Saturday, October 21, 2006


It has been snowing, wind driven, bone chilling, whitening the grass, but not yet the streets. It will be down in the 20s for the next 5-6 nights.

It is not clear from the phone update, but it sounds as though the beet “campaign” is nearly over. Although the goal is to eventually freeze the piles of beets, the ones in the ground now can’t be harvested if they are already frozen. Everyone watches the temperature and the weather forecast with religious fervor, hoping that a window of above freezing temperatures will let us accept yet more beets.

A day of heavy rain and snow has turned the fields into a sea of mud, slowing the beets to a trickle when it does warm up a bit, and a lot of the piling station is a truck trap. Even walking is treacherous.

We left work early and drove to Grand Forks to go to a UND ice hockey game. Where did all the leaves go? Suddenly, while we were slogging through the beet harvest, winter came in: trees bare, grasses and weeds gone to soft pale gold, and the now empty fields harrowed to show raw dirt so dark brown that it looks scorched. Here and there we see plots of beets that will not be harvested, because the crop this year is much too big for the piling stations to handle. The co-op has a system of reserving a portion of each farmer’s crop so that no one suffers from this glut, and eventually the unharvested beets will be disked under.

The piler yard where we work is pretty full, and the beets stand in 1000 foot long hills. Since it is utterly flat here, these huge piles are a dominant feature, a sort of Christo-like environmental sculpture. The even higher piles of coal and limestone, and the smoke stacks and tanks of the sugar processing plant can be seen for miles away. The steam from the stacks changes with the light, the wind direction and speed, so we use it as a sort of weather vane. It takes on the colors of the sunrise and sunset and at night, the whole yard is lit up and the steam clouds assume the peach color of the lights. The beet piles have been rain washed, and are a khaki color without the black mud on them. As we begin to add new muddy beets, it looks like a chocolate sauce over a monstrous vanilla cake

Between the piles and the river are vast settling ponds. We can’t see them because the containment berms are too high, but we can see huge shovels and pit mine sized dump trucks against the horizon, busy moving stuff around. When the wind comes from the East, the smell is pretty bad. The dirt from under the pilers is carried up there, we can see hillocks of it, and higher piles of grey material. I think that the river of processing water that goes through the plant must end out here to settle particles out before being cleaned. (one hopes, probably they used to just dump it into the Red River of the North.)

It is a very strange place; a huge investment in time, money and hard work, fueled by our insatiable need for sugar in and on everything. There is the equivalent of 13 teaspoons of sugar in every can of soda, there is sugar in catsup, barbecue sauce, and many canned foods, and in the mountain of candy that our children will gorge themselves on next weekend. Sugar was once a scarce treat, it does have uses in preserving foods, but it has taken on a grossly huge place in our food culture. Like white bread, once the food of the elite, sugar has become a symbol for the American dream. Our parents remember rationing and the scarcities of the Great Depression. Our grandparents remember a variety of famines, wars or poverty that made sugar an impossible luxury. What more powerful symbol of prosperity is there than lots and lots of sugar?

I think these gloomy thoughts as I stand exhausted hour after hour in the cold. It’s true I need the money, but it seems a hollow as well as chilly endeavor. There will be a form of bonus for those of us who stick it out until they say it’s over, and true to form I still can’t bring myself to just quit. Yesterday, they called us all in but so few trucks came in with beets that I spent 8 hours sitting in the truck. Since it is a diesel, it is not good to let it idle constantly, and I was pretty cold. And bored. But will she quit? Nope, not yet. Dumb and dumber. I am noticing that my feet are less and less able to stay warm unless I am moving around. Poor circulation, no doubt. Don is still working a full day, lubricating pilers and doing other mechanical maintenance chores (and getting paid much more than me, alas) and so if I quit, I am still here on the chilly border line, in the northcountry far, where the wind hits heavy.

