The Sugar Beet Harvest

When we first began living full time in our RV, I did a ton of research on how to bring in extra money while on the road.  One thing that turned up was the Sugar Beet Harvest.

You see, sugar is not only made from sugar cane, but also from sugar beets.  During the month of October in the states of Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota, the harvest of sugar beets for the season begins.  And they need lots of seasonal help!

Why do the Sugar Beet Harvest?

The money promised is really good.  You are generally looking at 2 to 3 weeks of work, 12 hour days with no days off once the harvest begins.  Any time over 8 hours is paid time and a half, Saturdays are time and a half, and Sundays are double time.  Basically, in a 2-3 week period, you have the potential of earning what you might make in a whole season of working at a campground.

What work do you do?

Mainly, the job entails directing trucks full of sugar beets to unload at a huge piler.  The piler then moves the beets on a conveyer belt which shakes off a lot of the dirt and deposits them in huge beet piles that are 40 feet tall and as long as football fields.

We knew lots of folks that had done the harvest.  We didn’t know anyone that had done it twice… But we can do anything for just a few weeks, right?

So, we signed up.

We were contacted in January by the temp company, Express, who kept in touch with us all year.  We only had two requests.  We wanted a full hook up so that we could at least get in a long hot shower after working a 12 hour shift; and we wanted to work day shift.

Express managed to give us both of our requests.  We showed up at the end of September ready to give this harvest thing a try.  They placed us at Grand Forks campground, about 15 miles north of where we would be working.

The campground wasn’t much.  No wifi to speak of, no gravel, just dirt (and mud puddles), but at least it was a full hook up.  And free!

Our Experience at the Sugar Beet Harvest

The year of 2018 would turn out to be a record breaking year.  But not in the good sense.  Due to weather conditions, the harvest would continue until nearly the middle of November.  Beets were lost due to freezing and many workers (including us) were not able to finish the season.

Sugar Beets are the “Goldilocks” of vegetables.  It cannot be too hot, too cold, or two wet to harvest them.

Here is a brief rundown of our experience:

Day One

Day one of the Sugar Beet Harvest is now done. A 13 hour workday. My back hurts, my feet hurt, and my dog got a stomach virus and stunk up the RV while we were gone.

On the bright side, I learned how a beet piler works and even operated the boom for about 5 hours today. Something new for my resume!

Day Two

Day 2 of the harvest included beautiful weather. We were surprised to show up and find that half our team were no shows. According to the foreman, he had several entire crews not show up. Apparently, it is difficult to find people that actually don’t mind a little hard work.

This meant that our piling site had just me, Dave and a sweet little lady named Margie. So… I was trained to be a Piler Operator. That means I’m in charge of running a piece of equipment that is bigger than a house. Craziness. At least it is a nice increase in pay.

Day 5

The weather here in North Dakota has suddenly become winter.
Cold, snow and rain. The fields are so muddy that the farmers cannot get out in them to bring in the sugar beets. We have been put on hold and hopefully can begin to work again late tomorrow or maybe Sunday.

We were fortunate to put in an 8 hour day yesterday before we were shut down by snow.

Day 10

The beet harvest is on hold again due to weather. We were fortunate to put in nearly a full day yesterday, but rain has come in again. I know the farmers are more frustrated than we are. The weather forecast shows that we might have clearing by Thursday and then it looks pretty good from there out.

Getting used to the heavy mud which sticks to everything like tar and clumps up on the bottom of your shoes making your feet as heavy as bricks.

Oh, and guess what?  The campground decided to shut the water down for the season due to impending freezing temperatures.  So much for that full hook up.  We will be depending on bi-weekly deliveries of water from this point on.

I did always say that I enjoy cold weather….

Day 15

It was 12 degrees here this morning. Cold! On the bright side, we have learned that our coach does quite well in freezing weather. We are warm and toasty inside. Dogs are southern dogs and absolutely hate the snow.

On the other hand, the sugar beet harvest is stalled until this stuff clears out. We should have been done by now. We have unfortunately, barely started. Weather looks like it will clear up this week and hopefully we can begin again soon!

Day 20

Piling sugar beets for 12 hours straight today. We take short breaks in the car where I keep snacks, water, extra clothes, extra shoes and anything else we might need. Right now the back of our car is a virtual mini mart. A mini mart that smell like beets along with a nice supply of mud.

Not complaining, though. We are finally doing what we came here to do!

