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Sugar Beet Harvest: Ultimate Guide to Making Money on the Road

Sugar Beet Harvest: Ultimate Guide to Making Money on the Road

Want to make money for a few weeks while living in your van?  Workamping jobs like the Sugar Beet Harvest offer you free camping AND short-term employment! 

Working the Sugar Beet Harvest is perfect for nomads looking to make some money while traveling.  If you’re working toward becoming a digital nomad, but you’re not there yet, you can work the Sugar Beet Harvest in the meantime. 

As thru-hikers, my partner and I always look for seasonal work to continue having mini-retirements on trail or in our van.  We finished working our first season of the Sugar Beet Harvest in 2023.  We’re here to tell you everything you need to know before you work the Sugar Beet Harvest in 2024!

What is the Sugar Beet Harvest Workamping Experience?

Woman working the sugar beet harvest with two red sugar beets the size of her head.

🚐 A Workamping job is a short-term job you work while living in your van or RV.  You live in a campground and work nearby.

🍂 The Sugar Beet Harvest runs from the end of September through October in North Dakota and Minnesota.  It’s a great way to travel, work a new job, and meet other nomads!

🚛 Basically, you’re helping pile sugar beets for long-term storage.  You’re not in fields digging up beets.  Instead, you assist trucks and take samples to determine the sugar content in the beets.  That’s how the farmers get paid!

Feel free to jump around in this post from the table of contents and leave any comments below. 

📲 BOOKMARK this page for all your Sugar Beet Harvest questions!

➡️ If you do sign up for the Sugar Beet Harvest, feel free to use this blog post for your referral.  It’s not sponsored, but I may get a referral bonus if you go and work for at least two weeks. 

Sugar Beet Harvest Jobs

What are the actual Workamping jobs offered at the Sugar Beet Harvest? 

They’re not what you think!

No, you’re not out in fields literally digging sugar beets out of the ground.  There are machines for that!

Here are the 5 main short-term Sugar Beet Harvest jobs available:

Helper and Sample Taker – This is the MAIN job you can get with ZERO experience.  Essentially, you work the ground crew on a beet piler machine.  You take samples of sugar beets if needed, direct trucks off of the machine, and shovel excess dirt out of the way.

Piler Operator – This job controls the piler and how the beets fall out of the dump trucks.  You need some machinery experience for this job OR you can train as a relief operator while working the helper and sampler taker position.

Skid steer Driver – The skid steer is a mini cat machine that helps remove excess dirt and beet debris when it piles up.  On some sugar beet piles, they also help lay culverts for deep freeze piles.  You need experience driving various cat machines to get this job.

Truck Driver – This job is not specifically a Workamping job offered, but the growers all need drivers.  Fun fact: you DO NOT NEED a CDL to drive a dump truck of sugar beets.  They can literally hire anyone with a valid driver’s license. 

Helper/Sampler Taker PAY $$$ – Is It Worth It? 💰

Top of the sugar beet pile with the beet factory in the background.
View Across the Beet Pile to the Back

That’s the core question here – is the pay worth the effort?  I say yes, it was.

💵 The American Crystal Beet Harvest pays a helper/sampler $18.80 per hour.

HOWEVER, each shift is actually 12.5 hours.  That means overtime, which is time and a half.  It’s also 7 days a week which means the weekend is overtime and double-time.  The extra half hour becomes a safety meeting that includes a minor stretching session.

💵 Overtime pay is $28.20 per hour.  Double Time Pay is $37.60 per hour.

The breakdown goes as follows:

  • Monday: 8hrs Reg Pay, 4.5hrs Overtime Pay
  • Tuesday: 8hrs Reg Pay, 4.5hrs Overtime Pay
  • Wednesday: 8hrs Reg Pay, 4.5hrs Overtime Pay
  • Thursday: 8hrs Reg Pay, 4.5hrs Overtime Pay
  • Friday: 8hrs Reg Pay, 4.5hrs Overtime Pay
  • Saturday: 12.5 hours Overtime Pay
  • Sunday: 12.5 hours Double-Time Pay

Now, when you average out all those hours the average hourly pay is $24.90 per hour (*if you work all 7 days in a given week).

