Hillsboro Campground was nice. It wasn't fancy, but the sites are shaded, level and full hook-ups. The laundry room was very nice, with 5 nice sized front loading washers and 4 large dryers. There's a "Chicken Shack" on the property open Tuesday and Friday nights selling fried chicken dinners that were pretty good. We met several nice folks that were also working the harvest, some for several years. We were assigned to Larry and Betty Harmon's team, workampers who also blog at Mountainborn. Really nice folks from Arkansas, who will also be joining us at Campbellsville. Woodland Park in Hillsboro was a really nice town park, that seems to be severely underused...but we were there every day, and the dogs had a great time. Just before our decision to leave we found two lovely young ladies in the campground who were very happy to walk the dogs for us. The foremen at the sites were very nice, and seemed to appreciate that we were there. We found a few geocaches while waiting to start. Cell service (ATT) was great, and my Verizon aircard picked up 4G no problem.
The town of Hillsboro was downright spooky...there never seemed to be anyone around, no matter what day or time. The area has been hit very hard by the strike that is over a year old by the union workers in the processing plant. There's a small grocery store in town that isn't bad, and a small hardware store, several bars, a drugstore. There's a museum, but it was closed as of Labor Day. The campground was right on the interstate, and the road noise was hard to get used to, especially when some of the trucks going by were actually making the trailer shake. The train tracks were fairly close, and several went by at all hours, whistles blowing. The closest "real" shopping is 45 miles south in Fargo. We had hoped to be assigned to the Hillsboro site, but ended up going to Reynolds, 20 miles away (although better than Ada which was 40 miles away).
You are out in a completely open field. You are at the mercy of the fierce winds sweeping across these fields. The dirt is blowing in your face. You must be comfortable being in close proximity to huge trucks, and always be watching for the skidsters buzzing around in the bobcats. The beets are huge!
These are not your little red beets you have for dinner!
If the piler happens to break down, or its wet out and everything clogs up with mud, you have to climb up onto the piler and clean it all off. You're wearing layers of clothing to stay warm, making it difficult to move easily. During your breaks ( officially 20 minutes for meal break, and 3 10 minute breaks) there is no place to go except into your vehicle to get out of the elements. There's a port-a-john for restroom needs. Have you ever tried removing layers of clothing in a port-a-john that's shimmying around in the wind? I don't advise it.
That being said, our first night at work wasn't too bad. The harvest officially opened at 12:01AM Wednesday morning, so we were to report to our stations at 10PM Tuesday night to make sure everything was ready to go. Temperatures were in the 40's, and the wind was only blowing lightly. The trucks started arriving right on schedule, and our team went to work.
This is the piler, clean and ready to get going.
The conveyor that the beets go up, and you can see the boom out front...the beets spill off of the boom, and pile up on the runway. This is before we started, note there are no beets yet.
A truck at my station, unloading the beets into the hopper. What I've done before he starts dumping is wait for the truck to come through, back up to the hopper, and set their brake...I don't go near the truck until I hear that break set. Then I walk over to their window, take their ticket from them, mark the piler they're at, my initials, and sample if they have a sample ticket. If they have a sample ticket, I have to go to the other side of the piler, collect a sample (about 20-25 lbs. of beets) in a bag, seal it and set it aside for collection. Then I run back and direct the truck under the dirt conveyer so the dirt can be dumped back into their truck. Hopefully they watch and get the truck under correctly, otherwise the dirt dumps on the ground and then we have to clean it up!You can see in the picture how the beets spill out of the hopper and collect all over the ground. We also have to keep this cleaned up, using the shovels you can see hanging up on the left side of the picture.
Betty, myself and Maria waiting for the first trucks to arrive. Like I said, our first night wasn't bad. It was cold, but not too bad. It was dry. Once it started there were always trucks waiting to dump, but we took care of them in a calm, orderly fashion. The work isn't hard, per se, but at times the shoveling could get heavy, and the bags holding the samples were hard to get fastened closed. Oh, the conveyor you see going up from the right side of the picture is the dirt conveyor that we back the trucks up to. Sunrise was absolutely beautiful, both for the scenery and the fact that it meant our shift was almost over :-)! I really thought at this point that I could do this!
The Really Ugly:
During the day Tuesday the weather forecast had put up a winter weather advisory. Snow was possibly coming into the area starting Wednesday night. Wednesday morning we stumbled into the trailer at the end of our shift. Thankfully, the dogs had done just fine overnight without us, no messes to clean up. I checked the weather, and we now had a winter storm watch in effect...rain, changing to snow, with high winds Wednesday night into Thursday. We went to bed, and unfortunately did not really get a lot of sleep, the bodies were rebelling against going to be at 9AM. Got up mid afternoon, and now we have a winter storm warning: high winds (40-50mph), rain, changing to snow by early morning, possibly 6 inches accumulation. Blizzard conditions. Really??!!
