Sugar Beet Harvest Work Camper Newbie Advice and Tips

When looking for paying work camping opportunities, it is hard not to look at the sugar beet harvest in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.  Express Personnel does the hiring for the two main sugar processing companies that operate in these states.  They actively market for harvest jobs via work camping websites, Facebook, and RV shows.  Express Personnel marketing touts $2,500 per person earnings for the season, which is typically 2 – 3 weeks.  $5,000 for a few weeks definitely caught our attention.

I looked around for tips and advice to people working the harvest for the first time but didn’t see many resources so I wanted to share at least from our perspective, some tips.

Because of unknown weather conditions, you have to make roughly a four week commitment – typically September 29 until October 31 to give the farmers time to get the beets harvested.  We arrived on September 23 and our orientation was the next day and we were then told to report for work the following day to work on the pre pile which occurs on selected sites from mid-August until the first ‘real start date” of October 1st.  We hadn’t planned on starting work two days after arriving, but the extra hours were appreciated.

You meet all types of people – retirees, people taking two weeks off from their regular job, transient work campers – all looking for additional income in a short amount of time.  While we feel like we ‘live small’ in our truck camper, there were many people in vans and very small class B’s who worked the harvest.

Most of the locations for working the beet harvest are small, rural towns.  Express Personnel places you based on their needs.  We were told to report to Ada, Minnesota, population 1,600.  Because of the size and rural nature of most of the towns near large beet farms, there is very little ‘night life’ and limited tourist attractions for you to do on your days off.  In Ada the grocery store closed at 7:00 PM so you had to plan ahead to get any needed groceries.  I think we were lucky because there at least was a grocery store, hardware, two gas stations, a couple of restaurants, a library and a community center.

Hardest for me was working nights (something we’ve never done) and because of weather having multiple days off (2018 was a very unusual weather year – we had 12 days off in a row.)  You have to call into a hotline daily to find out each day to see if you will be working, so every day we had to decide if we would maintain our sleep during the day and stay up all night schedule.

When you work multiple days in a row, your schedule is eat, sleep, and repeat so advance planning for meals, laundry, cleaning is a necessity.

Here are some details about our experience that might help you in planning your first adventure with the Beet Harvest.

Orientation/Training

o   Two hour session – paid at end of the year

o   Normally in different city than work site.  Always completed before your first shift.

o   Even after the orientation you still don’t know your specific work site and shift

o   Consists of general training, new employee paperwork and an easy multiple choice test.  You also indicate what type of positions you are interested in working and if you want to work pre pile (pre pile work is piling the beets that are ready into small piles that will be transported to the processing plants before the main ‘big’ harvest kicks off)

o   You will receive the hotline number for your district and a list of actual site numbers so when you are assigned a site, you will be able to call in and get start date information.

o   Good thing to remember is to obtain the phone number of the person conducting the training session since they can answer questions you might have later.

 

Communications

Overall, we felt like Express Personnel’s communication was very good.

o   After you give your commitment to Express Personnel and prior to arriving for the harvest, they will contact you every month via phone and email to make sure you are still planning on working.  We assume they want multiple contacts with each person to ensure their commitment since you might sign up many months ahead of the harvest.

o   The person that conducts your orientation will communicate with you before and during the harvest via the phone and email.

o   Hotline for each district is set up to inform you about start times, weather delays, etc.

o   Since your site foreman is responsible for crews at each piling station, it helps to get their contact phone number.  You can call Express Personnel for some issues, but your foreman is your daily contact.

Which shift to choose

We were originally asked by Express Personnel which shift, we preferred and originally chose days.  They don’t guarantee your shift but our understanding is they try and accommodate.  The choice is 8 am to 8 pm or 8 pm to 8 am.  We found out the following tidbits from people that previously worked the harvest.

o   Night shift – Usually less wind, fewer days off because its generally cooler, fewer trucks arriving at the piling station, and more businesses are open during day for groceries, etc.  There is no differential pay for night shift.

o   Day shift – Usually warmer so if the temperatures are too high you won’t work, fewer businesses open when you are off duty. You do get a normal sleep schedule and it is easier to see.

Positions and pay scales

o   They will ask during orientation which jobs you want and they will provide the same descriptions as we saw when we applied

o   There are pay differences between the Montana and the North Dakota districts.  This is for 2018:  (We were also told the ND/MN district would pay $2.00 more per hour if you were returning for the second year).

Montana 2018

  • New Hire and Rehire pay was $13.96, Operator was $14.92
  • Monday thru Friday first 8 hours are regular pay, next 4 hours are time and half
  • Saturday all 12 hours are time and a half.
  • Sunday all 12 hours are time and a half.
  • Sidney Sugars does have the option of paying employees a “Stay Pay” which is 4 hours when not working due to weather.

