Work Camper Review: Express Employees for the Sugar Beet Harvest in Western Minnesota

Disclaimer: Levi and I are in no way affiliated with or representing Express Employment Professionals.  We are simply detailing our work camping experience for those interested.

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A piler in all its glory–We visited our station, O’Meara Beet Piling Site located in Euclid, Minnesota, before the harvest madness.

The phrase that comes to mind when I reflect back on our work camping experience with the Sugar Beet Harvest in Minnesota is, “Uff dah!”  It is a saying that Levi and I picked up from a couple of our co-workers, Upper Midwest natives.

“Uff dah” (Scandinavian origin) can be spelled a number of ways and can take on an entire gamut of expressions: surprise, amazement, irritation, exhaustion, relief, etc.  

During our mere two week stent as Express employees with American Crystal Sugar Company, we felt all degrees of “Uff dah.” Days later, we are still feeling the effects of the harvest: sore joints, whiffs of dirt and beets, phantom sounds of machines whizzing and beeping, and finding the remains of hard clay (soil) in the car and RV that we failed to vacuum up.

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Acres and acres of beet fields as far as the eye can see

However, being a part of this agricultural evolution, meeting and working alongside some pretty amazing people (veterans of the harvest-RVers and locals), exploring a new and absolutely picturesque region of the country (the sunrises and sunsets alone are postcard worthy), and stepping out of our comfort zone to experience and successfully complete a work camping gig all its own has made our involvement worthwhile.  It has allowed us to appreciate the time, effort, and care that goes into producing such a simple product like sugar, Oh, and of course, there is that nice chunk of change now sitting in our bank account!

What is the “Unbeetable” Experience?

img_20160926_1455483971The infamous “Unbeetable” sign welcoming us to our temporary home during the fall harvest.  We stayed in Sherlock Campground, apart of the Red River State Recreation Area in East Grand Forks, Minnesota.  

October is the starting point for the Sugar Beet Harvest, encompassing areas of Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota. For at least a week or two (some seasons extending to the Thanksgiving holiday), trucks filled to the brim with beets traverse the towns delivering their cargo to a designated receiving station, only to repeat the process several more times.  A slew of RVers and locals  are ready at these piling stations, prepared to process and stack each load as it comes in.

Who makes this grand event possible?  That would be American Crystal Sugar Company and it’s adjoining corporation, Sidney Sugars.  Thousands of farmers in the surrounding areas buy into the conglomerate, growing, transporting, and profiting from their bounty. Express Employee Professionals serves as the hiring agency, gathering workers to assist with the collecting and storing end of the production.

The actual Sugar Beet Harvest is “Black Friday” for growers. It’s a race against Mother Nature to collect and deliver beets in just the right conditions: not too warm (the beets start to rot once they reach a certain temperature), not too wet (trucks can get stuck during transport), and not too cold (too much frost can damage the beets if they are not harvested properly).  The receiving stations can be a hustle and bustle of activity: trucks rushing in and away from their drops, beets roaring up the conveyor belt into the ever growing pile, ground crew rushing to check grower tickets and fill beet sample bags, operators whirling around vehicles and workers to complete a task.  Uff dah!

The Hiring Process

Like all of our previous seasonal jobs, we learned about Express’s harvest opportunity in Workamper News. Their employee ad boasts of the thousands of dollars one can acquire in days. Simply completing an online or paper application gets your name in the door and a chance to be up close and personal with beets.

After a little coaxing from some fellow full timers, we contacted Express’s main number in mid-January (2016) and requested an application. I ended up speaking to Jodie Schafer, Harvest Supervisor and Workamper Liaison, on this introductory call.   She took down our names, took down the names of the fellow RV travelers that had referred us to a particular campground and stations in the Western Minnesota region, gave general information about the harvest, took the time to answer our pressing questions, and let us know that applications would be sent via snail mail shortly.

Within days, we received two applications (one for Levi, one for me) and promptly filled them out. Our packet included a standard application form requesting contact information and previous experience, another form detailing the various receiving station positions, and an information pamphlet answering frequently asked questions about the harvest.

Once the application was received, we were notified about an upcoming Workamper-sponsored webinar detailing more specifics about the harvest.  We registered for the online session which streamed mid-February.  The meeting covered working conditions, pay and benefits, and position duties.  It was interactive and participants were able to live chat with the moderator.