IMPORTANT Note: If YOU call in sick, this affects your weekend overtime and double-time pay (you won’t get it or as much).  If American Crystal Sugar closes the yard due to weather, you get 4 hours of “stay pay” and your weekend overtime is NOT affected.

What is “Stay Pay” – Definition and Examples

Woman reading her kindle in bed in a van.
Getting Paid to Read 😂

💰 “Stay Pay” Definition: When the sugar beet harvest is closed due to weather you get PAID the equivalent of 4 HOURS of regular pay to do whatever you want (within legal limits).  Essentially, you get paid to stay and wait for work to start. 

Example 1: The intended start date in 2023 was October 4th.  Stay pay began September 30th.  It began after everyone had gone through orientation and training, but the weather stayed too hot to start.  We received stay pay on September 30th, October 1st, picked up a pre-pile shift on October 2nd, and got stay pay again on October 3rd.

Example 2: The weather did not cooperate well at the start of the season.  Hot and wet aren’t good weather conditions for the sugar beet harvest.  On day 2, it began raining and when they released us, they told us to make sure and call the hotline before coming to work on day 3.  As day 3 rained, the sugar beet harvest yard closed and we stayed in the campground sleeping.  We got stay pay when they called off work due to the weather.

What You *Actually* Do as a Helper/Sampler

Samples of sugar beets to determine the sugar content.
Sugar Beet Sample Bags

This seemingly weird job is much easier to understand in person than when someone describes it to you.  However, I’ll make it as simple as possible.  Let’s start with the basics:

Job Description Basics

  • Take samples of sugar beets
  • Move bags of sugar beets from the piler to the sample pile and the loader (15-30lb bags)
  • Keep ground clean with shovels, rakes, and other tools
  • Direct trucks off of the end dumps to dirt return
  • Give trucks their dirt back
  • Tell trucks they’re good to go
  • Maintain proper slack and position of the power cord with candy cane tool or provided rubber gloves
  • Lockout and clean the piler when needed

You will find this post describing the parts of a sugar beet piler with diagrams useful in understanding the following helper/sampler job description.

Helper/Sampler Job Run-Through Description

Main components of a beet piler machine at the sugar beet harvest.
Main Components of a Beet Piler – Side View

1️⃣ First, the helper/sampler works as part of the ground crew on a beet piling machine known as the piler with 2-4 others. 

2️⃣ Second, a truck drives onto the end dump of the beet piler.  The helper sampler uses a hand signal to ask the truck driver if they have a sample. 

3️⃣ Third, if the truck has a sample ticket, the helper/sampler walks to the driver’s side window to get it.  You’ll grab a sample bag.  You place the ticket on the bag down and out so the bar code is visible through the plastic.  Then, you’ll pull the sample bag up over the shaft of the sample shoot.  You’ll press the “sample” button.  You’ll hold it while 15-30 pounds of beets fall through the shoot.  Finally, you’ll move it to the sample bag pile and wait until the truck finishes.

4️⃣ Fourth, when the truck finishes you’ll direct it off of the end-dump by using hand signals to stop the truck underneath of the dirt return.  Then, you’ll press the dirt button and give the truck its excess dirt back.  This keeps the machine cleaner and not clogged.  When you finish, you’ll signal the truck to leave.

5️⃣ Fifth, you’ll use shovels to keep the ground free of dirt and mud.  The shovels have a wide bar on top making them easy to push around back and forth.  Keeping your ground clean keeps everyone safer.

6️⃣ Sixth, one member of the ground crew will operate the boom and essentially create the pile.  You’ll operate the boom as it swings it back and forth.  When the boom gets too close, you will move the machine backward. 

Day Shift vs. Night Shift ⏰

Two van lifers making money at the Sugar Beet Harvest
Morning Meeting

The Sugar Beet Harvest operates 24 hours per day when it starts.  American Crystal Sugar implements a day shift (8 am – 8 pm) and a night shift (8 pm – 8 am).

However, for an 8 am shift, you actually need to get there at 7:30 and can check in as early as 7:23 am, but no earlier.

🙆‍♀️ In the 30 minutes prior to your shift, you will meet with the whole yard shift and your foreman.  Your foreman will go over what happened in the previous shift (which pilers broke down and why).  And, you’ll do some basic stretching.  Apparently, they noticed a decrease in workplace injuries when they had everyone stretch before their shift. 