 

North Dakota/Minnesota 2018

  • New Hire pay was $13.65
  • Rehire pay was $15.50
  • Operator was $16.25 with training was $16.75
  • Monday thru Friday first 8 hours are regular pay, next 4 hours are time and half
  • Saturday all 12 hours are time and a half.
  • Sunday all 12 hours are DOUBLE TIME.
  • American Crystal Sugar (ACS) does NOT pay a “Stay Pay” which is 4 hours when not working due to weather.

You can opt for direct deposit or a pay card (stored value card.)  If you use the pay card, you will be charged a multitude of fees.     We did the cash card but waited until the end of the season and paid $1 to transfer the balances to our bank account.

Pay period is a two week period ending on a Sunday night.

A pay stub is sent to your home address so if you want to see any detail about your pay, you have to call Express Personnel and ask for a special access password.

We were asked to do different jobs at the piler station because they can be short on people, but were told we didn’t have to switch jobs.  Unless you are assigned the position, you don’t get any additional pay until you are designated for that position and are doing it all the time.

Different Positions at the Piler

Our ‘take’ on the different positions

  • Piler Helper… there are two sides to the piler – people on both sides guide the trucks to a dirt return conveyor plus one of the piler sides has an ‘extra’ responsibility of operating a boom to direct the beets from the piler into the pile.  The boom operator isn’t a ‘different position’ and pay grade, but I think it is more responsibility.  Both sides shovel any dirt to keep the area clean and push away beets that have fallen off the conveyor.
  • Pile Operator…they control many switches and controls to guide the trucks in and out of the piler area. It pays more since it requires a lot more concentration.  It is at least out of the wind and you can sit down.
  • Skidsteer Operator….if you have experience with a skidsteer, you will remove the extra dirt and beets to keep the area clean. It does keep you out of the wind and sitting down and pays more than the piler helper.

Which district to choose?

We requested to work on the North Dakota/Minnesota border (Red River Valley) since we were spending the summer in Michigan and it would minimize our miles. The other district is on the Montana/North Dakota border.  About two weeks prior to our arrival date, Express Personnel assigned us to the Ada, Minnesota area pilers (three different piler sites) which meant our campground was the Norman County Fairgrounds.

Since we arrived a little earlier than many campers, we chose an end site which turned out to be one of the only sites that didn’t have standing water after 5 days of rain.  There are not really marked sites, so it was a ‘free for all’ for people arriving after us.  Ada also has a wonderful community center with a hot tub, pool and showers.  This was good and helped to make our decision to work the night shift so we could use those facilities after our shift since there is only one.

Our understanding was you can’t pick the town or the piler location that you want.  That may apply in the first year, but plenty of harvest veterans said you can specify the shift and piler location when you are returning.  If you’ve proved yourself the first year – they WANT you back and seem very willing to help put you in a location you specify.  For us, we liked our foreman and work crew and we would request to work with them.  Also our piler was located only a couple of miles from our campsite.

Some of the questions you might ask your Express Personnel representative:

o   What is the closest ‘big’ city so that if you have a day off you can do some restocking or laundry

o   What does the closest city to your campground have to offer (community gym, dollar store or food store).  Most of the campgrounds are pretty simple/rustic so you have to look to the local area for propane, laundry, etc.

o   How many piler locations are there around the town?

Picking ‘teams”

o   Getting to know quickly who your foreman is, introduce yourself and exchange contact information.

o   Get to know the other people in campground to see what shift they are working and what positions they are on – if you find someone you like, ask foreman to work with them (it makes it easier and more fun).

o   A newbie couple is usually placed with a returning, more experienced couple or person on a piler crew.

o   On some of the beet Facebook pages, there are pictures of groups of people hanging out together, etc.  Our campground was not that way – we didn’t much hanging out in groups since it was cold and windy.  Small groups of people did meet up and have dinner in town, etc.

 

Meal Planning

Remember you will be tired and might be in a town without a grocery store so having a plan in advance is important.  We heeded the advice from Express Personnel and had two weeks of food purchased before we arrived at our campground.  Other things we learned:

o   There is a microwave in a small shack at each piler site for reheating instant quick meals.

o   Having a vehicle at the job site is helpful because the shack will be located about ¼ mile from the piler and for breaks you can sit in your vehicle and drive to shack for lunch.

o   We don’t normally eat preprocessed food so it was an adjustment for us to buy shelf stable options.  The salt and fat content is off the charts in these meals so we tried to ‘pick and choose’ ones that were as low as possible.

o   Bring crock pot with liners

o   Stock up on canned food and vegetables since you might not have an opportunity to get to a grocery store for fresh fruits, meats, or vegetables.

o   Pack snacks to have unheated or cooled in your vehicle if you can’t make it to the shack.

 

Tips for Job Site:

o   Bathroom facilities are porta potties since there is no water on the site.  We purchased hand sanitizer and a puck light to put inside the porta potty.  The bathrooms do get quite dirty with muddy boots, etc and crews and truck drivers use them.  Many layers of clothes keeps you warmer but is tougher to get dressed and undressed in a small, unheated porta potty.

o   Nice extras to keep in your pocket are tissues, throat lozenges (talking over loud equipment}, and chapstick because of cold and wind.

o   It is a dirty working area and you are walking on slippery, uneven mud so shuffle your feet.

o   You can have thermos or drink on piler station but bring something to cover it up since it will get falling dirt on it.

o   We covered up our truck seats to minimize mud and dirt in our vehicle.  People with class A’s or B’s with no tow cars had to drive their rig back and forth in muddy, dirty conditions.

o   The foreman decides about breaks during work shifts –– suggested is 30 min for lunch and 2 breaks of 15 min. We did rotating 30 minute breaks throughout the 12 hours with our crew since it was so cold.

o   After belts on the piler are greased, oil will spray on you and your clothes.  We used the rain coat they gave us over top of our other clothes to keep them cleaner and keep us warmer with the cold wind.

o   After beets travel up the conveyor to the main beet pile, leftover dirt is returned back to a truck driver.  The overhead dirt conveyor continually drops dirt from above so having a hoodie or something around your neck or hood over your hard hat helps keep dirt off.

o   The site is well lit at night and it is easy to see.  However, since you are dealing with incoming semi-trucks, it is good to have a reflective bracelet, bright gloves, or light saber so drivers can see you more easily.

o   We walked about 4 – 6 miles per shift so having comfortable, waterproof shoes/boots with thick soles is best.

o   If you are a piler helper, randomly you get a ticket from a truck driver to collect a sample.  We learned the mechanized arm that collects the sample will get about five times more beets than you need to keep.  Dump some of the beets out near the piler and then tie up the bag.  This saves you hoisting extra pounds to stack the sample bags.

 

Managing Clothes

o   Deciding what to do with dirty, wet clothes each day at the piler site, on your way home, and in your camper is important to d0 before you get to the campground.  We brought too many clothes – we had stopped along the way and bought old outerwear, etc at thrift shops.

o   The sugar company provided outside rain gear bibs and jackets (all were XL), hard hats, and reflective vests.  Our foreman gave us bright orange gloves to wear which helped to provide visibility to trucks on the night shift.

o   We got by without changing all our layers.  We changed the outer clothes least often – letting them stay dirty and changed the clothes we were wearing under them for often.  Since you are standing for 12 hours, it is important to change out socks daily or every other day.

o   Boots get mud caked on so we used a wire brush with a metal pick to clean them out. Make sure boots have ankle supports and thick soles and are waterproof

o   We kept a covered tote in our truck for wet, dirty clothes and another one for wet muddy boots.

o   By wearing rubber rain outerwear, as a jacket and pants, you will keep your clothes much cleaner and dryer.

o   Winter clothes are bulky.  For those people, like us with limited space, we had our clothes sent to us to the local post office via General D.  Many people stop on the way to harvest work and buy old clothes at thrift stores.  When we were done, we gave away most of the clothes we wouldn’t use again.

o   When doing laundry use the extra rinse or extra clean cycle due to such dirty clothes from you and others.

 

Safety

o   The company does have an orientation to safety.  Stressing how to shovel correctly, watching for heavy equipment, having reflective vests.

o   When working on the ground crew of the piler, you are in close proximity (within 1 foot) of large dump and semi trucks which can be unnerving.  These heavy trucks are in a hurry and can easily slide on slick mud and beets.  These trucks weigh hundreds of pounds and the drivers can make mistakes and errors in estimating their stopping distance, etc.  The trucking companies hire new people each season so they might not have the experience necessary to handle the tight loading conditions.

o   One of our crew had light sabers (like the Star Wars kind) that had a red and green light on them.  It seemed to help at night for drivers to see hand signals.  They were not issued by the company but were very helpful to the drivers and made the ground crew using them more visible.

Mail

o   If your campground can’t receive packages, you can utilize the post office.  General Delivery works well at small town post office locations.  If you have time prior to receiving your first package (depending on your hours and the counter open hours), it is good to visit the post office and give them your name, letting them know you’ll receive mail there.  For FedEx and UPS, they want a street address but the post office doesn’t want the address listed, so there can be a conflict.

o   How to address for General Delivery:

Your Name

GENERAL DELIVERY

Name of Town, State, Zip Code

 

Let me know if you have other tips by way of the comments!

 

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