Mrs. Schafer kept in contact with us throughout the remainder of the year, making sure that we were still planning on attending, wanting to know if there were any changes with contact information, and keeping us abreast with any updates. She always had an upbeat attitude and was very quick to get back with any questions we sent via voicemail or email.

One of our final contacts with Mrs. Schafer, before our arrival, was in late July. We were assigned to a campground in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, our temporary home during the harvest, and asked to chose campground arrival and harvest orientation dates.  We would report to their interim office in Crookston, Minnesota the final week of September to fill out tax forms and begin training.

The hiring process was perhaps the most seamless, simplistic application procedure we had experienced since beginning the full time RV lifestyle. No references or interviews necessary! Uff dah!

Orientation and Training

We arrived at our campsite the final Monday in September and met our piling station foreman that night. He was staying just a few sites down from ours and came to our rig to introduce himself and ask if we wanted to begin training and working on Wednesday. For one reason or another, area farmers start the season before the first of the month, harvesting and depositing their truck loads at various stations.  This is know as pre-pile, essentially pre-harvest.

He mentioned the name of our job site, O’Meara Beet Piling Site in Euclid, Minnesota and offered to give us a tour of that facility the following night (which we accepted).  Levi and I would be working night shifts (8 PM to 8 AM). Uff dah!

The foreman inquired about Levi’s experience with skidsteers. Levi had operated a tractor in the past and was willing to expand on his machine operating skills.

It was settled. We would begin training and working pre-pile before the sugar beet harvest officially kicked off at midnight on October 1st.  Levi would learn the ins and outs of being a skidsteer operator, and I would be apart of the ground crew as a helper/sample taker.

Orientation was the following day, and we made  it to our 9 AM appointment in Crookston. There were about three other couples present, all RVers and newbies like us.  Additional paperwork was completed. A safety video and tutorial were featured. Before leaving we were given directions to a nearby piling station to report to later that day, the second portion of orientation.

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Safety and job duties are covered in the introductory/orientation video.

Upon arriving to the designated site, hard hats, safety glasses and reflective vests were issued. More employees were present for this portion of orientation, some new  and others returnees. The foreman of that facility reviewed safety procedures before taking us on a tour.

Standing in the scale house and then around a piler, the foreman was able to elaborate more on the process of a grower’s truck entering and exiting a given piling site.

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This diagram (courtesy of Levi) tracks the path of beets into and out of the piler. It also shows how trucks enter and exit the work area. A piler operator is stationed in the box and directs truck loads of beets into the piler.  The boom operator (bright yellow vest under dirt drop zone) controls the proximity of the boom to the beet pile and movement as it swings side to side.

Truckers enter at the scale house.  After presenting his/her farmer’s identification card, the trucker is issued a receipt and sometimes a sample ticket. The receipt records the truck’s weight upon entering the station. The sample ticket allows the ground crew to obtain a bagful of beets from that delivery. These samples are tested at a nearby lab to determine the amount of sugar content.

Once the load has been dumped and remaining dirt has been returned to the truck bed, the truck returns to the scale house–before leaving the station–to be weighed once again.  The weight difference equals the total beet load. This coupled with the percentage of sugar obtained from the beet sample determines that farmer’s payout.

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We still look so clean after our first day of training at O’Meara. 

Even though we were assigned to night shift, training took place during the day. We reported to O’Meara a little before 8 AM on Wednesday and both began learning and practicing the skills of a helper and sample taker.

The position encompassed four key steps:

(1) verifying and noting the piler number for each truckload, via grower receipt, after truck drove through and properly backed into the piler ramp;

(2) if requested on said receipt, obtaining a sample from the piler shoot as beets unloaded into the piler;

(3) directing trucks from the ramp to the dirt drop zone before leaving the piler area; and

(4) keeping your work area free of debris using the supplied shovels.

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Levi practicing his mad skills as skidsteer operator during pre-pile. It didn’t take much time to familiarize himself with the controls and maneuvers. Not bad for a rookie!

Levi took off for a bit to attend a training session on the skidsteer at another location. When he returned, he continued his lessons in the skidsteer under the guidance of our foreman.  He commented that his years of playing video games finally paid off, for a change. Manipulating the controls was second nature to him.

The job of the skidsteer operator was pretty cut and dry.  Levi’s main responsibilities as a skidsteer operator were to collect sample bags and bring them to the scale house. He also kept the pilers and surrounding area free of beets and mud for the safety of the grounds crew and trucks.  The most important aspect of a skidsteer operator was to be aware of your surroundings at all times; running into a piler or hitting a crew member were frowned upon.

