Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sugar Beet Harvest in Culbertson MT

Once we left Billings it was a 300 mile trip to Sidney MT and there was nothing in between but fields of bailed hay.

The headquarters for Express Employment was located at the Microtel.  We checked in and watched the safety video logging 2 hours each for our time.  There are 6 piling stations in MT and we were assigned to the Culbertson location 30 miles north of Sidney.  Originally we were told to arrive on Friday and we would start work in the lab on Monday testing the sugar content of the beets but things had changed and we didn't get that assignment.  The company pays for our site, which is at the fairgrounds providing  30 amp service and water; a honey wagon comes around twice a week.

We were the first to arrive at the fairgrounds so we picked out our site and got setup.  The bathroom and showers at the fairgrounds were left open for our use as well.  There is a small landing strip behind us and oil-rigs are visible from our picture window. 

The town of Culbertson is small with only 716 residents.  In the 80’s oil was big in this area but when the cost per barrel went down it wasn't profitable for the oil companies to drill leaving this small community with agriculture as their main source of income.  The last 5 years has changed things in this rural area with the cost of oil rising the companies are now back to drilling again.  A major portion of the drilling is taking place in North Dakota in Williston, which is to our east about 40 miles away.  It is cheaper for the oil companies to drill in ND then it is in MT right now but it is only a matter of time before this small town turns into a boomtown like Williston.  We were told by a trucker that hauls the oil that there are 100 wells a month being drilled.  It takes a month for the well to start producing.  There are several workers that reside in Culbertson, as housing is hard to find.  There is no shopping to speak of so most folks go to Williston where there is a Walmart and larger stores do to major shopping or into Sidney.  We stocked up in Billings as we were told about the limited shopping.  The next day we drove around town locating the piling station, which is only 1.4 miles away and the Laundromat.  The weather has been pretty good but the wind tends to blow often.  We spent our time getting organized to go to work, metal detecting the fairgrounds and playing Mexican train.  Midweek more folks started rolling in and by Thursday everyone had arrived for a total of 8 couples. 

We made a trip into Williston to get a few more supplies at Walmart and to check out a modern day boomtown.  Once across the state line we saw oil-rigs through out the countryside with temporary housing for the workers.
Campers where parked all over as well in make shift campgrounds even in business parking lots.  Roads were being built; construction all around and semi trucks were everywhere.   Good paying jobs were offered which in turn made it tough for businesses paying minimum wages hard to find employees.  It was a sight to see.

On Friday we had orientation at the piling station.  We knew our shift was going to be nights as Mark received a call a few days prior asking if he would take the night shift foreman position.  I will be a helper/ground crew and could be bumped up to pile operator.  In a 12-hour shift the first 8 hours are regular pay with the other 4 being time and a half, weekends are time and a half.  The night shift tends to be a little slower then the day shift and the wind slows down.  There are two 15 minute breaks before lunch and 2 after lunch but if there a no trucks we can go the scale house and have coffee or sit in our vehicles.  As long as the job is getting done they are pretty easy going.  Hardhats, reflective vests, eye protection and lock out keys were issued along with instructions on clocking in and out.  Next we were instructed on the piling machine.

There are two pilers at our station, we are the smallest station but our beets are the first to be processed.  We divided into teams for each piler.  Piler 1 is busier then 2; I choose 1, as I would rather be busy making the time go by faster.  Mark will be in charge of both pilers making sure things run smoothly and checking the temperature of the beets.  If the temp of the beets is too low or too high the harvest will stop.The trucks dump the beets into the piler, it shakes the dirt off the beets and puts the dirt back into the truck then it piles the beets on the ground.  Once the beets are piled as high as they can be without the boom hitting them the piler is then moved back a few yards continuing the process again.  This picture is of the empty yard and within 2-3 weeks it will be full of beets. 

First night of work.

The trucks first get weighed at the scale house and then drive up to whatever piler they choose.  

