Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Beet Harvest (Sidney, Mt)

We SURVIVED!!!!  In a nut shell the beet harvest was far more difficult then we expected.  The greatest challenge was the weather.  We had a few moderate days but mostly the weather was in the miserable category!  The temperatures were frequently in the 30's and low 40's coupled with wind, rain (producing horrible sticky mud within minutes) and even a little snow.  One day when we reported to work we had temps in the mid 30's with winds of 25 - 30 mph.  That was a day to remember! So the weather was a big deal!  Between the time we committed to the harvest and when the weather turned ugly we had made numerous trips to thrift stores to accumulate the necessary clothing to withstand the elements.  Some days Debbie had on 3 pair of pants and I often had on 6-8 layers of clothing.
Normal beet harvest attire.  Yes, it was that dirty!
Bill modeling rain attire.

Hated that mud!
Most days we worked 12 hours with some 13 and 14 hour days during the first week.  It was quickly determined that more then 12 hours was too much to ask of a work force mostly  in the 60 - 70 age group. Our supervisor was a great fellow but new to the harvest routine so maybe his expectations needed a little tweaking.  Most of us will remember him in the fondest of terms.

Our supervisor Todd...nice guy!
 The degree of difficulty varied depending on your assigned position.  I eventually became a piler operator, made a little more money and the work was not physically demanding.  My job was to operate a huge piece of machinery that piled the beets.

There were 3 pilers at the site. We were assigned to Piler 2. Trucks would pull up and dump
their beets on both sides of the piler simultaneously.
Trucks from the farmers' fields drove up onto the piler, dumped their beets and moved on.  My job was to operate "doors" allowing the trucks to pass, and conveyor belts moving the beets. Very fast paced and mostly unrelenting but not physically hard work.

Duane at work.  One side,

then the other.
Piler Operator work area and controls.  At least it was covered.
Conveyer belt
Area of piler where beet samples are taken

There were 4 of us assigned to Piler 2. Debbie and a delightful Sharon had two of the most demanding jobs at our piling site.  Others were theoretically assigned the same tasks at the other pilers, but our piler just happened to be harder to work around.  As a helper, Debbie's duties should have primarily been to take a ticket from the truck drivers, bag some sample beets, direct the trucks while they backed up to receive dirt and pick up a few beets to keep the area clean.  Unfortunately, our piler spilled hundreds of beets so a "few beets" became an enormous task. Eventually, an additional flap was added to the one side of our piler that spilled the most beets. It did help somewhat, but picking up beets was still an issue.  If you're not familiar with a sugar beet, they range in size from a sweet potato to something larger then a soccer ball.

Those beets could be heavy!  Just ask Sharon!!

Also our piler rained heavy, sticky mud falling from the varied conveyor belts.  Unfortunately, Debbie and Sharon spent a significant portion of their "down time" raking, hoeing and shoveling this heavy mud off our piler so that it would continue to operate correctly.  But the real work horse of our team was Sharon's husband Dale.  He continually moved from one task to the next with no end in sight.  He picked up beets by the hundreds, shoveled mud and ran wherever he was needed to accomplish the mission. He also was invaluable in helping me determine when we needed to move  the piler back so that I didn't run the end of the piler "boom" into the pile of beets.  As often is the case in the RVing world, it's the people you meet that make this lifestyle special.  Dale and Sharon are just down to earth, hard working Texans with enormous heart and we just loved working with them! 

Dale and Sharon.  Miss you guys!
We enjoyed multiple group hugs and Dale and Sharon's presence made all the challenges more bearable.

A great team!
And don't let me short change anyone assigned to our piling site.  It was a terrific group of hard working folks and we're hopeful we'll cross paths again sometime in the future.

Life during the harvest revolved around checking the weather, reporting to work about 6:30am, clock in, work 12 hours, drive 20 miles back to our campsite, eat and sleep. Occasionally we would be off a part or whole day for rain.  I previously mentioned that our good friends Bill and Rena were there as well.  Bill worked at our piling site and Rena worked evenings at the lab in town.  Rena's lab job involved testing sample beets for sugar content.  The farmers are paid for their beets based on the determined sugar level.