🦺 In the safety meeting, the lead agriculturalist also visits the crew to check in and make sure everyone is of sound body and mind to work.  I think the funniest meeting included when she asked if any of us still had clean underwear on day 11.

Working either shift at the Sugar Beet harvest has pros and cons.

Pros and Cons of Day Shift

➕ Pros:

  • You can sleep when you’re used to sleeping.
  • It’s easier to see in the daytime.
  • Your shift starts at the coldest point and gets warmer, then gets slightly cooler at the end.
  • You can plug your rig into the campground hookups for solid heat at night.

➖ Cons

  • No grocery stores have good hours for you before or after work.
  • It’s busier.
  • The big bosses are awake.
  • It’s freezing when you get out of the shower with wet hair.

Pros and Cons of Night Shift

➕ Pros

  • You can go to the grocery store after work (or any normal business).
  • It’s less busy, so more breaks.
  • The big bosses are asleep, so the vibe is more relaxed.
  • You can shower when it’s warmer

➖ Cons

  • You have to flip your sleep schedule on short notice after training.
  • It’s harder to see at night with the clear safety glasses.
  • Your shift only gets colder as the night progresses.
  • You might have to idle your engine to warm up during your breaks on shift.

How Long Does the Sugar Beet Harvest Last?

Trucks full of sugar beets lining up at a beet piler during the Sugar Beet Harvest
Trucks Lining Up

Technically, the Sugar Beet Harvest lasts about 2 weeks for work on average.

HOWEVER, they require you to come 4-10 days ahead of their planned start date for training and orientation.  I found the waiting game days a little hard. 

In 2023, in the Drayton, North Dakota yard, we ended up working for 20 days PLUS we waited for it to start for 10 days.  That made it a 1-month commitment for us not including drive time there and out.

There’s a BUT though…the sugar beet harvest duration depends on the weather.

We had one day called off for weather and I describe it in this daily post here.

I heard all kinds of stories about massive snowstorms coming in and delaying work for up to a week.  Since no one can control the weather, the exact duration cannot be predetermined. 

Basically, expect 2-5 weeks in most cases.

Sugar Beet Harvest Schedule & Breaks

Three vans used as break areas during the sugar beet harvest next to the line of trucks full of beets.
Personal Break Vehicles

For day shift:

  • 7:23 am – Arrive and clock in
  • 7:30 am – Safety meeting and stretching
  • 7:50 am ish – Head to your piler and relieve the night crew.
  • 8:00 am – Shift has officially switched on pilers.
  • 8:00 pm – You’re relieved by the night shift.

For night shift:

  • 7:23 pm – Arrive and clock in
  • 7:30 pm – Safety meeting and stretching
  • 7:50 pm ish – Head to your piler and relieve the night crew.
  • 8:00 pm – Shift has officially switched on pilers.
  • 8:00 am – You’re relieved by the night shift.

Sugar Beet Harvest Break Time

Woman blogging in the swiveled front seat of a converted van at the beet harvest.
Blogging on Breaks

Your breaks can vary at the Sugar Beet Harvest.

Why? They’re not officially mandated times and the machine cannot stop unless it breaks or needs cleaning.

➡️ You are guaranteed 1 – 30 minute break and 2 – 15 minute breaks per 12-hour shift.

HOWEVER, we were told that we could make our own break schedules within our crew and pile operator as long as breaks were fair and reasonable

Meaning, everyone had to get the same amount of break time and that the breaks were long enough to do what you needed and short enough that everyone could go to the bathroom when needed.

🦺 Your crew’s ability to make break schedules can vary based on:

  1. The competency of your crew
  2. The number of people on your crew

Sometimes, you’re also just told to wait for further instructions in your vehicles, like on day 14.

In the end, we were allowed to make our own break schedules.  We made them fair and made sure no one had to wait more than 1 hour between bathroom breaks.  At each shift, we checked in with each other and made sure all our needs were met.

Sugar Beet Harvest Difficulty: How Hard is it Really?

The Sugar Beet Harvest is a grind.  Your attitude toward the grind will ultimately determine how difficult you perceive it to be. 

🥾 And maybe good boot inserts.  Those would contribute to your good attitude.