They then drive onto the ramp and are directed by the piler operator to move forward to a certain point so he/she can then open the gate.  It is a tight fit for the drivers and sometimes they will be too far to one side and pop a tire or hit the ramp, it doesn't happen often though.

Once the gate is open the operator then guides the truck back,

 the driver gives a ticket to the ground helper that will take a sample if necessary, next he will walk to the ramp and begin unloading his trailer via remote control.  

The sugar beets are carried up the piler by conveyor belts, tumbled over rollers to knock of excess dirt, and another conveyor belt onto the boom carries them to the pile.

When the truck is done unloading they move forward to get back their dirt,

 the operator has lowered the ramp and signals them to move back so they have room to make the turn, they go back to the scale house to be weighed again and then dump their dirt.  The ground crew cleans up any beets that fell out of the truck and the next truck starts the process over again.  Around midnight when there is a change in drivers we shut down one piler to clean it and then do the other one.  So you can see it isn't rocket science but you are on your feet alot, it's dirty and it can be cold.  

The first week we had 2 pilers open and had 3 growers but by the end of the week things slowed down to one major grower so piler 2 was shut down and half of the crew moved to a different location.  

One morning when we got off work we went to the fields to actually see how the beets were harvested.  

Below is one single beet.  It is kind of hard to tell but the beet grows half in the ground and half out.

The defoliator first passes the rows cutting off the green leaves, once this is done the beets have to be harvested.

Then the trucks are pulled through the field by a tractor especially if the fields are muddy such as the day we went.  The harvest is then pulled into position by another tractor plucking the beets out of the ground spinning them around separating the green tops then sending them up the shoot and then depositing them in the trailer.  Then timing has to be just right to get the truck evenly filled.  Once we saw this we understood why some of the trucks come to the piling station almost overloaded.   

Once back from the fields we stopped back at the piling station so I could get this picture of the beets.  

After the first week of work the beets we first piled were being loaded into trucks and hauled to the processing plant in Sidney.  We would have liked to tour the plant but at this time they didn't allow it.

We worked with some nice folks and had a great time, sorry to say I didn't get a pic of everyone on night shift :(

Kathie (the comedian) who kept us in stitches, Ray her husband and Steve also know as Steve-O.
Ray was our bobcat operator so he was know as Ray Bob.

Me, first week ground crew and second week piler operator.

We worked 13 days or should I say nights and the job was complete.  We were lucky to finish so quickly as other stations were delayed by the weather.
So there you have our experience at the Sugar Beet Harvest.  It was a positive one and we would definitely do it again.  In December we will receive a 3% bonus check and if we return next year it will be a 10% bonus.  The company was great to work for so if you are looking for some fast cash in a short period of time and can deal with 12 hour shifts this could be the gig for you. 


We stayed a few days after we were done to try and get back on a normal schedule and miss some rainy weather in ND.  It felt good to remove the black plastic bags I had taped to windows blocking out the sunlight so we could sleep during the day. 

So on Wednesday we pulled out of Culbertson heading west through ND.  Passing the oil rigs we soon discovered sunflowers (which are the state flower of Kansas) drying in huge fields.  ND ranks number one in U.S. sunflower production and produces 48% of all oilseed production.  Just a bit of useless information that could come in handy if you were ever on Jeopardy.  Anyway, we made it to Jamestown ND and boondocked in the Walmart parking lot.  The next morning we got an early start and when we crossed the state line into Wisconsin our eyes were delighted by the beautiful fall colors,  we haven't seen such beauty since we left NC.  We stayed at the Moose Lodge in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  As always we received a warm welcome and to our surprise there was no camping fee.  It was decided to stay here for a few days as we had driven hard for two long days.  On Friday night they had an all you can eat fish fry and Saturday night it was an Oktoberfest meal.  Both nights we returned to the rig with full bellies and happy memories of the nice folks we met.  Oh, prior to Saturdays meal we visited some local farms just outside of town that had pumpkins and corn mazes.  At one farm Mark spotted a pumpkin that he wanted to bring home!

We leave here tomorrow as the forecast is calling for snow!!!
Thanks for following our travels.


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