Beet Harvest in Five Acts


Act I Pre-Pile

People confuse the sugar beet pre-pile with harvest, or “the campaign.” Pre-pile is when different stations of American Crystal Sugar take turns harvesting a few tons of sugar beets from each field so that the factory can get started and test its equipment. It also is a chance to remove beets from the head lands of each field so that we have somewhere to turn. The “campaign” is a full out assault in which we run 24 hours a day and harvest as fast as safety allows. Pre-pile is where the fighters are introduced whereas the campaign is the actual battle. This season’s pre-pile took on the feeling of the campaign as we harvested more tons per acre and even got two extra days to, in Crystal Sugar’s own words, “re-stock the pantry.”

Act II Trucker’s Knuckle

We have gotten soft, even the act of driving a truck has entered the realm of push-button ease. Fifteen years ago I used to drive an International Harvester truck with a 5/4 or Brownie transmission. I would occasionally jam my finger during the shift which I termed “trucker’s knuckle.” I now drive a truck with an automatic transmission that operates with push buttons. I like to feign pain from manipulating the buttons and have updated the meaning of “trucker’s knuckle” to reflect my pretend malady. Trucking is so much easier now and almost stress-free, I guess I like a soft life. It’s kind of like I started out as Fred Flintstone but now have evolved into George Jetson.

Act III Ghost Drivers in the Sky

We started on half a section of sugar beets last week-end and stayed there-forever. You know how it is when you take big mouthful of gristle and just chew and chew and it never ends? This would make a nice metaphor for harvesting this particular field. I heard the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky” one day which is about cowboys who have gone to hell and must now forever ride to gather Satan’s herd. I wondered to myself if that half section was sugar beet hell and if our inequities had drawn us together to harvest that herd of beets for all time. As it turned out, we’re all pretty good people and did finally finish the field in one great, heroic blur just prior to Tuesday’s noon shut down due to warm temperatures. I still like the song, however I am glad to be clear of that field.

Act IV Walk a mile in my grungy jeans

Here is what it’s like to harvest sugar beets. I fall asleep any amount of time before two in the morning which is when I awake for my shift. My head feels like I’m wearing a bike helmet and I’m sure someone over-filled my eyes with too much air. I pack a healthy lunch but more often than not, I find myself at the convenience store picking up coffee and a few pieces of taffy, perfect ingredients for the inevitable sugar crash. Most people will never drive a semi but here is a quick simulation. Next time you got to a grocery store, choose the cart with the child-sized truck on front and try to manipulate it through the store. Now go back to a regular cart and you will be amazed at how easy it is to maneuver around the store; that’s how I feel when I get into my regular vehicle at the end of the shift.

Act V The Breakfast Club

This act could be about the breakfast sandwiches Ed Rosendahl delivers to the field on occasion, but it is not. “The Breakfast Club” was a movie about kids from very different backgrounds who have to attend Saturday detention. They must write a paper about who they think they are and find that while they each have distinct personalities, they also share many traits which helps them become friends. My mom’s death this week, and my harvest friends reaction, revealed to me how much these people care about me and how close we actually have become in the last two decades. We are from very different backgrounds but share humanity along with the work we accomplish. We have much in common and to paraphrase the movie this act is titled for I would say, “we meet only once a year but it changes our lives forever.” And I like Ed’s breakfast sandwiches.

4 thoughts on “Beet Harvest in Five Acts

  1. When hauling beets on the Midnight to Noon shift, the hardest time to drive is just before Sun up as your body wants to go to sleep. I used to load up on Coke starting a 5 AM. I’d end up being so wired it was hard to go to sleep after my shift ended. :o)


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