The main difficulties are:

  1. Standing on concrete in boots for long periods of time. 🥾
  2. Changing weather conditions: layers on and off frequently. ⛅️
  3. Breathing dust.  They offer N95s but they made the safety goggles fog so much I used a surgical mask and a neck gaiter over my nose and mouth. 😷
  4. Cleaning the piler: some of the mud was difficult to scrap off and took some elbow grease. 🧼

If you get squishy boot inserts, multiple layers to work in, have a few masks, and know how to pace yourself, the actual work is not difficult in my opinion.

➡️ As a thru-hiker, I found the entire idea of boots frustrating and uncomfortable (I’m a sandal hiker).  However, I did find that thru-hiking uniquely prepared us to do relatively mundane physical tasks all day for 3 weeks straight.

From stories, I also feel like the difficulty may also depend on where you get assigned.  I heard horrible stories about the Michigan Beet Harvest.  Simultaneously, I heard mostly good stories about the Minnesota Beet Harvest.  Having worked at the North Dakota Beet Harvest, I feel confident in saying that it mostly came down to attitude.

What Type of Rig Do You Need?  Van/Trailer/Bus/RV Regulations

Van life setup: Bed in back with upper cabinets and bookshelves.
The Back of Our Van

To work the Sugar Beet Harvest, you need a Class B RV or the equivalent of one.

Meaning…you need to have these 6 things in your rig:

  1. Sink
  2. Fridge
  3. Stove
  4. Table
  5. Bed
  6. Heat Source

We did have to provide photos after we accepted the job to prove our van met those qualifications. 

They did specify that the bed could not be a mattress thrown in the back of a rig or vehicle.

🔌 However, we definitely took a photo of a 400W desk space heater and 100ft extension cord and that counted as a heat source.  Since the campground has both 30 amp and 110-volt plugs, that worked fine for us.

Sugar Beet Harvest Included Campground Facilities

The Sugar Beet Harvest has many campgrounds located near their piling sites.  Therefore, the exact facilities vary depending on what campground they assign to you.

In our interview, the Beet Harvest offered that all their campgrounds had:

  • electrical plug-ins 🔌
  • water 💦
  • dump stations ☣️
  • dumpsters 🚮
  • laundry 🧺
  • bath house with showers and toilets 🚽 🚿

I did learn in talking with others that not every campground had laundry.  Campgrounds located near laundromats did not.  Ours had a mobile trailer with 6 washers and 6 dryers.  The mobile trailer had its fair share of problems and the machines did not stop at the same times despite using the same settings.

The camp host we had did a good job of placing almost all the rigs with kids in the same area.  He also helped place the vans in one area and had the larger RVs all in one area.  This helped because those in vans were more likely to need the provided showers.  Those in giant RVs just used their own.

Pros and Cons of a Van vs 5th Wheel/RV with Tow Car

Woman with a laptop in a van blogging.

Everyone at the Sugar Beet Harvest will either have a van/small RV or they’ll have a large RV/5th wheel with a tow car.

There are advantages and disadvantages of both. 

➡️ Why does this matter?  You MUST drive to and from the job site and park near your piler.  The Sugar Beet Harvest DOESN’T provide you with a break space.  Therefore, your vehicle is where you’ll take your breaks.

🚐 Advantages of having a van:

  • All your food is with you and you don’t need to pre-plan lunch, dinner, and snacks.
  • All your layers are with you and you can add or shed layers as needed.
  • You have more space to stretch out.
  • You’ll have your stove with you to make hot beverages when it’s cold.
  • You have your home with you for longer breaks and have more entertainment.

🚐 Disadvantages to using the van at the job site:

  • The outside gets absolutely covered in gross farm dirt.  You have to wash it afterward.
  • We had to cover our front seats and our bench seat cushions because we would come in with mud stuck all over us.
  • The trucks may or may not be responsible and could hit your house.

🚗 Those with only a tow car went to the scale house to use an electric kettle for warm beverages and had to pre-pack food and layers.  However, they kept most of the grosser mud and dirt confined to the tow car instead of their rig.

Overall, I preferred having our van to the idea of a tow car.  We had several long breaks in the beginning days and the end days which made a big difference.  One day had a break long enough for me to make a large pot of chili! 🌶️

Is the Sugar Beet Harvest Dangerous?  Safety First. 🦺

Woman taking a selfie at the sugar beet harvest
Last Break Selfie

Honestly, I did not think about this question until I started working the Sugar Beet Harvest in person.  I know large agricultural machinery could be dangerous, but I didn’t think too hard about this.

