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Workers moonlight, take vacation to haul beets

Ryan Scott worked for years as an over-the-road trucker and owned his own truck for a time. But for several years he's been office-bound as a dispatcher and account representative for S&S Transport.

By Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
The Associated Press

10/20/2013

Editors Note: This article is an AP Member Exchange Feature by the Grand Forks Herald

OSLOW, Minn. — Every October, Ryan Scott moonlights from his day job in Grand Forks to work an eight-hour night shift hauling sugar beets for friends from their farm to giant piling sites during the Red River Valley's most unusual harvest.

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, Minn., 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 told the Grand Forks Herald (http://bit.ly/1fFWFQ3 ) while commuting up to the Lind farm one day. "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 his own 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.

Scott 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 this 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, Minn.

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.

Crystal's total harvest on 435,000 acres in the Valley 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. Last year the harvest started earlier than ever, but bothersome weather meant beets were being dug into late November. This year, half the crop was dug by Wednesday. Another four full days could finish it off.

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 lock-out of union workers, about 400 union members are back at their jobs, joining about 800 non-union workers in the five factories, said Schweitzer. Through an employment agency, American Crystal also hires 1,000 or more extras to work at the 38 piling stations during harvest.

Growers are having some trouble finding enough drivers and other help this harvest, partly due to farming changes as well as the oil boom in western North Dakota, said Nick Sinner, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, made up of Crystal's 2,650 shareholders.

"In addition to having fewer folks on the farm, there is also a draw to the western part of the state that I think is affecting our pool of potential drivers as well," Sinner said.

That's why growers like the Linds rely on tried and true veterans to haul beets.

Sgt. Mark Ellingson of the Grand Forks Police Department has been driving beet trucks for a quarter century for David Thompson, who farms near East Grand Forks.

"I started the same year I started with the police department," Ellingson said this week.

He arranges to take time off from policing to concentrate on the beet harvest.

"A lot of people do it for the extra cash — and don't get me wrong, the money is nice — but now it's just what I do," he said.

Growers and drivers say the pay ranges from about $22 per hour to $28 per hour the short harvest.

"For me it's just kind of unwinding," Ellingson said. "Something completely different from what I normally do."

By about mid-day Wednesday, American Crystal growers had dug about half the crop, said Schweitzer.

"If it doesn't rain too much this weekend, most guys should be done in three or four days," said Arden Lind on Thursday.

As equipment has gotten bigger and better, harvest can happen quickly, with 10 percent or more of the crop coming off in a given 24 hours.

Once again Thursday, the unseasonable warmth near 70 degrees halted the harvest. Beets need to be about 55 degrees to store properly in the giant piles, Schweitzer said.

For Scott, that meant no moonlighting Thursday so he grabbed a few beers with friends and watched a football game downtown.

Which was good, because keeping up the 16-hour days of working two jobs can be a grind, Scott said.

"Usually during beet harvest you get a day or two during the week when they shut down due to rain or heat," he said. "You can usually catch up in your sleep on the weekends."

By the numbers:

— 10 to 20 days: The length of the beet harvest, which usually starts Oct. 1.

— $22 to $28: Hourly wage for beet truck drivers.

— 14,000 miles: The distance traveled each harvest season by trucks from the average Red River Valley beet farm.

— 500,000 miles: The average distance traveled by trucks for all American Crystal growers.

— 10.4 million tons: The amount of beets expected to be harvested this year.

— 18.5 percent: How much sugar the average beet contains. Most of it is water.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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