Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ten Days of Work

American Crystal Sugar Company
Hillsboro Processing Plant
Hillsboro, ND
GPS: 47.434612, -97.062921

There was not much opportunity for socializing beyond the members of our piler crew. However, I could easily see that the labor force was diverse — male, female; old, young; all ethnicities, with many Spanish speaking; very big men to petite women. We did get to meet one man who was living at our campground with his family. He worked the day shift, his wife worked nights. For about an hour, twice a day, at shift change, the Camp Host watched the kids while Mom and Dad switched.

It didn’t take long for us to get acquainted with the truck drivers and discern distinct patterns. Most of the farms are agri–businesses. Some operating a fleet of 25 or more trucks. Some had the crops they farm included in their logo. One, for example, had a sugar beet, an ear of corn, and a sheaf of wheat cleverly woven into the name of the farm to make his logo on the doors of his trucks.

We learned that many drivers were hired by the farmers just for the harvest and they too were working twelve-hour shifts. One told us that it takes about seven minutes to fill the truck and the truck holds beets from roughly one acre of land. It takes less than five minutes to dump the beets. Add some time for waiting in lines at the piler and twice at the weigh station. The rest of the time is commuting to and from the fields. Farmers close-by cycle much faster than those far out. So we could see the same truck and driver every half hour or so. During busy times, trucks were lined up three or four deep on both sides of the piler.

Sometimes wives and kids would ride along. Sometimes wives would drive themselves. Some hired drivers were women. One female hired driver was a single Mom from out of state and her son accompanied her almost all the time.

Then there was the “pink lady”. Dang! I didn’t get a picture of her. One female driver wore a pink sweatshirt, a pink baseball cap, and makeup to the hilt. It only took a couple cycles to recognize her. One evening after work, I stopped at Casey’s General Store and she was working the cash register (without the sweatshirt and baseball cap). As I was checking out, I asked, “Do you have a pink baseball cap?” She lit up and replied “Yes. Are you working on piler #3?” I think most people have more than one job just to get by.

On the front bumper of just about every truck is a fixture obviously meant for pulling the truck. I never noticed these on highway trucks. Since farm trucks spend a lot of time in the fields they get stuck in the mud often. These fixtures are for quick and easy hook up to pull them out.

With many different makes of trucks, I started taking pictures of the front grill works thinking I might make a picture album for our grandsons. We’ll see.

When a truck arrives at the piler, he/she pulls through, then the operator opens the hopper behind them. The truck backs up against the hopper and raises the trailer to dump the beets. Forward, Back, Box Up, Box Down instructions are transmitted from the operator to the driver by lights positioned so that the driver can see them.

Believe it or not, this was the first time in my life I had to punch a time clock. We had to clock in no earlier that seven minutes before eight and clock out no later than seven minutes after eight. So just around eight o’clock, the little building with the time clock got very busy. Thirty-six people clocking in followed immediately by thirty-six people clocking out.

Work shifts were twelve hours long – 8 to 8. We worked days. On the very first day, they tried to assign us to the night shift. We put our foot down on that. When we signed up last January and again when we did all the paperwork at the beginning, we specified “days only”. We were not willing to stand out in the cold all night. They resolved that situation to our satisfaction.

When we arrived for work in the morning, the sun was up and bright but it was still cold. As the day progressed, we peeled off layers of clothing. Then at sunset we began putting them back on. The last two hours were always dark, cold, and long. We looked forward with anticipation to the approaching headlights of the night shift. Sometimes it was just another truck wanting to be our last customer for the day.

We were allowed to bring our vehicles to the area near the piler so our truck became the place where we took breaks and ate lunch. We purchased enough freezer blocks to have two sets – one working in the portable cooler and one at home in the freezer.  We switched them every morning. 

Every day we brought sandwiches, six bottles of water, and one or two containers of yogurt in the cooler. Plus we had packages of cheese crackers, peanut butter crackers, and bags of peanuts in our truck. So at every break, we used the Porta–John then went to our truck for something to eat and drink.

Most trucks we encountered during the sugar beet harvest were clean and well cared for. Dirty at the moment because of their job, under the dirt you could see a fine piece of machinery. But this old guy got into my head and cracked open the memory of a movie I saw long ago.

Time for some research. The only memory string I had to grab was my recollection that the main character of the movie was Dennis Weaver. That's all it took. A quick search brought it all back.

The movie was Duel. Filmed in 1971, it was Steven Spielberg's first directing job. The film's protagonist, David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver), while traveling on a freeway, gets chased by a big truck whose driver, for no explained reason, wants to kill him. The truck, a large rusty 1955 Peterbilt 281 gasoline tanker is one of the most sinister automotive movie characters ever. The truck driver is never fully shown. This gives more character to the truck, to the point that the vehicle becomes the actual antagonist.

I think I’ll buy the CD and scare the snap out of my grandsons during our Christmas visit.

If this interests you, check out these two websites
Unsung Films
Movie Fanfare

Back on the subject. Without the Skidsteer, the area around the piler would quickly become overwhelmed with trash. Beyond that, we worked at keeping our work area clean. We cleaned up with shovels and brooms what the Skidsteer could not reach. Crushed beets made a mess faster than the Skidsteer could keep up, especially since the Skidsteer had the task of laying down the culvert for the forced ventilation system. Mud quickly built up on the bottom of our boots. Scraping off the mud and sweeping it away was a constant chore.

After the first week, things slowed down. Drivers reported that they had only two or three days of work left to empty the fields. We noticed some farms disappear from the lineup and truck traffic was definitely thinning out. Some piles were full and were being shut down, with the workers being assigned to other pilers. That gave us too many people and we were tripping over each other. We knew the harvest was about over. On Saturday, 10 Oct, we got the call from Express Employment Professionals telling us we were done. Any remaining work would be handled by the full–time employees. I sent this ePostcard to our workamping friends

Not unexpectedly, fatigue was a problem for us. We are not in great shape physically and standing on concrete for twelve hours straight did have an effect. The first night we were absolutely wiped out – straight home, leave the muddy boots outside, grab a snack, and crash. It got better as the days passed (maybe it was the pain pills). However, accumulated fatigue began to take hold and by the last day I hurt from head to toe. We signed up expecting three weeks. By day ten I seriously doubted that I could have made three weeks.

When Express Employment Professionals called to “lay us off”, I asked about how fast we had to vacate the campground. They said, “Don’t worry about it. Take your time”. The campground manager told me that EEP had rented and paid for sixty sites for forty–five days, so there was no hurry to clear out. That was good to hear. We took a couple days to relax, do one last laundry, and pack up. We left Hillsboro on Wednesday, 14 Oct and began our trip east.

Posts about the Sugar Beet Harvest

Hillsboro, North Dakota, we have arrived

Some paperwork to get us started

A trip to the Hillsboro factory for some OJT

Notes and pictures on our ten days of work

A quick summary of the annual campaign of sugar beet processing

Bigger than a coconut, smaller than a football. Here is the story on the sugar beet

I was very impressed with the big machine we worked on. I thought you might like to learn more.

How big is a pile that contains 90,000 tons? Here are some pictures and figures

Harvesting root crops produces dirt. How to handle and dispose of it is an interesting side story

A $20 billion industry with 142,000 jobs in 22 states. Take a look at the Sugar Beet Industry

Get a closer look at the company providing this workamping opportunity.

If you are a workamper interested in short term hard work for big bucks, here’s the link

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