Let me also preface this segment by saying that the atmosphere of safety depends on the foreman and the agriculturalists at your specific site.

Personally, I felt like both our foreman and our agriculturalist definitely cared about our safety.  While they both appreciated efficiency, I had the impression that if a situation arose where you had to choose between safety and efficiency, they preferred that we chose safety.

That being said, below I’ll list the dangerous aspects of the Sugar Beet Harvest and how those dangers were mitigated.

  • 🧼 Cleaning the sugar beet piler.  A thorough lock-out procedure to cut the power to the machine existed and was followed.  Ensuring the machine’s power could not be turned on happened every single time.
  • 🚛 Trucks.  The sugar beet truck drivers do not need a CDL to drive the giant dump trucks.  Thus, they do not always know their trucks very well.  While you could walk near them more efficiently, they encouraged us to give them space.
  • 🚶‍♀️Slippery conditions. You can never run at the beet harvest…only walk quickly.  They also encouraged us to continually shovel away mud and dirt in pathways.
  • 😷 Dust.  N95 masks were readily available whenever we needed them and if some weren’t, someone drove some to you.

Everything You Need to Know about Clothing & Boots 👖 🥾

This is a huge topic for the Sugar Beet Harvest and can make or break your experience there!

Basically, you NEED to have boots that cover the ankle and LAYERS.

Boots 🥾

Muck Boots 👌

As a thru-hiker, I never recommend boots (I’m a sandal hiker).  However, they’re required for the Sugar Beet Harvest.

While you can go to a thrift store and buy boots, I do NOT recommend this.  Why?  Because all footwear ends up molding to the shape of your feet.  Not everyone’s feet are the same shape despite being the same shoe size.  Furthermore, people walk differently and you might end up with someone who has the outer or inner edges worn in more than the other.  This can not only affect how your feet feel, but also your knees, hips, and back.

Basically, if you’re going to spend more money anywhere…buy new boots or dig your old boots out of your parent’s closet.  Then, add those squishy inserts to them.

Personally, I recommend rubber boots that have a sole with good tread.  I used Muck Boots and 100% recommend them for comfort and for keeping the van cleaner!

Layers 👖

Woman taking a selfie with 3 vans at the sugar beet harvest.
Waiting Out the Rain

Whether you end up on the day or night shift, you’ll need layers to adjust to changing temperatures.

➡️ Here, I highly recommend thrift stores.  While we gathered up all the layers we had that we didn’t mind destroying, we only had a few.

On your way out to the Sugar Beet Harvest, I recommend stopping at various thrift stores across the country.  Purposely buy a few layers big and a few layers that fit.

Here’s how I layered on top:

  1. Long-Sleeve Thermal Shirt
  2. T-shirt
  3. Fleece Sweatshirt
  4. Fleece Vest
  5. Synthetic Puffy Jacket
  6. Rain jacket (if raining or bitterly cold wind)
  7. Provided Safety Vest
  8. Neck Gaiter
  9. Work Gloves

You’ll want about 3 long sleeve shirts, 3 t-shirts, 2-3 fleece layers, 1 vest, 1 thicker jacket, 1 rain jacket, 2 different thickness neck gaiters, and 2-3 work gloves.

Here’s how I layered on the bottom:

  1. 2 Pairs socks
  2. Tight Leggings
  3. Jeans big enough to fit leggings underneath (with belt)
  4. Rain pants (if raining or bitterly cold wind)

I recommend many pairs of socks.  You’ll want to change these and your underwear the most often.  I used two different pairs of leggings and 2 pairs of jeans during the Sugar Beet Harvest.

➡️ 🌧️ A note on rain gear: The Sugar Beet Harvest “provides” rain gear when it rains.  HOWEVER, it’s all XL-XXL or very basic plastic ponchos.  We got a rain jacket and rain pants set at Tractor Supply for $30 each and 100% made life easier when it rained.

