Monday, October 4, 2010

Sugar Mountain

It's been a little while since I posted--I am off in scenic Wahpeton, North Dakota, working the sugar-beet harvest and keeping quite busy. It's been fascinating, if a bit grueling, and I'll tell you all about it, but first a bit of background. The humble sugar beet is grown on several continents, and accounts for 30% of the world's sugar production. The US is a major producer of these bulbous, ugly things, and the Upper Midwest is one of three regions where sugar beets are grown--last year, North Dakota alone generated 4.8 million tons. At some point in the last decade (the actual origin seems shrouded in mystery) word started spreading through the punk subculture of high-paying, temporary harvest jobs at sugar-beet plants like Crystal Sugar in Grand Forks, MN and Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton--even the orneriest, most unemployable punk kid could show up, work his ass off for a couple of weeks, and walk away with as much as $5,000, at least enough dough to get through the winter. Wahpeton now hosts some thirty or so punks every October, who come from as far as Portland, OR and Miami, FL to work 12-hour shifts at the Minn-Dak factory, for as long as the weather holds out and the beets keep coming in.

Wahpeton is a small enough town that 30 punks and their half-dozen dogs don't exactly acculturate--we stick out like a sore thumb, truth be told, but we're here helping the local economy and the town accomodates us the best it can, letting us camp at the municipal campgrounds just across the Red River in Breckenridge for a nominal $100/week fee. Wahpeton does possess a certain Great Plains charm, with a broad main drag running through town, a VFW Hall advertising Deep Fried Turkey Breast, some old-school barbershops and a vintage fire truck which is brought out for special occasions like the annual Homecoming Parade. A small technical college almost lends the town a slight cosmopolitan air, but this is fundamentally farm-country, and Wahpeton would shrivel up and die if not for the sugar-beets.

Over at Minn-Dak, the harvest campaign runs full-throttle, 24 hours a day, trucks lined up on the access road waiting to dump their beets at one of several pilers, some outdoors and some inside of football-stadium-sized hangars. I'm assigned to piler #6, an indoor piler. There are six guys on my piler crew; two piler operators, who run the hulking machine with its monstrous boom crane, and four tare-takers, of which I am one. Our chief task is to mark off the trucks as they come in, taking randomized samples from their loads which are then tested for sucrose content. Twenty-five pounds of beets come tumbling down a chute and we bag them up and throw them on a trailer. It's a job that an ape could perform, and in fact two of my co-workers are essentially simian in their manner and appearance. We'll call them Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as I don't recall their christian names, and they are a pair of enormously plump buffoons who spend the bulk of their twelve-hour shifts slurping Mountain Dew and bumping pot-bellies. They're basically harmless but plenty obnoxious, and twelve hours with these guys in the close quarters of the tare shack can take a real spiritual toll. The other tare-taker is one of ours, a punk kid named Ian from Minneapolis--he's a stand-up kid, good-natured and hardworking, who gets his kicks zooming around on the Bobcat, and his easygoing presence is almost a spiritual counterweight to the overwhelming crassness of the Mountain Dew twins, who are forever pissing and hocking loogies around the piler, tainting what will become your breakfast cereal with their toxic sputum.  

Easy enough work, but twelve hours is one hell of a stretch in the piler environment, where it's loud, dark, dirty, and rank with diesel fumes. I manage to keep myself passably amused until about eight in the evening, making up songs and playing kick-the-beet, but then true boredom starts to come down and I'm reduced to chain-smoking to make the time pass. At about midnight, the mind is lulled by the eternal tumbling of beets into a state of total idleness, and I can almost just coast until two, when the day-shift comes to relieve us. And then it's back to Welles Memorial Park, where I have a beer around the fire and stumble off to my tent, trying to banish the beets from my mind as I drift into a deep and dreamless slumber. Another week of this, maybe two or three! And then I return to Chicago, where drinks are on me.

1 comment :

  1. I happened to be surfing the internet the other night, looking for information about the sugar beet harvest in Wahpeton when I came across your blog. I was so pleased about the comments that you wrote about your co-worker, Ian, who just happens to be my son!

    In addition, I wanted to let you know that I shared your blog with two of my sister-in-laws who both commented on your superior writing skills. Neither knew that the other one had made those comments, nor did I mention anything about your skills. So ... after the beet harvest you might want to pursue a writing career. Wouldn't it be nice to write about whatever you want in the comfort of your own home or where ever you choose!

    Thanks for sugar beet harvest explanation which we all found very interesting.