,000 calories a day, and lost 10 pounds. My fitbit showed around 30,000 steps a day.
When the trucks rolled through at a good pace, the time seemed to go by faster. When we were down to one truck every 15 – 20 minutes, it was tough to stay warm. But we tried to keep moving and keep cleaning.
We had an outside-of-work challenge thrown at us while at work on the 12th. We came home to find that there was no water in the campground. And when we got up on the 13th, it still wasn’t on, so I called the City to discover that they had turned it off and winterized the pipe, with no intention of turning it back on again. They did, however, leave it on in the shower house. That’s two stalls for women, two for men, for a full campground of 24 hour workers. Not ideal. The people at Express arranged for a water truck to deliver water to our rig, but the communication still lacked, and it was Friday before we had a full tank of water to cook and bathe with. If we had some notice from the City, we would have filled our tank. Lesson learned. But the situation did cause some to lose work hours while they relocated to another campground.
The majority of the farms in our location were wrapping up by Friday, the 14th. Remember, we have a 15 day commitment to receive our bonus. There were two large farms that were waiting until the last possible minute to harvest, so work extended into the weekend of the 15th and 16th. We decided that the 16th was our last work day, but could have continued for a couple more days, whether it would be to help process beets or to clean the machines post-harvest. But we were pretty much out of food and energy, so we fulfilled our commitment, plus one day of premium pay, and should finish with around $2,500 each/$5,000 couple in our pocket. Eventually. We are told that the orientation time and the bonus are not paid out until December, but we should see the majority of the pay by October 28.
Here is David’s video summary of our time on Piler 3:
Would we do it again? The jury is still out on that one!
We look forward to hearing what you have to say about this post. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
I am so glad that we could have this chat!
Our Route to get here: