So you want to be a farmer… Part 2

I hope the anticipation has built appropriately for the remainder of my farming adventures.

Let’s start with a chat about Gary’s tractor. This is Gary’s tractor:IMG_5058

Looks cute, right? Gary (the daytime defoliator) loved Gary’s tractor. To clarify: my uncle is the owner of Gary’s tractor – I think it was the first tractor he ever purchased. He’s pretty proud of it. Despite this, I intensely disliked Gary’s tractor. Why? Well, one of the main reasons was that the lights in the back didn’t work very well, and I never felt like I could see what I was doing.

View from the back of the tractor at night:

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I also had to run Gary’s tractor really slowly, because its tiny little front wheels didn’t handle the deep sprinkler ruts very well (my other farmemy). Of course, the struggle against these mini crevasses had absolutely nothing to do with the operator of the tractor. Sprinkler ruts are from – what else – sprinklers that water the fields. If you haven’t seen them before, they’re basically really long arms that stick horizontally out of (and rotate around) a central fixed point. The arms have sprinklers hanging down every few yards, and they are supported by perpendicular rods that have wheels at the bottom. The sprinklers drive around in circles, like the hands on a clock. As they drive, their wheels cut grooves into the earth. The sprinklers save a lot of time irrigating the crops, but they can cause super deep ruts in the fields that make harvest more challenging.

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Ruts that run horizontally across the rows are okayish to drive across. I usually just slowed down and bumped my way over and through them. It was when the ruts run parallel or almost parallel to the rows that I had the most trouble. Then you’re trying to stay on row, so the defoliator cuts the tops off properly, but you’re trying not to let any of your wheels fall into the rut, dragging all of your machinery out of place. Sometimes falling into the rut is inevitable, and then you just pray as you tip that you’re not going to break the PTO shaft for the third time.

Gary’s tractor has littler tires than mine, and I thought it was way harder to maneuver through the ruts. Here’s a picture of “my” tractor:

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Photo by Brandon

You’ll notice that my tractor is missing a tire in this picture. Yes, I did that… One night, I was driving my tractor and I kept getting error messages on my computer screen. So, I radioed Jerry, who was on the digger from 4pm-4am (my shift was 7pm-7am). The digger is the boss of the field, basically. Jerry said he’d come look at my tractor when I got in line with him across the field. So I drove for a little longer, through a bunch of rough ruts. Then Jerry came and looked at my tractor. We couldn’t find anything wrong with it, even after we turned it on and off, revved it up, and walked all the way around the whole machine.

Shortly before this, one of the truck drivers had hit Jerry’s digger, causing one of its side panels to fall off. This was a brand new digger, and they’re not cheap, so we picked up the panel and threw it on top of my defoliator. I was going to drive it over to the light post (a gas powered light that marked the approach into the field for the truck drivers) so nobody would accidentally run over it in the dark. Jerry, Denys, and I got the panel, which was very big and heavy, situated on top of my defoliator.

I started driving it over to the lamp post (about 75 meters away), and noticed I was having some trouble driving a straight line. Whatever. I thought the field was muddy or something. I had to steer really hard to the right, but I managed to get reasonably close to the lamp post. So then Denys (who had been driving the truck that hit the panel) met me and helped me lift it off the defoliator and carry it to the light.

As we turned back to the vehicles, I could tell he was feeling really bad about hitting the new digger, so I patted his shoulder and said, “It’s okay, Denys, everyone… what the [extra bad word], I don’t have a tire!” And I didn’t. I was missing my left rear tire (one of the big ones). No wonder my tractor was hard to steer. Needless to say, Denys instantly felt better.

I was super confused. So I radioed, “Jerry, I don’t have a tire.” There was a long silence. Again, “Jerry, I don’t have a tire on my tractor.” Finally, the response: “What?”

“I don’t have my left rear tire on my tractor. It’s gone.”

“That’s not possible.”

“Well, I’m looking right at it and there’s definitely no tire there.”

“Where is it?”

“I don’t know. Not anywhere around here.”

Long pause. “Is the rim there?”

“Yeah, I think so… that’s the metal part the tire sits on, right?”

