Sunday, March 4, 2018

Our "Unbeetable" Experience

When we left Florida last April for our summer workamping jobs we had every intention of moving on to Amazon when we were finished at Darien Lake. Somehow we let fellow workampers convince us to try the Sugar Beet Harvest in North Dakota instead. As promised here is our "unbeetable" tale.

 I can take credit for only some of the included pictures. Cell phones were a "no-no" at our job site and most of the time it was too dark for pictures. A big thank you to those whose pictures I "borrowed".

What is a sugar beet?

The sugarbeet is a root crop that flourishes in temperate climates where the growing season is about five months long. One of the largest concentrations of growers is in the Red River Valley, located in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. American Crystal Sugar also has growers and facilities near Sydney, Montana. Beets are planted in late March/early April and harvested in late September and October. When fully grown, a sugarbeet is about a foot long, weighs two-to-five pounds, and is about 18% sucrose.  

This is a mature sugar beet.

This is what the ND sugar beet fields looked like when we arrived at the end of September.

Sugar beets are often odd shaped and occasionally even red in color.

How are they harvested?

When the beets are ready to be harvested a "beet topping" machine slices off the green tops.

The sugar beet root is then harvested with a pinch wheel harvester, which pinches the root and lifts it from the soil. The sugar beet harvester also removes some of the soil and conveys the sugar beet into a truck to be transported to a receiving station.

What happens at the receiving station?

We worked at the receiving station in St Thomas, ND. This facility was located about 11 miles north of our campground and about 30 miles south of the Canadian border. We worked the night shift (not by choice) from 8pm to 8am. 

Once at the receiving station the driver's first stop is the scale house. There the beet loaded truck is weighed and the driver is assigned to a piler for unloading. 

A piler is a very large piece of machinery that transfers the sugar beets from the loaded truck to a storage pile which will be about 18-20 feet high and about 1500 feet long by the end of the harvest. You can see part of the beet pile at the right of the top picture. There were 4 of these pilers at our receiving station. This is the #2 piler that we were usually assigned to. Each piler has 4-5 crew members. The piler operator sits in the little yellow booth at the back of the piler (bottom picture). She/he operates the levers and switches that control the total machine. The boom operator maneuvers the long conveyor belt/arm at the front of the machine (top picture). The rest (ground crew) direct the trucks, bag beet samples and clean up dirt and spilled beets. We were ground crew. 

Bob waiting for a truck as the sun begins to rise.

Boom operator keeping an eye on the boom to be sure the beets are being deposited uniformly and the boom is not in danger of getting stuck in the beet pile. The boom swings from side to side and can be reversed in small increments as needed. The piler operator reverses the entire machine as the beet pile grows. 

Drivers can unload their beets on either side of the piler and a truck has arrived on our side! The piler operator uses lighted signs to help the driver park his truck in the correct position. Back gate is raised, hopper doors are opened and the piler's conveyor system is started. Trucks use either a belt driven system (above) or a dump system (below) to dump their load of beets into the hopper.

Bob has checked the driver's paperwork and written the piler # on the paperwork. The driver did not have a sample ticket so Bob didn't have to fill a tare (sample) bag. The sugar content of each grower's beets is measured by testing the collected beet samples at a nearby lab.

From the hopper the beets travel on a conveyor through the machine and along the boom until they drop off onto the growing pile. Dirt is sifted off the beets as they travel along and is collected and returned to the truck after the truck has been unloaded. The drivers stop at the scale house on their way out to turn in their paperwork and be re-weighed. Initial weight minus dirt weight equals beet weight. This coupled with the percentage of sugar obtained from the beet sample determines the farmer’s payout. In the above picture Bob is monitoring the dirt return and will motion to the driver when return is complete and it's time to leave.

Once the truck departed our job was to clean up any left behind dirt, mud and spilled beets. The dirt looked so rich and fertile in the fields but was actually a combination of black soil and heavy clay and it stuck to everything, especially boots! We joked that everyday we grew at least an inch in height between arrival and departure. Bob and I used a heavy duty putty knife to scrape the bottom of our boots at the end of every shift. 

By the end of the harvest all 4 of the St. Thomas beet piles looked like this one. That's a lot of beets! The beets will remain in these piles until the nearby sugar plant is ready to process them.

