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Al and I are thrilled that you have found your way to our blog. We hope you enjoy reading our journal and viewing our photographs of the natural wonder of our United States of America. Let's hit the road together!
Homer, Alaska

Friday, October 5, 2012

They Beet Me

I really really hate to admit this, but....the beets beat me. I'm writing this tonight in Osseo, Wisconsin, and we're on our way to Kentucky to report to Amazon early. I can't stand being a quitter, it really galls me, but I couldn't do it. I especially feel bad for the many readers who are interested in hearing about it, but having put in a couple of nights, I will attempt to explain the job, what it entails, and why we've made the decision we have.

The Good:
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 Bad:
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).

The Ugly:
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. 


  1. Thanks for all of the information. I would not want to work under those conditions, either. And I don't tow a car behind my small motorhome. So it would not be a good place for me, as I would have to drive my motorhome to work each night or hitch a ride with another worker.

  2. Life is too short to do things that you seriously don't want to do. It is very hard to hold up to a commitment made without all the facts. Thanks for the information. You'll save others the possibility. Your summer gig sounds fabulous! You guys are doing extremely well at the work camper business.

  3. It's certainly not worth risking your life over, and it sure sounds like those weather conditions were putting you in a dangerous position. I think you made a smart move.

  4. Wow! That is about all I can say. I am so appreciative that you took the time to get the photos you did for the blog.
    I know I couldn't do it either. We had talked about it briefly but had no idea that it would be that rough. I don't blame you one bit for not sticking it out. Money is nice but living is much nicer. Take care.

  5. Enjoying both the work and the play is what this adventure is all about. It didn't sound like fun at all. This Florida girl might have a really difficult time in those conditions. Amazon in comparison sounds like a piece of cake! See you in Florida!

  6. When you know better, you do better!! Your safety and health are too important to risk over a few bucks. This is the first bad experience and your gig in Maine really sound sounds like a winner. We will be looking to find some cooler weather this summer....maybe we should head to Maine?!?!

  7. I'm glad to know all this! I've read about beet harvests, and it sounds so cute and farmy. I didn't realize how brutal it could be.

  8. We are headed to Maine next summer so hopefully we will see you guys! Don't feel bad about the beet job, looks like you made the best choice given the cirucmstances!

  9. Every time I look at that header picture, I think I gasp a little. It's so beautiful.

    Sorry the beets beat you, but I sure don't' blame you. North Dakota winters can be pretty tough. You gave it a try, it didn't work and now you'll know better. (I will too)

  10. I was concerned that it would not be a pleasant experience. Glad you are getting out of there! Maine sounds like a great plan for next summer.

  11. Wow--when I read the first blog about you guys being out in the elements and knowing what the weather can be like up here my first thought was--not me!! When you guys started talking about working the beet harvest I thought you would be driving the trucks. So, don't feel bad--sometimes things just don't work out and as you said, you are in this working thing not only to make money but to have fun.

  12. Don't let this bother you. I don't blame you a bit for leaving. I would have done the same thing. Time to move on! Your summer plans sound great!

  13. You lasted longer than I would have! I wouldn't beat myself up for it. Life is too short. You did what you needed to do. Just move on.
    On another note, your summer gig in Bar Harbor sounds fabulous! We plan on a trip there ourselves next summer. See you then! :)

  14. OMG! My love for beets may be gone! That was awful...I would never had made it. I admire you for trying it and sharing with us!, This winter over a warm campfire , we will find a way to laugh about all that!

    1. For sure! Now that I'm 800 miles away, I can start at least smiling about it :-)

  15. Do they use Sugar Beets for canning like the ones we plant in our gardens?

    1. No, these beets are used for their sugar content, to make sugar. The farmers are paid for their crop based on how high the sugar content is in their beets.

  16. I'm sorry that the beet experience wasn't sweet (sorry had to do it!). I don't blame you for bailing out..especially with the winter snow coming early up there. We're in Welcome, MN right now, and the low tonight will be 23. Yikes :)

  17. Good call on deciding to leave. You are right, you have choices on jobs and working in a safe and comfortable environment. I would not have been able to handle the cold. Glad you could start at Amazon early.

  18. We would have done the samething..good luck at Amazon.

  19. Sounds like you made a very wise decision. Glad you are both okay. So glad it has all worked out. It is exciting that you will be in Bar Harbor next summer. So beautiful there........

    Bruce and Laura

  20. Hi again! So sorry you went through that experience with the beets! Kudos to you for getting out of that!

    I was hoping to see you at Waldenwoods this coming summer! Oh well. I'm very happy for you and your travels!

    Take Care!

    Dave from Waldenwoods

  21. WOW, Karen! I just read your account to Dick, and we both agree that we will not consider this one either. I'm glad you and Al are headed to KY for Amazon and keep us update on that position, as well. Congratulations on your position next summer in Maine and, hopefully, we will meet again down the road.

  22. Glad you enjoyed the summer . You made the right choice to leave . Problem with this country they really don't care about working people . Those conditions sounded dangerous for sure . Glad you are heading to Maine it will be like going home next summer , which will be fun. Come again to Colorado !