Workers moonlight, take vacation to drive beet trucks during frenetic harvest season
By Stephen J. Lee
Starting Oct. 1 — it was Oct. 2 this year because the first day was too warm to start piling sugar beets without rot setting in — Scott knocks off about 3:30 p.m. on weekdays from dispatching trucks at S&S Transport. He points his black GMC pickup north to Lind Bros. Farm southeast of Oslo, parks it in a big graveled yard and hops into a gleaming red and white “quad-axle” Peterbilt and drives until midnight.On weekends, he works 12-hour shifts driving the same beet truck from fields to piling stations.“The only reason I do it is to help them out,” Scott said while commuting up to the Lind farm one day this week. “I don’t do it because I love it. We have been friends for a long time.”But you can see he likes it.Scott worked for years as an over-the-road trucker and owned a truck for a time. But for several years he’s been office-bound as a dispatcher and account representative for S&S Transport.“It gets my trucking itch out of the way,” he said with a big grin. “A week or two of this and I’m good for another year.”Scott is one of thousands who work the short burst that is sugar beet harvest in the Red River Valley, getting the lucrative sucrose crop out of the black loam and into peaked piles. The beets can sit out the winter waiting their turn to be hauled one last time into one of American Crystal Sugar Co.’s five factories to be reduced to sugar and pulp.Like no other crop in the Valley, sugar beets are harvested with military-like organization, with growers given schedules about when they should dig and where they should haul. It’s part of the control of the grower-owned cooperative that is Crystal, which dictates the number of acres planted and dug and the price the grower receives and then markets the sugar.Only those who own stock in the Moorhead-based company can grow and harvest the beets. That includes 2,650 farmers, retired farmers and others.The harvest is run by American Crystal’s 670 “grower units,” partnerships of two to five farmers — brothers, fathers and sons — that each raise an average of 650 acres of beets.Experience countsScott grew up in Grand Forks, but he always carves out extra time for his farmer friends at beet harvest.“We used to drive for Transystems together years ago,” said Arden Lind of the trucking company that hauls beets from the piling stations to the factories all winter.Lind watched Scott navigate alongside a beet lifter last week to load his truck.It helps a lot having experienced drivers come back every year to help at harvest, said Lind, who farms with his brother, Arlyn. “They know what to do.”Within minutes, Scott had a load of about 23 tons of beets from the field about 15 miles north of East Grand Forks.The truck’s diesel engine growled as it groaned up out of the field to the road and Scott drove it on a roundabout route of 10 miles to keep the weighty truck on good paved roads to a piling station on the west side of Alvarado.There it was hurry up to wait as dozens of trucks with beet-heaped boxes inched toward “pilers” where the loads would get elevated up into mountains of beets.Part of his motivation, Scott says, is that the Lind brothers have “nice, new equipment,” and they keep it well, hiring a mobile washer to keep the Peterbilts shiny even during the field work.Unwieldy harvestCrystal’s total harvest on 435,000 acres should produce 10.4 million tons of beets, nearly 24 tons per acre, enough to keep the five factories humming until mid-May, said company spokesman Jeff Schweitzer.The harvest itself is frenetic, as short as 10 days working round the clock to get the beets piled at the five factories and the 33 satellite stations before the weather gets too cold.It takes about 10,000 driving trucks, roto-beaters topping the plants and lifters to get the harvest in during 10 to 20 days in October, according to Schweitzer.The fat, unwieldy beets — only 18.5 percent sugar, most of the rest water — are the most inefficient crop in the region to haul: It takes more than a truck load to get one acre’s worth of beets out of the field. The Lind brothers use the same trucks for wheat and beans, and can haul 10 to 15 acres’ worth of those crops in one load.The average beet farm will put about 14,000 miles or more on its beet trucks during the few days of harvest; about 500,000 miles among all Crystal growers.The harvest hires are separate from American Crystal’s workforce that turns the beets into sugar from the time “pre-pile” harvest begins Sept. 1 until “the campaign” ends in mid-May.Five months after the end of the 22-month lockout of union workers, about 400 union members are back at their jobs, joining about 800 nonunion workers in the five factories, Schweitzer said. Through an employment agency, American Crystal also hires 1,000 or more extras to work at the 38 piling stations during harvest.