The St. Thomas receiving station is one of about 45 stations owned by American Crystal Sugar in ND, MN and MT. These facilities operate 24 hours a day/7 days a week until the last sugar beet is harvested. Just imagine all those piles of beets!
My usual working attire and you are viewing only the top layer! There were several other layers underneath. By the time we left the nightly low's were in the lower 30's/upper 20's.

The ND beet fields on the day we left, October 15. All tilled and ready for spring.

The following link features a great video about the St. Thomas receiving station. Even though the video was made in 2015 not much was different in 2017. Enjoy!

Would we try the "Unbeetable" Experience again?

We have been asked that question many times and my answer is always the same . . . no.

Don't get me wrong, I'm very glad we took this opportunity to try something outside of our comfort zone. We did not find the work difficult or overly strenuous. It took a little time to adjust to a night shift schedule but we managed. We even survived the 14 days in a row/12 hours per day schedule! But for me, the biggest hurdles were the weather, too much down time and other crew members' attitudes. Once the sun set the temperature dropped rapidly and continued to drop until dawn. The cold could have been combated with multiple layers of clothing and a steady flow of truck traffic but for some reason piler #2 was often the "forgotten stepchild". Truck traffic became so sporadic that our crew resorted to waiting in the cars until a truck actually came to unload. Sounds like an excellent solution, right? Unfortunately a warm car in the wee hours of the morning was not necessarily  a good combination. Both Bob and I found it difficult to keep our eyes open and once I actually had to go and wake up the piler operator so the incoming truck could unload! Being part of a crew that enjoys each others company, looks out for each other and works well together can help an unpleasant experience become more pleasant. Our crew was difficult to work with and we were definitely the "outsiders".

However there were definite positives to this job. 

Positive #1: As promised the pay was decent for 2 weeks of work. Both Bob and I worked 14 consecutive 12 hour night shifts. Bob logged 171.25 hours and for some reason I logged 171.50 hours. I'm not sure how I ended up with more as we clocked in and out together! Base pay was 13.25/hr. Monday - Friday we earned 13.25/hr for the first 8 hours of our shift and 19.88/hr for the remaining 4 hours. Saturday was 19.88/hr for all 12 hours. Sunday was 26.50/hr for all 12 hours. We also earned a 5% end bonus for completing our contract. So we ended up with a nice little cache of extra money. And the cost of our campsite and utilities was covered by our employer.

Positive #2: Somehow throughout all our rv adventures we had never visited North Dakota or Nebraska. Traveling to and from this job we were able to add both states to our travel map.

Positive #3: Our cache of extra money allowed us to continue on our travels and revisit some favorite locations before heading back to FL.

Positive #4: Grafton was a pleasant little town with several restaurants, a well stocked grocery store and other amenities. It was just a short drive to the St. Thomas receiving station. We were also fairly close to Grand Forks for major shopping. Our campground was clean and quiet.

Positive #5: If we were to return for the 2018 season we would be assigned to the day shift. No more bitter cold and long dark nights. Being experienced "beeters" we would have input in the crew selection process.

Workamping gives us the opportunity to try new experiences, explore new places and if we aren't 100% satisfied move on. So on to our next adventure!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Best of 2016 (Part 2)


In June we said farewell to our gate attendant positions and began our duties as camp hosts. Positions that we were much better suited for! We also increased our number of work hours from 10-15 hours per week to 30 hours per week. The added hours limited our free time but were a welcome addition to our paychecks! Toward the middle of the month Mindi, Chris, Sarah and Mike came for a visit. They spent a day in the park enjoying the amusement rides and the water rides. Another day we all piled into our truck, crossed the border and toured the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. While we were working the kids spent a couple of days touring the Toronto area. They were very impressed with the city and its inhabitants. 

July, August, September:

Worked, tended and harvested my container garden, enjoyed a day visit from Bob's sister and her kids and grandkids and spent a day in Tioga PA (our home town) for its annual Old Home Day. Even the cats started looking ready to move on! After Labor Day the park is only open weekends so many of the employees had left. We stayed to the end of September when the park closed for the winter.


On our way back to FL we spent a few days in Murphy NC visiting good friends. We attended an Arts and Craft show where I found the perfect Christmas present for Mindi. She lives in Oviedo FL which is famous for its "free range" chickens. Of course we had to visit the Blue Ridge Olive Oil Company to restock our oil and vinegar collection! A new stop for us was Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge GA. What a fantastic apple orchard and farm market. We bought three half-bushels of apples. I did a lot of canning when I got back home! We returned home just in time to "hunker down" for Hurricane Matthew. Thankfully he changed his mind at the last minute and stayed just off shore so damage was less severe than expected. Spending almost 6 months in the motor home made us aware of some desired/needed changes. Our first project - new bathroom and kitchen faucets.