The fifth wheel is bigger and less weatherproof than the Airstream and even using the free electricity it isn’t very warm in here: too much interior cubic footage, a lot of lightly insulated wall space, and rather leaky single pane windows. Although there are brands of RV’s that are designed for winter camping, the idea is to go away from the cold, not to stay up here in the north. I wonder if the Canada geese that no longer migrate feel this way. Many of the Hispanic workers live in TX for the winter and the colder it gets, the louder we all say “vamanos a Texas!”. Especially when a snow flurry blows in on a brisk north wind.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sugar Beets 2

Driving north out of Drayton, ND, the American Crystal Sugar plant fills the sky with plumes of steam, stacks and giant metal retorts. Even from town, when the wind is right, you can smell the beets cooking: at first just like regular beets and then sweeter and also less pleasant as the chopped up beets are boiled, treated with lime, filtered and finally dried into white granulated sugar. This plant is fueled by coal, so there are RR cars full of it and piles of it, and piles of dirty white lime stone chunks, and a constant stream of big neon green semis pulling wire sided trailers full of beets to the plant. The trucks are actually lifted up off the ground, still hooked together, and tipped until the beets tumble out into a hopper of some sort. All night long, we can hear the trucks jake brake to slow down for the exit off the interstate that goes to the plant. I can see trucks driving off with tan fluffy stuff in them, the pulp I guess. I hope to take a tour of the main plant when my work is over, I work out behind the plant, on the beet pilers.

As we drive into the piling area, the night crew is still working and it is dark, but the pilers have lights on and around them, and the trucks full of dirty gray beets are lined up for their turn to dump in one of 8 piling stations. We punch in and drive right up to our assigned piler, which looks pretty big from 300 feet away and close up it is enormous. , A huge orange beast, rattling and clanking while the trucks roar, a noisy bobcat cleans up messes and various other trucks come and go to service it. An angry insect, a hungry dinosaur, fed and placated by endless tons of beets and waited on by 4-5 muddy humans in hard hats, neon green vests, booted and gloved. It is actually 6 conjoined conveyor belts mounted on wheels, run by a 3” dia 440v electrical chord. It faces a pile of beets maybe 30’ high and 100’ wide and retreats from it as it piles along the face of the mountain. Here the beets will sit, eventually frozen, until the plant next door needs them.

The back “legs” are two platforms, the “end dumps” about 18” high that the trucks drive up over, wait for the flaps to come up and then back up and dump the beets into the belt below. The trucks range from fair sized dump trucks to full length 18 wheelers with a belt feed. (I call these pee trucks, because they take so long to unload that I can get to the portapotty)The piler operator sits in a wheel house up in the air between the two truck dumps and turns on first one side, then the other and the beets run up a central conveyor. Under this is a dirt catching conveyor that follows it up and catches what shakes off. . The dirt goes to another pair of conveyors at right angles that catch the dirt that is shaken off to return it to the trucks. They only get paid for beets and get weighed again on the way out to subtract the dirt weight. Beyond there, the beets travel into a sort of conveyor rotary and go out onto an 80’swinging conveyor boom which takes it up to the pile and dumps it.

And what do I do? The trucks are given a weight ticket as they come in through the scale house, and I have to go and put the piler number on it. I must not do this before the driver is actually feeding or I may distract him and slow up the river of beets. After he has finished, he will either drive forward or turn and back under the dirt return conveyor, guided by me, and then I turn on the belt so he gets his dirt, and he is off for another run.

The scale house randomly gives trucks a sample ticket. Since the farmer is paid according to the sucrose content of the beets, I take this ticket with a bar code, put it in a pocket on a bag, pull the bag up around a chute, wait for the light to come on saying it is his beets and push a button. Up above a scoop clanks into the moving beets and dumps about 35 lbs of sugar beets down the chute, crash, into the bag. I wrestle it off, wrap its tie up and stack it with the other samples. Sometimes I have to hustle to get back to run out the dirt, and the footing is treacherous.

Between these jobs I keep the dirt, and pieces of beets out of the area by pushing it under the machine. It reappears as we all move backward from the pile and a bobcat takes the mess away. The beets are stored right on the concrete pad, so we try to keep it pretty clean.