I think he was still incredulous, but he told me to get his pickup truck and drive around the field til I found the tire. Ha! I still laugh when I think about the ridiculousness of that night. I drove around like a drunk for a while, purposely zigzaging to sweep the headlights across as much of the field as possible. I did find the tire, basically in the same spot as where I had been parked when Jerry and I were trying to figure out the error message.

I then called Jerry on my cell to tell him I found the tire. He wanted to know if the rim was inside of it. I said no. He didn’t believe me, so I jumped up and down on the tire and told him I did so… the tire bent in and out, which in my mind, it wouldn’t have done if there had been a rim in there. He still didn’t believe me so I stuck my hand in the tire. There was nothing there. Still disbelief so I had Denys get on the phone and confirm the lack of rim. Then he wanted to know if it was shredded. It wasn’t. I think he thought I was crazy at this point.

But he came over and the three of us lifted/shoved the tire onto the back of his truck. Then I drove it up to my tractor and plodded off to Gary’s tractor, sighing all the way, resigning myself to a long dark night with a heater that was either all on, blowing directly into my eyeballs, or all off. Gary’s tractor had a cab door I wasn’t strong enough to pull shut all the way, so I was constantly turning the heat on and off to try to balance the draft against hot dry eyes. My legs always felt like Jello when I was done with a shift on Gary’s tractor because the clutch was super hard to push. This night was no different. To top it off, the field had some of the deepest, muddiest ruts of any field I defoliated, and I managed to get Gary’s tractor stuck in one of them as the sun rose. I radioed for help and then just sat there, dejected and somewhat humiliated. Brandon came to the rescue. What a guy! Never made fun of me for somehow losing a tire on one tractor and then getting another one stuck.

Here’s the interior of Gary’s tractor (sorry, I somehow neglected to take pics of the interior of mine, it was Cadillacish in comparision, imagine computer controls and the like!):

Gary's tractor cab

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At any rate, I generally had a pretty good time pretending to be a farmer. And I was told that the tire was not my fault. I’m going to choose to believe that even though I seriously doubt I didn’t play a part. Ha! Apparently what happened was I hit a bad rut, lost the bead on the tire, and then when I started driving again, I hit another rut perfectly and basically just drove out of the tire. Jerry had a pretty good time taking pictures that night! I guess he’d never heard of such a thing, and he grew up on a sugar beet farm. My uncle didn’t seem to think it was that unusual.

I’m grateful I got the chance to work on the farm. It certainly changed how I think about all the food I see in the grocery store. That food doesn’t get there without a whole lot of hard work by a bunch of dedicated individuals and families. Next time you meet a farmer, thank them!

Because I was on the night shift, I got to see some pretty neat stuff. I’ll post some more pictures below, but I saw coyotes (they are not afraid of tractors in the slightest), deer, a porcupine, numerous beautiful sunsets and sunrises, and a lunar eclipse!

lunar eclipse

Lunar eclipse

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View from front of my tractor. You can see a set of 6 rows of defoliated but not yet dug beets on the right.

View from front of my tractor. You can see a set of 6 rows of defoliated but not yet dug beets on the right.

Sugar beet fields

Sugar beet fields

Digger

Digger. Photo by Brandon

Load 'em up!

Load ’em up! Photo by Brandon

Loaded sugar beet truck, off to the dump

Loaded sugar beet truck, off to the dump. This was shot inside my tractor – you can see the orange computer control board here.

Another view of my tractor :)

Another view of my tractor 🙂

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So you want to be a farmer… (Part I)

This October I had the distinct pleasure of trying my hand at something totally new to me: farming. And when I say farming, I mean learning how to defoliate sugar beets, because that was the only part of the farming process in which I participated. Let me tell you, that one job was enough to give me a whole new appreciation for America’s farmers and those innocent little bags of sugar sitting on the grocery store’s shelves.

Where to begin? At the beginning would be good, I suppose…. ha! The anticipation running up to sugar beet harvest is high. The farmers and the veteran workers are all very excitable in the days leading up to the harvest. You can feel the energy humming in the air, hear it in their voices, and see it on their faces as they work. There’s quite a bit of prep to do before harvest starts. There are an incredible number of machines involved in the process, and all of those machines need to be tuned up before harvest begins. I was working for my uncle and cousins, who farm, amongst other crops, 800 acres of sugar beets. One acre is sort of close to the size of a football field (it’s not exact, but fairly close). So, that’s a lot of sugar beets!