So, I hear you say...how can they harvest beets in those conditions? My question exactly, but we reported to work at 8PM as directed. They were kind enough to hand out rain gear, overalls and jackets. Once I got those on over my other layers, I could barely move. I felt like the little kid in "A Christmas Story". Out at the piler, the trucks were coming fast and furious. And it wasn't too bad. The wind was the worst, blowing so hard, and dirt was blowing all over the place. We had a thermos of hot chocolate, and that did make me feel better at break time and meal break. At midnight things started to go south. The rain started, and the mud started building up. It was making it quite slippery walking around, which I didn't care for being around those trucks. It was also making it difficult for the drivers to see me in their mirrors as I was trying to back them up. So dirt was going everywhere between the wind and the dumping. That was making matters even worse with mud. Then, around 2AM, the freezing rain started. The wind was blowing so hard it was going sideways, and smacking you right in the face. It really hurt! I couldn't imagine that they would keep going...but they did. Around 3AM we were told we should be shut down soon, as the trucks were starting to get bogged down in the fields. By 4AM we were still going,although not a steady a stream of trucks. Unfortunately, out of the three pilers at our site, the other two were broken down, mostly due to weather. We took our break, although we had held off thinking we'd be finished soon. I had to go back to the truck, I couldn't feel my toes anymore, and my second pair of gloves was soaked through. When we returned, we found our piler had broken down as well. Joy of joy. I thought maybe this would get them to shut down, but no dice. Ours was the easiest fix, so once we were up and running again, our piler took care of the last 7 trucks that needed dumping before the site finally shut down. I am eternally grateful to Larry and Al for letting us wait it out in our trucks, and even once it was fixed, they took care of it as I couldn't move by that point. I just wanted to go home. I've never been so cold in my life. And we still had to drive 20 miles back to the campground in blizzard conditions. You could hardly see. It was unbelievable. So it was 6:30AM when the site shut down, and almost 8AM by the time we got back to the trailer.
The next night was forecast to have more rain/snow, and windchills in the teens. Thank goodness, no, they did not call us in to work. As a matter of fact, its been shut down since then, and may possibly start tomorrow night, although at this point I'm going to be cynical and say they won't start again until Monday so they don't have to pay people the overtime rate for Sunday.
This is really hard to explain, but I just didn't feel that it is worth it. Thank goodness we are in a position where we don't positively HAVE to have that money in order to survive...I have a feeling many of the folks doing it are in that position. After being subjected to those conditions and, in my opinion, unsafe conditions, I feel that management doesn't give a rap about the folks working on the ground. The site should have been shut down long before it was. I can understand not cancelling harvesting on a forecast, but once it became apparent a blizzard was in effect, it should have been called. Al and I are in this adventure not just to work, but to enjoy ourselves while doing so. To be physically and mentally miserable is not in the game plan, and what we left behind us. Knowing that Amazon wanted him ASAP, we double checked with his boss there, who said "come!", talked to Larry and Betty, and then called our rep at Express and put in our resignation. I personally feel that if we had been shut down when the weather first started deteriorating, I may have felt like I could stick it out. But I never want to be in that condition again. And I'm not taking a chance that I will.
The other thing that is misleading is that they tell you that the harvest takes between 2 and 3 weeks and you're done. So you're expecting to get there, work 2-3 weeks and get out. They don't tell you that if harvest conditions aren't right, you don't work. And don't get paid. So like we got there 9/23, trained the next day, and then sat for 8 days. Doing nothing. Then worked two nights. Now they're down again for at least 3 nights. It just isn't for us, and I feel bad saying it. But there it is.
I hope I have accurately portrayed our experience. I know many of you are interested in it. I always like to think that I adequately research things before I decide to do it...but I feel I dropped the ball on this one. Now I know better.
On a happy note, we had a great summer in a wonderful place, we didn't waste our trip across the Dakotas as we took some time for sightseeing in the beautiful Black Hills, and we're on our way to Kentucky where we'll start a little earlier at Amazon. It's all good.
I also feel secure enough at this point to announce we have set our plans for next summer. We have accepted positions as second lead workampers at Mount Desert Narrows Campground in Bar Harbor, Maine. We will be working there from May 1 until Columbus Day. We had vacationed in that area a few years ago, and absolutely loved it. So we are quite excited to be spending the whole summer there. It also means we will be able to stop on Long Island in April and visit family and friends that we haven't seen in quite awhile. So...Life is Good.