Clean ? Hardly. The mud underfoot cakes on my boots until I am an inch taller, the tools, the sample bags, and every surface of the piler are covered with mud. And so am I by the end of the shift. We just climb back into our dirty coveralls the next day.

Another job is controlling the boom which dribbles beets onto the pile. It can move from side to side to evenly distrubute the beets, and when we are too close to the pile, the crawler feet must be turned on to go back 3’. Three loud beeps and a flashing light and it clanks back. If it doesn’t go back soon enough, the end of the boom jams and stops. And someone has to climb up the pile and clear it. We also have to be sure that the fat cable doesn’t get buried in the beet mountain.

Monday, today is my third day. It has been too warm every day since I started on Sat to run the whole day, so I have had a nice break in period or working only 7-8 hours each day, not the full 12. Tomorrow will be in the 50’s so I’ll get my full hours in. And also, it will be chilly. I hate being cold, and dread 12 hours of being cold. I think there is enough to do to keep me moving and I have all sorts of clothes in the truck parked nearby.

Some of the beets are piled in sheds, and some out in the open, where they will freeze, and have air blown under the piles to keep them from heating up and rotting. My first two days were outside, now I am inside, which is noisier and darker, but will be warmer and out of the wind.

Although I am still unsure what 12 hours of this will be like, I do like it. A complicated dance with machines and people and beets and dirt, several different cycles that intersect and sometimes interrupt each other and occasionally a break for one person or a badly driven truck will change the dance. My second day I had to do the trucks, learn how to do the boom and try to train 2 young Hispanic girls all at once, which was a little frantic, but a little like teaching high school. I also like being in the real world, away from the rich and bored of Hart Ranch. Nobody around here washes their vehicles, everyone parks on the grass in this campground in a city park in Drayton. And everyone has way too much to do to be looking for infractions.

Saturday- It is 77 and too warm. Even the night crew was off last night, but tomorrow will be 55 and they say snow flurries for Wed.!!

As of last night we have piled 1,400,000 TONS and we still have 2,500,000 TONS to go.
And that's just our station, this years crop is 11,500,000 TONS. More beets than stars in the sky.

I am part of one of the fastest pilers, in trucks per hour. The night crew on my machine has two women doing my job, and two on the boom control side. We have two over there also. The operator is a young Hispanic woman who is fluid and efficient at the multiple things she must handle all at once. I want to learn how to run the piler, but I don’t know if she speaks enough English to train me. The other two are Nancy, a probably Polish young woman and Nelson, about 18 and Hispanic. I am the oldest piler worker by decades and one of only a few non-Hispanics.

I am very pleased with myself to be able to keep up and do this hard work. The worst part is cleaning the mud off the sides of the inner guts. I have a heavy scraper and must pound away at this compacted dirt and pry and pound. Many sore muscles after the first two times, but now I am OK. I even put on a safety harness and climbed up into the bowels of the dirtcatcher, the least favorite job of all. I seem to work harder physically the older I get, what happened to that expensive education ?

It occurs to me that there is a good chance not all of the workers are legal. There has been much political racket about this lately. There are apparently millions of illegals in the country, mostly doing the jobs, like this one, that the locals won’t do. I don’t know the whole story, but I can tell you this: without them, the beets wouldn’t get piled, and I suspect this is true everywhere there is hard, unpleasant physical work to be done. Aside from the fact that we are ALL (except the Native Americans) immigrants, and not all that legal, I wonder what there is that can really be done about the “situation”. Clearly they can’t be kept out, nor can we bus them back to where ever they came from.

I suspect that after some snorting and fist shaking it will die down again. The captains of too many industries depend on them. The cranky ranchers who are tired of being on the pathway, and those who are made nervous by darker skin and the Spanish language will go on complaining, and will make good press and TV. I wish I had some quotes from what the Bostonians thought of the Irish back then, and the Italians. Who would have built the subways of NYC ?

I wish that my Spanish was better, probably it will be after another week.