November saw us continuing with our motor home updates. After 10 years and many trips with our cats the window valances and shades were beginning to look quite shabby. Solution? Plantation blinds and oak valances. As of this post we still have 4 more to do. When we bought this motor home we were so excited that it came with a 4-door refrigerator. So much room! Worked great when you were on vacation and eating out a lot. Not so roomy when you are preparing most of your meals at home. The final straw came when we discovered a 12 inch pizza would not fit. So we did a lot of research on installing residential refrigerators in RVs. We decided it was doable and found the recommended refrig at Lowes, on sale even! The only negative was that it had to be special ordered from the manufacturer and wouldn't be available for at least a month. We ordered it anyways, removed the old refrigerator and started retrofitting the cabinet.

Family Thanksgiving was held at our house this year. I love family gatherings and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Our niece has moved back to Florida and it was fun having a little one around again.

And of course Thanksgiving means it's time to start decorating for Christmas!


One afternoon we had some very unexpected visitors! Two bald eagles took up short term residence  in a tree behind our house. They stayed in the tree for a couple of hours observing the neighborhood. One was feeding on a small animal. We enjoyed watching them through the binoculars but it was hard to get good pictures because of the scrub trees.

The refrigerator for the motor home was delivered sooner than expected. We were able to get it in through the door and into place without too much difficulty. It really does have a freezer drawer (Lol!) and the trim work is now all in place. We finally installed the main bath's tile back splash. It only took about two years to complete! We also helped Bob's sister tile her kitchen back splash. I finished up all my Christmas gift projects and even found time to make Christmas cookies. 

Some pictures from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The tricycle that Sarah is riding in the picture below was hers when she was little. It was re-gifted to our great niece.

And that was 2016! Wonder what 2017 will bring?

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Best of 2016 (Part 1)


While we were working at Amazon Michael bought new living room furniture. When we returned home, we found that the new furniture did not fit the current room configuration. So . . . what to do? Take down a wall of course! Later in the year we patched the walls, repainted and added chair rail. 

We have owned our current motor home since 2006. After 10 years of wear and repeated shampooing the carpet was definitely becoming shabby. Time for a refresh so out with the carpet and in with vinyl plank flooring. What an improvement and so much easier to care for!

After all that remodeling the cats needed some R and R!


In February we made our annual pilgrimage to DIS for the Daytona 500. Had a great time as usual.

When we removed the wall in the living room I lost storage space so we built a custom storage unit in the bedroom to hold all of my craft supplies . . . and the cats. Lol!


March saw us attending some of our granddaughter Sarah's Winter Guard competitions. . .

and spending a day at Bike Week.

We also used some recycled materials to build a gazebo for Bob's mom. It will provide her fish with shade and some protection from the weather.


We spent the month of April enjoying an early retirement party for a dear friend, getting together with family to celebrate my mother-in-law's birthday, repurposing a storage cabinet to become a media cabinet, attending more of Sarah's competitions, completing all the necessary semi-annual doctor and dental appointments and finally heading north for our summer workamping job. Along the way we stopped to visit good friends in North Carolina.


Our summer workamping job was at Darien Lake Resort and Amusement Park. Darien Lake is located about 20 miles east of Buffalo NY. The complex has an amusement park, a water park, a hotel and a campground. The campground has several types of accommodations. There are guest houses, cabins, rental rv units, clamping tents and regular campsites. It opens at the beginning of May and closes at the end of September. Our initial job was working the gate house at the entrance to the campground and hotel but we soon discovered that it was not our preferred position. So we became camp hosts which we loved! We assisted the guests to their sites if needed, answered their questions, acted as a liaison between the camping office and the guests and cleaned up around the units and campsites after the guests departed. Our job was not glamorous and sometimes it was dirty but it was rewarding and much less stressful!

Some views of the amusement park, the water park and some of the rental accommodations.

Geese and babies, our motor home site, baby grapes behind the mh and the beginnings of my container garden.

In May the park was open only on the weekends so we had time during the week to do some sight-seeing.  We spent a day at Letchworth State Park and another day touring Fort Niagara.

More to come!