And, because Rena has the heart of an angel, she cooked for us EVERY day we worked. Now we're not talking Hamburger Helper. We're talking full scale, well balance meals complete with home made desserts!!!!!! Just one more variable that made the whole routine more tolerable. Speaking of Bill and Rena it was great having them with us to "enjoy" this unique experience. I won't speak too much of Bill's outstanding character for fear of him getting the "big head." Bill was assigned elsewhere at the piling site. Regardless, he steadily appeared at our piler to help out knowing the team faced some heavy challenges, even though it was not required of him at all. Thanks Bill!!  We rarely saw Rena because we were on opposite shifts but her presence was enormous via her meals! Rena, now referred to as Aunt Rena by Bo and Laska, also walked the boys every afternoon we were at work.  We would normally be gone a little more then 13 hours a day and that would have been a ferociously looooong stretch for the boys.  They were soooo greatful!!!!

Bill had a job in "ventilation", which involved laying pipe throughout the beet piles
to enhance air flow in the pile, helping to preserve the beets until they were
taken to the factory for processing.

And now for the burning question; would we do it again?  Debbie's answer is currently a resounding NO!  I would do it again so maybe we'll return one day and I'll be a piler operator and Debbie could work in the lab. The lab presents some challenges but you're inside, the work is less physically demanding and you work far fewer hours. But for now we'll just tip toe around that subject.  Having said all that, we are seriously considering working at Amazon next year.  Oh yes, the other burning question, $.  We netted about $5500. Although we were in Sidney close to a month, we only worked around 15 days due to weather delays. After the official harvest start date, we were also paid four hours each for those days we couldn't begin working due to weather.

If we thought our challenges ended with the beet harvest (which we affectionately refer to as the Beet Festival)  we were wrong.  As we left east Montana last Wednesday morning the weather turned on us.  The drive home was 1550 miles.  The evening of the first day's drive presented a fair amount of snow. 

Arriving at the campground Wed. afternoon
The next morning was a winter wonderland complete with an inch of ice and a few inches of snow on top of our slides.

Snow in Douglas, Wy.

The slides wouldn't come in!  I had to climb up onto the top of the camper to rake the snow off each slide. I eventually scored a 10 foot ladder from the campground maintenance shed and hosed off the top of the slides to melt the ice while Debbie retracted them as soon as they were free.  The first hour or two on the road was mighty questionable.  We had snow and ice on the roads as well as white out fog.  Debbie "suggested" repeatedly that maybe we should get off the road before we died!  We carefully persevered and conditions steadily improved.  Also, the night time temperatures were in the teens. We drug out an old electric blanket that we've hauled around for years.  We cranked that baby up and slept snug as a bug! The next evening we stayed in Colorado City, Co and had more snow.  The following morning the challenge was again the accumulation of snow on top of the slides.  As they come in the snow piles at the outer edge preventing the slide from closing all the way.  Time on top of the camper with the snow and ice was a little tricky for the old man but I live to Blog!

After three and a half days of driving we arrived in Green Valley and slipped into our humble abode.  It's great to be home and lord knows we're enjoying the warm weather!  The past few days have been devoted to cleaning the truck and camper, moving stuff into the house and settling into another very comfortable lifestyle.  Sometimes our life seems too good to be true.

In about 10 days we leave to go Las Vegas for a week.

Did I mention life is TOO GOOD!!!!

It's been un"beet"able,



Saturday, October 6, 2012

Beetviille (Sidney, Mt)

Howdy folks.  Here I am reporting from Beetville.  You haven't heard from us recently because for the past two weeks we've mostly just been treading water waiting for the harvest to begin.  I won't bore you with daily details but I will paraphrase some so you can picture our current and upcoming routine.  As beet harvest employees, we won't be working in a beet field (we knew that prior to our arrival).  We are assigned to a site where tons of beets are to be brought from the farmers' fields and dumped.  More accurately, they are piled using a huge piece of machinery called, imagine, a piler.  The piles will be about 18 feet tall, maybe 30 to 40 feet wide and conceivably hundreds of yards long. There are many of these sites in eastern Montana and in North Dakota. Ours is located in Savage, MT about 20 miles from where we're camped. We visited the site a few days after our arrival.  They were just  beginning to set it up.  Our job will include directing trucks, mechanically taking samples of beets to later be tested for sugar content in the lab and keeping the area "clean" doing a little shovel work. I'm told that I may also spend some time as a piler operator.  