Thursday was more training at the pilers.  I was pulled into the scale house, for a couple of hours, to train as a back-up attendant for outgoing trucks.  The job consisted of recording and registering the end weight, post beet dump, of each truck as they rolled up to the window onto a scale.

We were off during the day, Friday, so we could begin the official Sugar Beet Harvest season midnight, October 1st.  Bring it on! Uff dah!

Preparation for the Beets

Before signing up for the harvest, we knew (from talking to returning Express employees and reading work camper reviews) that the consecutive 12-hour shifts would be tough. To top that off, they were night shifts.  We knew we’d be tired and sore, on our feet the majority of the time and out in freezing conditions.  During our training days, we took steps to prepare for the harvest by organizing and stocking up.

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Breakfast casserole: cheese, eggs, sausage, and hash browns

Food:

-We started planning and cooking meals (mainly casseroles) to freeze and reheat.

-A basket of dried fruit snacks, trail mix, crackers, and chips were kept in a basket in the car to grab as a snack during breaks.

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We kept extras of everything: clothes, snacks, water, and pain killers.

-Plenty of water was stocked and some nights,we took a giant thermos of tea or coffee.

Clothing:

-We initially took an inventory of our wardrobe, throwing aside clothes that needed to go: worn out jeans, shirts and sweaters with holes, old jackets.  These became our outside layers and salvaged, donated, or trashed after the harvest, depending on the condition. We visited a Goodwill store in Grand Forks, ND at one point because I needed another pair of pants and Levi was wanting a warmer jacket.

-A cardboard box was placed in the backseat to store our hiking boots. Those were our working boots throughout the harvest, and they remained in the box if we weren’t working. We didn’t want to track mud into the RV, so we’d show up to work in our sneakers, switch to the boots, and return back to our sneakers after work.

-Besides packing a hearty lunch and snacks, the trunk of our car was a mini-mart. We kept extra sweaters, old ski pants, socks, gloves, and winter hats in one basket and insect repellent, pain killers, and hand warmers in another.

The surplus really helped us on days that we were dragging or forgot to bring an extra clothing item to bundle up. Uff dah!

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We frequented the University Laundromat across the bridge in Grand Forks, ND throughout our stay. Not only was it a quick trip, but the loads were cheap and we could practice free throws.

Experiencing the “Unbeetable” Experience

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This was Day One of the Sugar Beet Harvest at O’Meara. The piles began forming days before October 1st during the pre-piling stage.

Day (or rather Night) One of the official harvest started with a pep talk and pizza party, courtesy of our foreman and his wife.  The actual work shift  was a mere eight hours of trucks pulling into O’Meara, delivering their beets, and returning to their fields for more fill ups. There wasn’t an excessive amount of trucks coming in.  Our foreman explained that in previous years, stations were swarming with trucks, one after the next The warm weather from the previous days (during pre-pile) could have played a role in the low numbers.  We were still “beet” after the shift: Levi switched between the skidsteer operator and helper positions, and I kept shoveling away at the dirt and scurrying to get samples.

Temperatures rose above 55 degrees Fahrenheit after that day, and our station, as well as surrounding stations, were closed for five consecutive days.  We used that time to run errands, explore the towns of East Grand Forks, MN and its neighbor Grand Forks, ND, and get acclimated to the night shift schedule (that last was the most challenging). Uff dah!

We were instructed to phone the employee hotline each day to make sure our shift was still scheduled.  Sure enough, we were back at O’Meara Thursday night to finally continue the harvest.  This time around, the nights were cooler.  In fact, they were close to or at freezing temperatures!  Uff dah!

Layers were key and we bundled up, sometimes two sweaters with a jacket, snow pants, and two layers of hats and gloves!  We learned very quickly to wear jackets with hoodies; otherwise,if we happened to be passing under the moving dirt drop zone or under the boom, we could easily get dirt or pieces of beets down our top. Uff dah! 

Ibuprofen became our constant friend.  Our feet would hurt from standing practically all night and our arms were sore from shoveling. A few times the foreman and employees came up to me and told me  to stop scrapping and shoveling away so much.  I only needed to clear a safe walking path, they said. Shoveling and scrapping kept me warm on the cold, windy nights. I did gain some sweet biceps from the workout! Uff dah!