Saturday, June 11, 2016


When we retired in 2012 the thought of returning to work was laughable. After all that's what retirement was all about - not having to work! However in the 4 years that we have been retired we have learned some "truths".

1. Just because your income becomes "fixed" doesn't mean that your expenses also become fixed.

2. Even though you have paid into SS and Medicare your entire working career, contrary to what you might have thought or have been led to believe, health care does not become "free" upon retirement. Money is deducted each month from your SS check to cover the premium for Part B of your Medicare insurance. Supplemental medical insurance is needed because Medicare doesn't cover everything. And you need a prescription drug plan to cover all your "old age" drugs.

3. For maybe the first time in your life you find yourself owing federal income tax because you no longer qualify for all those handy deductions.

4. Having an RV and the freedom to travel is great until gas jumps to nearly $4 a gallon. Thank heavens it's now lower!

5. And the most important one - maybe we should have paid closer attention to our financial advisor! Lol!

So, when we started hearing and reading about something called Workamping we took notice and that's how we ended up at Amazon last September. It was an interesting experience. The work was physically challenging and fast paced. Our job involved walking 10-12 miles a day and up and down flights of stairs.

What was the hardest part for me? The time frame. I had never been away from family during the fall/winter holidays and I was so homesick for all the preparations, decorations and festivities. Bob didn't seem to be as bothered about those things.

The best part for me? The people that we met! Workamping is a way of life for these people. They go from job to job and from one part of the country to another part as the opportunities present themselves. Some people are fully retired like us and are adding to their income. Some are retired from their jobs but not old enough to receive benefits so they are supplementing their income. And some are young, without children or a multitude of possessions and are relishing the freedom to work their way around and explore our wonderful country. Social media has allowed me to keep in touch with many of the people I met and follow them on their next adventures.

And that's why we are at Darien Lake NY this summer. Beating the heat, exploring unfamiliar territory and earning some money.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Absent way too long!

I have blogs that I follow faithfully. I am always a bit disappointed when I check these blogs and someone hasn't posted for several days. Yet I haven't posted for almost a year and a half. Shame on me! The best excuse I can come up with is that home is about the only place that we have unlimited internet and we have been on the road a lot. Good excuse? Probably not!

So first up a brief synopsis of 2015.

In January Bob, two of his sisters and myself painted the exterior of his mother's house.

In February we spent a few days at the beach with good friends. We welcomed a great nephew to the family, watched the Daytona 500 from the infield and enjoyed our granddaughter's Winter Guard performances.

March saw us at Bike Week, welcoming a great niece to the family, making a day trip to Disney and I found time for some canning.

April was another RV trip with friends. This time to St Augustine and North Beach.

June saw us heading north to escape the heat of the Florida summer. First stop was PA to attend the graduation of two nephews. Then on to upstate NY to do some genealogy research (mostly cemetery visitations) and to visit our niece and her husband at Fort Drum. Next stop Lake Ontario and Niagara Falls. We hadn't been there in years. Then on to Ohio to visit an aunt.

Since attending an RV show in January and listening to some Workamper presentations we had been toying with the idea of working at an Amazon Fulfillment Center during their peak season. In July we  visited the Murfreesboro TN and Campbellsville KY facilities. We were not impressed with the Murfreesboro area but spent a week near the Campbellsville facility. Campbellsville is in the middle of the Kentucky Bourbon trail so of course we had to tour a distillery! We also visited Lincoln's birth place.

Next stop was Murphy NC to visit some very good and long time friends. We always enjoy spending time with them! Because we were so close to one of our favorite places, the Great Smoky Mountains, we had to spend a few days in Cherokee NC and revisit Mingo Falls and Clingman's Dome.

August was spent back in PA visiting with family, enjoying the view from our campground site and canning as much yummy produce as I had time and room for. We also made the decision to apply to Amazon for work at the Campbellsville facility and we got hired.

The beginning of September saw us back in Deltona getting all of our semi-annual doctor and dentist appointments completed and repacking the motorhome for our extended stay in Kentucky. We had to report to Amazon the last week in September.

October, November and December flew by. It seemed that about all we had time for was sleep, eat and work!

We finished our stint at Amazon on December 20th and we were back in Deltona on the 23rd. Unfortunately Bob entered the hospital on the 24th and was there until the 28th. They never did figure out exactly what was wrong with him. Christmas was kind of a bust!

And that was 2015!