Day 25

Two things about the harvest that we are struggling with. First, the sleep deficit. Working 12 hour shifts, with a half hour commute each way to the beet pile gives us just enough time to eat, take care of the dogs and go to sleep. Forget about doing much of anything else.

But the numbing cold is the part that we are struggling with the most. The locals tell us that this is an unusual year. They do not normally get cold like this until November.

It might be sunny, but it is 30 to 40 degrees during the day and always a cold wind to go along with it.  Really glad that we didn’t end up with night shift. It was 20 degrees when I got up this morning.

So goes the Sugar Beet Harvest on this sunny Tuesday!

Day 35

Update on the Sugar Beet Harvest…we have now been in ND for 5 weeks and actually worked a total of 10 days. And we are on rain delay again! Took a selfie from the car as we sat waiting out a heavy rain. Yes, we can and do work in the rain (note the rain gear), however, the trucks get stuck in the mud. They have difficulty getting to us from the fields and then have to deal with the mud in our pile yards also.

We are heading in this morning and hope to get in a full day. Rain is in the forecast. Sigh…

Day 39

One day 39, we made the decision to pack it up and finally go.  With more bad weather in the forecast, the season was just not meant to be for us.  Not going to miss the rain, freezing cold winds and mud of North Dakota. We literally spent all day yesterday cleaning the mud out of the coach, our clothes and the car. I’m betting we still find mud months from now.

The Sugar Beet Harvest was incredibly long for us. We were there for a total of 39 days and only worked 10 of them. And of those ten, only 5 were full 12 hour days. We held in there as long as we could. We are headed for warmer weather now.

Would we do it again?

Believe it or not, yes.   Crazy, I know, but the weather would have to be better next time! The job itself is not difficult, the people that we met were really great, we learned so many things about the farming community that we had no idea about, and working for Express and Crystal Sugar was a pleasure.

We did earn a decent paycheck even with all the delays.  Next time just might be the charm!

We are chalking it up as an interesting adventure.

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9 thoughts on “The Sugar Beet Harvest”

  1. Wow, Suzy, that was really hard work for you and your hubby. I bet you slept for a week after. But you did prove you could do it. I follow Bob Wells on cheaprvliving and they talk about the beet harvest as a job nomads can get if they are able to work hard. Now I know how really hard it is.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting on the Traveling Sitcom! Yes, the sugar beet harvest was a tough one. We did love the people in North Dakota and the job itself was not terrible. The weather was our biggest issue. It was either freezing cold, snowing, raining, or all of the above. We made a beeline to GA just ahead of the below zero weather in ND.

      Unfortunately, it isn’t a whole lot warmer here. LOL! Hope you have a fabulous holiday!!!

  2. You left out the most important tidbit ….. so what kind of money does this drudgery pay ? I was born and raised several hundred miles north of where you were so I can relate to the conditions. It’s also the reason I was so happy when we moved from there to Southern California 🙂

    1. Hi Neil and Yoly!

      In answer to your question, we both started out at $13.65 an hour. I was given a $3 an hour raise on the second day when they moved me to Piler Operator. If you return a second year, they automatically give you a $2 an hour raise. The money added up particularly on days when we worked a 12 hour shift at double time.

      As for the work itself, it wasn’t difficult. The main issue was the freezing temperatures and cold rain. I don’t think we would have survived a night shift. LOL!

      Hope you are having a great holiday! Hopefully, we will see you on the road soon! We will be in GA until March. Working in Vogel State park starting in January. Let us know if you are in the area!

  3. What a great story! Thanks for the update- sure sounds like you more than earned whatever they paid. Hope you are warm, clean and recovered by now. Travel safe and best wishes for a Blessed Christmas.

    1. Hi Cheryl!

      Thanks for commenting! We made a beeline for GA just ahead of the below zero weather. Unfortunately, it isn’t much warmer here! LOL! Hope you are having a great holiday season!

    1. Just a tad warmer, LOL! We are currently parked in my daughter’s driveway in GA. We are having to run the generator at night due to the below freezing temps. But at least it isn’t below zero like it is in ND! Hope you are having a wonderful holiday!


  4. Hope you folks made it back to North Dakota/Minnesota for the 2019 harvest. But here we go again, waiting for rain and snow to quit and dry up! I am a semi driver hauling into Drayton, Crookston or East Grand Forks, depending on which farmer I’m hauling for and where the fields are located. My RV is in the farmer’s yard in Fisher. Hope to see you at the EGF piler!

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