 

A little commentary from Levi 

For one reason or another, some employees left the job, leaving our crew short handed.  There would be days that some of us would be working alone on one side of a piler, verifying tickets/receipts, possibly sample-taking, directing trucks, and keeping our work areas clean.  Since trucks weren’t breaking down the door to get in, the process was doable. It created a distraction from the cold and helped speed up time.

Our boom operators were down to one per piler, as well. Levi and I became their relief. We were introduced to the boom switchboard and taught to keep the boom close enough to the pile of ever mounting beets without getting it stuck.  The employees that trained us were pros. Their piles were always so smoothly aligned and high.  Ours had jagged lines and one side would be higher than the other, but the boom operators always came back from their breaks, appreciative of the time off and our help and would  easily fill in the gaps.  Uff dah!

I came up with a theme song for the boom operator. It popped into my head one night while I was monitoring it swing to and fro.  It’s based off of the 80’s song, Smooth Operator by Sade.  Exchange the word “smooth” for “boom!”  With a cool cover song like that, it was all the more reason for us to continue our position with the boom.

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Two simple rules for the boom operator: stack those beets high, and whatever you do, don’t get the boom stuck in the pile.

Levi was everywhere at O’Meara, taking on more jobs and responsibility than expected.  He was not only the skidsteer operator clearing the work sites and collecting samples, he also became the relief for the helpers and boom operators.   Always the optimist, Levi mentioned that although it seemed like he was racing around nonstop some nights, the skidsteer did have a heater and the transition to ground crew gave him a break from the jostling about in the machine.

Levi perfecting his mad skills with the bobcat. He was scooping and gathering the last bits of dirt around Piler 2.

Sometime, during that stretch of nights (13 total), we started loosing momentum. Day 7 was my crashing point.  Levi’s was a few days before that.  We were feeling the effects of the long nights and freezing temperatures.

Breaks were our saving grace and we would huddle into the car or scale house to warm up, get a bite to eat, and rest our legs. We averaged about 3 breaks a night, two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute lunch break.  If we had to use the bathroom, we used the porta-potties on site.  If it was a bitter, cold night, we’d take more breaks to keep warm.  Some of our co-workers would keep a thermos filled with coffee next to their work area and take sips to keep warm and alert.

Chit-chatting with our co-workers during lulls helped, as well.  We talked about anything and everything!  For full time RVers that like to constantly learn and make connections, this was quite possibly the best part about the work camping experience.  Likewise, greeting and exchanging a line or two with the truck drivers was always a treat.  It was refreshing to see men and women of all ages behind the wheels.  Some drivers came bearing gifts for the ground crew and handed out snacks and Mountain Dew from their windows.

After Night 9, our shift was canceled due to warmer weather, and we reported back to work the following night. The extra day of rest was nice, but we were ready for the season to end.  Nights melted into one another after that.  We repeated the same dance each day: wake up, drive to the station, work, break, work, lunch, work, break, work, sun rises, go home, sleep, repeat.

More employees were eventually sent to our piling station, easing the workload on everyone. The trucks slowly dwindled in numbers and our crew ended the harvest on Night 13.  Some of the workers were asked to return in a few days to help clean up.  We didn’t go as selection was based on seniority.

Perks of the Gig

The Pay

Compared to other work camping gigs we have had, the Sugar Beet Harvest is the most lucrative. As first year employees, we made a little under $13 per hour base pay, each.  Any hours worked after eight on weekdays and all hours on Saturdays were calculated as time and a half. Sundays were golden at about $26 an hour.  Out of the thirteen harvest nights, we worked two Saturdays and two Sundays.  Because of the fluctuating weather, we didn’t always work 12 hour shifts and instead of coming into work at 8 PM, we’d come in a few hours later when the temperatures dropped. With the beet harvest alone, we grossed well over four grand together. That still does not factor in the pre-pile and completion bonus.  The bonus is paid out at the end of the year.  We were paid via direct deposit as opposed to the Global Cash Card.

Full Hook Up Site

Our assigned campground was Sherlock Park Campground,  within the Red River State Recreation Area in East Grand Forks, MN.  The park runs along the Red River and North Dakota state line.

Red River State Recreation Area has an interesting backlog.  It is the product of the 1997 flood that wiped out homes  and businesses on either side of the Red River.  The state park with its many trails, water activities, and outdoor games was created after the removal of destroyed buildings. A once sprawling, busy neighborhood is now the well-maintained, quiet campground with over 100 sites.

