Have you ever heard about the sugar beet harvest? Come along for a peek from the driver’s seat of the sugar beet harvest in Southern Minnesota. It’s quite a significant event, not just for workamping RVers, but also for the local community. This year our summer travels left me in the perfect location to take on a workamping job as a sugar beet harvest driver.
With acres of sugar beet fields ready for harvest, my early mornings started in pitch blackness that turned into stunning sunrises from the view from the driver’s seat of my truck. The real test came at 2 AM, where I had to carefully navigate the fields to avoid running over the beets. It’s a unique part of the job that adds a bit of nighttime excitement to the harvest routine.
Let’s get started on my sweet ride!
Sugar Beet FAQ’s
What is a sugar beet? It’s a root vegetable, like a carrot or turnip, but packed with sweetness. A sugar beet resembles a large, white, and somewhat conical root. The cool thing about sugar beets is that they’re specifically grown for their high sugar content. A two-pound sugar beet yields about three tablespoons of sugar. This sugar is tucked away in the plant’s root. To get to it, the beet’s juice is concentrated into a syrup, which is then purified and filtered until it has a sweet 65% sugar content. What’s cool is that the sugar extracted from sugar beets is naturally white.
Here’s an interesting sugar beet tidbit that I learned. In the 2022-2023 period, the United States produced about 8.4 million metric tons of sugar, which is a pretty big deal considering the worldwide production was 177 million metric tons. Sugarbeets are big players in U.S. sugar production, churning out around 5 million tons each year. That’s 54% of the country’s total sugar production! And did you know? A substantial 30% of this comes from Minnesota. It’s impressive how these unassuming beets play such a major role in our sweet cravings!
How to Find A Sugar Beet Harvest Job
As you can imagine, there are a variety of ways to find a job for the sugar beet harvest. In some areas, there are employment agencies that advertise for different positions. Express Employment is one of those that I have seen. Another way is from farmers advertising directly on workamping websites like Workcamper.com (this is a paid membership). Many of the positions I saw were working at Pilers (more on those soon).
I was lucky enough to land a driving job hauling sugar beets. While I had never hauled sugar beets before I do have experience driving a semi. I have over 1 million miles under my belt running loads across the US. My experience driving a semi on the road was very helpful, but little did I know what lay ahead of me going off-road with a semi.
The shift hours vary, and the length of the assignment does also. I worked 2 A.M. to 4 P.M. and if conditions were right it was a 6 day a week job. But, outdoor temperature and weather conditions played a role in the days worked. It cannot be too hot or too wet It had to be just right! We harvested until the third week of October this year. I have to say it was a workamping job that I will never forget.
Now, let’s take a little journey together. I’m going to share a peek into the Minnesota sugar beet harvest, right from the driver’s seat. Buckle up, as we explore the fields of these sweet, hidden gems!
September – Prepping the fields
This is where the fun begins! I never thought I would be driving a semi into a field of sugar beets. Wow! Thank goodness we were able to “practice” before the real harvest began. We started by prepping the fields that we would be harvesting. Prepping is where we harvest the sugar beets along the edge, and a few rows in the middle of the field so the machinery has room to get into & out of the fields.
During September, farmers can only harvest so many tons of beets. This is due mainly to the warmer temperatures, and the possibility of the sugar beets deteriorating which impacts their sugar content.
October – Let The Harvest Begin!
Even though my role was driving the trucks, it was fascinating to see how the whole operation came together with specific equipment. The harvest starts with two primary tools. The defoliator is the first to take center stage. It tackles two tasks: removing the green leaves and slicing off the top slab of the sugarbeet root. This top part is pretty important; it’s where the beet grows from and it’s full of impurities that can interfere with sugar extraction later on.
After the defoliation step, the next part of the sugarbeet harvest involves a pretty cool piece of equipment called a pinch wheel harvester (aka lifter). Its job is to gently lift the beets right out of the soil. That’s where I come in with my semi-truck. I drive alongside the harvester, and as the beets are lifted, they fall straight into the truck. It’s like a well-coordinated dance between the harvester and the truck, ensuring that all those sugarbeets are collected efficiently and ready for their next stop.
Once my truck was loaded with sugarbeets in the field, the next part of the journey began. I drove to one of the many receiving stations, where the real magic happens. At the station, I’m directed to what’s known as a sugarbeet piler. This is where the unloading takes place.
When it’s time to unload, the truck wheels are clamped and the truck is tilted to about a 45-degree angle. As it is tipped to one side, the gates are opened on the side of the trailer allowing the sugar beets to tumble out onto a conveyor belt, heading to the growing mounds of sugar beets.
It’s not just about unloading, though. The piler also does a great job of shaking off any extra dirt clinging to the beets. Plus, each truckload, including mine, gets a bit of special attention – a sample of beets is taken from each for quality analysis.
Then they join a grand assembly of beets in the storage area. Imagine giant piles of sugarbeets, each around 200 feet wide and towering 20-30 feet tall. It was quite a sight! But there’s more to these piles than just their size. Keeping the sugar locked inside the beets is crucial, so the piles are kept at specific temperatures. This clever trick keeps the piles cool and prevents the precious sugar in the beets from being lost.
At this point, I would head back to the field for another load, and the sugar beets would hang out in their cool, cozy piles until they were ready for the sugar production process!
Since it was the busy season at the processing plant tours were not available, but you can check out the process at the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative.
Final Thoughts On A Peek From The Driver’s Seat Of The Sugar Beet Fields
Wrapping up this season’s sugar beet harvest, it was quite the adventure with our crew of 8 to 10 as we worked 1550 acres of land, and harvested an impressive 48,000 tons of sugar beets. Early mornings, hard work, and the satisfying hum of machinery, all came together for an unforgettable experience. If you’re ever presented with the opportunity to work the sugar beet harvest, I’d say go for it. It’s not just about the immense scale of the operation; it’s a chance to connect with the land and see first-hand how these remarkable beets transform into the sugar we use every day. Trust me, it’s an experience you won’t forget.
**Featured Image is courtesy of Wandering With The Whites. Check out their Facebook page.
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