Harvesting sugar beets became a possibility when Carl was researching ways to make money as a full-time RVer. A couple of the full-time RV YouTubers we have watched over the years have given sugar beet harvesting a try. So, it was no surprise to me that we would eventually find ourselves in one of the northern states as Carl experienced the harvest firsthand. [Be sure to watch our pictorial YouTube video above for pictures and video clips of Carl’s experience.]
What is a sugar beet? It is a root crop, about 3-5 times larger than red beets, generally weighing about 3-5 pounds each. Because of their high sucrose content, they are used for sugar products: white sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, molasses, liquid sugar, and so on. Just take a look at CrystalSugar.com for the different types of sugar they make using sugar beets. In fact, nearly 60% of the sugar products in our country are made from sugar beets. If the “ingredients” don’t list sugar cane or cane sugar, then it is most likely from sugar beets, listed simply as sugar.
They are primarily grown in northern states: Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, and Nebraska. We spent several weeks this Autumn (2022) in Gary, Minnesota (the northern part of the state about one hour east of Fargo, ND), and Carl drove a truck for the harvest.
The sugar beet harvest, in a nutshell, works like this: the Topper tops, the Lifter lifts and “chutes,” the trucker drives, weighs, and unloads, and the Piler piles. A fuller explanation of this choreographed dance of machinery is as follows:
The Topper is a specific type of farm equipment pulled by a tractor that moves down the field ahead of the Lifter, removing the green leaves from the tops of the sugar beets. It operates more like a mulching lawn mower. A few minutes (or less) behind the Topper is the Lifter.
The Lifter lifts the sugar beets out of the ground, tumbles them to knock off a lot of the dirt, then chutes them into the truck that is driving slowly next to it. For various reasons, such as very cold weather, the Topper cannot remove the green leaves ahead of time. It has to be done right before the sugar beets are lifted from the ground.
Once the Lifter fills a truck, the trucker heads to a Piling Station, and an empty truck immediately takes its place next to the Lifter as the harvesting continues.
When the truck arrives at the Piling Station, it is weighed first then unloaded at the Piler before being weighed again. Each farming operation has its own barcode, which is given to the truckers. The weights are recorded and associated to barcodes each trucker has. At the Piler, the truck offloads the beats into the machine, which tumbles them and chutes them onto an ever-growing pile. The Piler is on wheels, and, as the pile grows in height and width, the machine is moved back to create space for more. The one complete pile I saw was easily the length and width of a football field and about 20 feet high! Carl said that some of the other piles he saw could have been as high as 35 feet, and some were longer than a football field.
The farm Carl represented during this harvest was Skaurud Grain Farms (SGF). This farm grew 4,000 acres of sugar beets for American Crystal Sugar. Carl went to five different piling stations, the furthest being about 45 minutes away from the farm headquarters. Other nearby farms contribute to these piles as well.
The harvest itself takes about two weeks, operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, weather depending. SGF stopped harvesting for a couple of days because the overnight temps dropped down to 17 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit. We don’t fully understand why harvesting stops due to freezing temps because the beets literally sit in these large piles all winter long in freezing weather!
Typically, the harvest starts around October 1. This year, it started October 6 and ended on October 22, with three days of stoppage.
I had a chance to ride along with Carl one afternoon for a couple of loads. The field they were harvesting was about 8-9 miles away, and the Piling Station was 2 miles down the road from our Airstream. It was interesting to experience what Carl had been doing for several weeks, as it was very similar to what he did for the corn silage harvest in September. No! I am not interested in doing this in the future. A 12-hour shift (2:00pm-2:00am or 2:00am-2:00pm) operating a large truck across bumpy fields is not something to which I aspire. The people who work at the Piling Station have different shifts (8:00am-8:00pm or 8:00pm-8:00am), and they are more likely to be subject to the changing weather conditions. I’ll stay at the Airstream, keeping warm and busy with reading, researching, writing, and other fun tasks.
Money is a strong motivating factor for Carl, even though he is retired. He earned $25.00 per hour driving a truck; hours worked after 48 each week were at time and a half. In six weeks, across the corn silage and sugar beet harvests, he earned over $9,000.00. Not bad for an old dog learning some new tricks! it will come in handy when we make our way to Alaska next summer.
Watch our pictorial video at the top of this blog for pictures and video clips of Carl’s experience.
And, yes, Carl plans to work those harvests next year!