Our work site

Sugar beet art on site

Another view of piler
Beet shoot.  The samples we take come down the shoot into a large sack we will be holding.

The start of a pile of beets taken at another site
The catch thus far is that we haven't yet seen a beet at our site so we have no first hand info on what our daily routine will include.  Our work to date includes about two hours completing our employment paperwork and watching a safety video.  In addition to that we've spent about 6 hours over two different days doing some on-site training.   Our hourly wage is pennies less than $12 an hour with time and a half over 8 hours and time and a half all day Saturday and Sunday.  We got paid 2 hours for doing our paperwork and watching the video.  Now here's the really cool part of our beet career. We're also getting paid for 4 hours each for every day since 29 September that we don't work. Beets have been delivered at other piling sites for reasons we don't understand but so far we have not been able to work.  So today is Friday and as I sit here blogging Debbie and I are "earning" about $96!  Not huge money but nice for the old retirees.  To harvest or not to harvest is largely controlled by weather.  The temperature of the beet in the ground has to be something less than 54 degrees.  When we first arrived the daytime temps were consistently in the mid 70's.  But a cold front was to be here by this past Wednesday.  It arrived but so did more rain then they have seen all summer.  So for now we're idle until the fields and piling site dries out some.  The current prediction is that we'll begin with gusto Sunday.  If all goes well our workday should be something like 7am to 7pm. (paid lunch and breaks) and the harvest should last about three weeks. So back to the money. From our point of view, all this sitting around just contributes to our net income.  It costs us nothing to sit here.  We have a free campsite at the fairgrounds in Sidney, MT.

Richland County fairgrounds

Our site

There are about 30 other campers here with many more across the state in other locations.  Our only criteria is that we "need"  to be home in time to be in Las Vegas for a week beginning 10 Nov.

The truth is we have not been entirely idle.  Our friends Bill and Rena are here as well and we have done a little sightseeing.   The local area is dominated with agricultural activity and oil production so we have taken some interest (that means pictures) in that, particularly when see see a beet field .

Defoliating beets      
Digging beets
Loading beets
 One day we visited the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center.  This is Lewis and Clark territory, so if that interests you, any mention of the Missouri river is exciting. There were some pretty views of the rivers and the interpretive center was nice.

Adjacent to the confluence is the site of what was Fort Buford.  This is where Sitting Bull surrendered so there is ample info about that event.  The fort barely exists but there is an old cemetery that was morbidly interesting to walk through.

 The headstones told how everyone died.

That same day we also visited Fort Union which is located only a few miles from Fort Buford.

This is a fully restored trading post originally built by John Astor's American Fur Company in 1828.  In the day, they did about $100,000 worth of trade primarily with local Indian tribes.  The staff there was highly motivated to share info so that was a great stop. 

Our only other outing of interest was to the Fairview Bridge and Cartwright Tunnel.

The bridge, built in 1913,  is 2994 feet long and has a mid section that was designed to lift vertically to allow river traffic to pass underneath.

The bridge lifted once for an operational test.  It was never activated again because river traffic on the Lower Yellowstone River ceased in 1912. The views of the river from the bridge were quite nice with lots of fall color.

 Apparently Bill and I found lots to look at while crossing the bridge.

 At the eastern end of the bridge is the Cartwright  Tunnel.  It is 1456 feet long with a 3 degree curve making it impossible to see from one end to the other.

The tunnel was also completed in 1913.  The bridge and tunnel intermittently carried vehicular and train traffic until 1986.  We walked both the bridge and the tunnel.  That was interesting with the tunnel being "a little spooky!"  Of course I hid and jumped out to scare Debbie and Rena..  I'm so mature!

So that's the deal.  Day to day a big outing is the grocery store or, my favorite, going to the Laundromat.  I like immediate gratification.  Dirty clothes become clean clothes.  I''m easily impressed.   We're getting plenty of sleep, read, watch the tube, Debbie researches everything known to man and we watch the weather.  As of this moment we will begin work on Sunday at 11:00am. I imagine soon we'll be beet.

Well, guess I'll beet it for now.