7 Tips That Will Make the Sugar Beet Harvest EASIER For You

1. Rubber Boots with Good Sole Tread

I LOVED walking up to the van and stepping out of my boots as I got in.  On my way out, I stepped into them. 🥾

As a thru-hiker, I knew that it’s critical to take your footwear off during breaks and the Sugar Beet Harvest was no exception.

2. Cover Your Seats with Curtains from a Thrift Store

Farm mud is something else!  I don’t know about you, but we like the grey color of our seats and didn’t want splotches of brown on them.

We found several $3 fabric curtains at a thrift store and secured them on our seats and cushions with binder clips.

After 3 weeks at the Sugar Beet Harvest, none of our seats have stains.  And, we could re-donate the curtains afterward.

3. Have a Pantry of Basic, Filling Meals to Make in 10 minutes or Less

We started out with several of these but wished we had a few more.  Figure out what you can make in 10 min or less and stock up!

When you just get off your 12.5-hour shift, you do NOT want to cook.  And you want to cook even less if you have to beeline to the shower before you eat dinner.

🍜 We made a giant pot of stew the day before the harvest started.  We ate this for the first 5 nights of the harvest by reheating it on our stove.  Then we resorted to Vegan Mac N Cheese with Veggie Burgers and Vegan Quesadillas thereafter.

Cans of soup helped but didn’t have enough calories to adequately satisfy our appetites after the job.

4. Be Prepared with High Calorie, Easy Snacks

This we rocked hardcore.  Your job-site attitude often reflects your level of hunger. 

🥨 Eat at least one snack EVERY BREAK.  Bonus points if it’s high protein or high calorie.

We went to Costco before the Sugar Beet Harvest and loaded up on high-protein snacks.  Snacks literally fell out of every nook in our van. 

🥜 Nuts, protein bars, chips, breakfast bars, Lenny and Larry’s cookies all helped us stay positive and have plenty of energy for the whole shift.

It was just like thru-hiking…food is fuel!

5. Have at Least 2 Neck Gaiters with Different Thicknesses

Neck gaiters serve a twofold purpose.

First, it gets cold and neck gaiters keep you warm. 

Second, have at least one that you can pull up over your nose and mouth for dust.  One day the dust was so bad that we had an N95 mask and a buff pulled over our faces. 

6. Have 2-3 Work Gloves with Different Thicknesses

Hand warmers can help a lot, but sometimes having several glove options is better.

🧤 We found the best work glove selection at the most affordable prices at Tractor Supply.

The Sugar Beet Harvest provides you with 1 pair, so if you bring 2 of your own, you’ll have options.  I found that I often switched gloves twice during the day shift.  Warmer gloves in the morning, light gloves in the afternoon, and back to the warm gloves in the evening.

7. Bring a Battery Pack to Charge Your Phone on Breaks

🔋 Most thru-hikers carry battery packs on trail.  I recommend them in the van as well in case you’re conserving your house battery power for whatever reason.

At the Sugar Beet Harvest, I saw a lot of co-workers who only had tow cars idling their vehicles just to charge their phones. 

This doesn’t seem hugely important.  However, for most people, your phone will be your break-time entertainment.  You’ll want it to have plenty of battery power!

Conclusion

Overview of beet piler and sugar beet pile at the Sugar Beet Harvest
Sugar Beet Pile and Piler

💰 I had a great time at the Sugar Beet Harvest while we made a decent amount of money. 

However, I felt some anxiety before we got there.  We read blogs and watched videos, but I felt left in the dark about a few things and it frustrated me. 

I hope this post has answered your questions and maybe even a few questions you didn’t know you had.

Bookmark this post for later when you work the Sugar Beet Harvest!

If you sign up for the Sugar Beet Harvest after reading this post, be sure to mention it and use my name as your referral.  It’s not sponsored, but I could make a referral bonus if you go and work at least two weeks.

Drop any questions below in the comments!

Chris Knight

Saturday 13th of January 2024

Great information. A lot of hard work gathering and writing it up in an organized / easy to follow presentation. Thank you!

mandyredpath

Saturday 13th of January 2024

Thank you, Chris! I wrote down what I wanted to know before we went to work it. I hope it can help others in their decisions as well.

Angela

Sunday 10th of December 2023

Is this a W2 or 1099?

mandyredpath

Monday 11th of December 2023

Great question! As far as I know, W2...however...I'll know shortly in the new year and report back!

Comments are closed.