Express took care of the site (including water, electric,and sewer hookups) from the moment we arrived (a day before orientation) to the day we left (48 hours after our final shift).  The campsite was also paid for during our off days when the weather was too warm to harvest beets.

Our camp host was exceptionally helpful.  She would deliver mail to each RVer, set up gatherings at her rig, and offered to walk pets while the owners were off at work.  We ended up keeping our dog inside during our time at work.  She had plenty of food, water, and pee pads available.  Before and after work, we would take her on walks or runs around the park to stretch her legs a little.

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The pull thru campsite was equipped  with full hook-ups, a picnic table, and fire pit.

Sampling the Heart of the Upper Midwest

Like every place we venture and work camp, we must explore.  It is one of the best parts of full time RVing.  One thing we love to explore is food! Minnesota and North Dakota are not lacking in this department with their walleye, lefse, and craft beer. It was a first sampling all three and we were hooked! Uff dah!

 

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Darcy’s Cafe in Grand Forks, ND served the best cinnamon pancakes. Levi and I came here the morning after our final shift, a celebratory gathering.
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Blue Moose Bar and Grill was just outside of our campground. We tasted walleye for the first time and sampled Minnesota’s best brews.

Grand Forks is a college town and very trendy.  Some of our groceries were purchased at the local co-op and we’d hang out at  hipster joints like the hole-in-the-wall taco palace, Red Pepper (however, we failed miserably at fitting in).

Amazon contacted us mid-October and scheduled drug tests to be completed in Fargo, ND.  We made the hour and a half trek through miles of farmland on our one day off (between Nights 9 and 10.  Fargo’s fall colors and hip downtown scene caught our eye and after our tests, we found a farmer’s market stocked with all things fruits, vegetables, bread, and tamales!

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We finally tried lefse at Fargo’s Red River Farmer’s Market. We heard too many great things about this potato pastry and couldn’t pass it up. By the way, lefse tastes spectacular with sugar and butter! Uff dah!

Reflecting on the Harvest

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The sun was always a welcoming sign at the end of the work shift. No matter how tired we were, it always seemed to pep us up.

Yes, the beet harvest was trying and many times exhausting.  The night shift was hard on our bodies and minds.  There were a few moments where we thought about jumping ship, but we couldn’t bail on the crew.  We had helped each other get through the nights, in one way or another, the whole way through the season.

We don’t regret participating in the beet harvest one bit; if anything, we are grateful to have had the opportunity to broaden our skills and profession.  We are also excited about the large chunk of change we earned in such a short period of time!

Moreover, the Upper Midwest is like another country for us having grown up in south Texas (me) and California (Levi).  The culture, past times, service field, and verbiage are unique to this area and remind us of the melting pot that is America.

Uff dah!

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Packing the hard hat and boots away till the next time we venture to the northern country once again.

If you think this may be a work camping position you may be interested in, you can contact the hiring staff at www.sugarbeetharvest.com or call 888-791-6738 for additional information on seasonal positions. The hiring process begins as early as January for that year’s harvest.

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8 thoughts on “Work Camper Review: Express Employees for the Sugar Beet Harvest in Western Minnesota

  • October 28, 2016 at 5:46 PM
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    Congrats on a successful Workamping experience. Very well written. And thank you for the shout out/link to Workamper News!
    – Jody, Workamper News Editor

    Reply
    • October 29, 2016 at 5:58 PM
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      Thanks for taking the time to read! Workamper News is our first source for work camping opportunities!!!

      Reply
  • October 23, 2016 at 5:02 PM
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    Absolutely wonderfully written!
    So awesome to work with you two. We wish you the very Best in all your adventures, hugs John & Sharon

    Reply
    • October 24, 2016 at 2:00 PM
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      Thank you for taking the time to read:) We enjoyed working alongside you two and learned so much!

      Reply
  • October 23, 2016 at 12:49 PM
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    Thanks for sharing about your experience in beet harvesting. It kind of reminded me of harvesting grapes for ice wine. You only have a window of time to get the best crop.

    Cousin Connie in Kingsburg.

    Reply
    • October 24, 2016 at 2:04 PM
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      Very interesting! The harvest is definitely hard work,in any capacity. We have a lot of respect for those serving in this field, especially after our small window of employment.

      Reply
  • October 23, 2016 at 12:17 PM
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    Love your stories

    Reply
    • October 24, 2016 at 2:02 PM
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      Love you!

      Reply

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