Field of sugar beets. The tops are quite tall - they came up to my knees. (I'm 5'9")

Field of sugar beets. The tops are quite tall – they came up to my knees. (I’m 5’9″)

Sugar beets. They are white inside.

Sugar beets. They are white inside, not red like the beets you eat.

Back to the machines: to harvest sugar beets, you need at least two tractors – one to haul the defoliator and one to haul the digger. The defoliator cuts the tops off the beets and the digger digs them up. It’s helpful to have spare tractors, diggers, and defoliators around. You never know when something might happen. (A tire might unexpectedly fall off the machine you’re driving, for example. More about that later.) You also need a tractor on standby in the field to pull the trucks and semis out of the mud. They have a tendency to get stuck. I think my uncle/cousins have 10 or 11 trucks they use to haul the beets out of the field to the “dump,” aka processing plant.

Driving the trucks to the dump is the most dangerous part of harvest, I think. The trucks are very heavy when they’re loaded up, and they’re driven down lots of narrow dirt roads. These days they also have to share the road with oil tankers, who I’ve gathered are not the friendliest nor the safest drivers on the planet. Sometimes the beet trucks tip over. That happened to one of our guys this year. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Photo by Brandon Hoffman

Capsized beet truck. Photo by Brandon H.

I spent the days leading up to harvest learning how to drive a tractor and cleaning tractors and trucks. When I first arrived, I was put in a tractor that was pulling a leveler. Basically, I was smoothing the ruts and clumps out of fields that had already been harvested (crops rotate fields, so the fields I leveled will have beets next year but this year they had beans or wheat or something else). So, I drove up and back, up and back, across the fields, and the leveler leveled away behind me. When I got back to the house, my aunt asked me what I’d been doing, and I couldn’t remember the word “leveler,” (I know, I know) so I told her I’d been ironing the fields. Which is basically what I was doing. Making them all flat and pretty. She got a good laugh out of my terminology, but she knew exactly what I was talking about!

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A field being leveled

The hardest part of learning to drive a tractor was learning how to back up with the implement. I have no experience backing up with boats or trailers or anything else, so that was tricky for me. It’s counter-intuitive, the way you have to turn the steering wheel to get the implement to turn properly behind you. My uncle ended up putting two stakes in the middle of an empty field. I spent some time practicing, backing up and pulling forward in between the stakes. That helped a lot. I think I’m going to have to help my dad with his boat next year! It’s a good skill to have and while it made me super frustrated when I was learning (and embarrassed, when other people were watching me!), I’m glad I learned it.

I almost forgot, in addition to learning how to drive a tractor and cleaning tractors and trucks (particularly their windows), I also got roped into cleaning out the MOST DISGUSTING trailer I’ve ever seen in my entire life. No joke. I still puke in my mouth a bit when I think about it. Backstory: so, because harvesting sugar beets (and probably any other crop, I imagine) is such a process, it involves hiring lots of people to help, mostly to drive those 10 trucks and all of the different tractors, which run 24/7 once harvest starts. All of these people need places to sleep. This year, there were two women workers: me, and Sarah. Luckily, I was family and so I got to stay in the house. Thank God. My cousin, John, bought a trailer that had been repo’ed, with the idea that Sarah would stay in it. (All of the men get crammed together in other places.) In theory, it was a nice idea. However…

This was the most mouse-infested dwelling I’d ever been in. It was like a mouse resort. A mouse haven. A mouse Disney World. I didn’t actually see any mice, but by the amount of droppings and the smell – Oh my gosh the SMELL – you’d think it was a paradise that every mouse on the planet had visited. I spent a few long hours one night vacuuming up those droppings and putting clean sheets on the bed. It looked better but it didn’t make a dent in the thick, piss-drenched stench. The next day I went back out there with hot bleach water and bleached the bejeezus out of the place. I used up all but about a tablespoon of my aunt’s bleach.

I thought I’d finished, but then I opened the oven. Apparently I’d forgotten to check it the night before. When I saw what was inside, I was tempted to just turn it on and burn the place down. The bottom half of the oven, up to the middle rack, was completely packed with shredded insulation and turds. All of the turds from the night before, from the entirety of the trailer, from all of its cupboards and hidey-holes, were probably only a quarter as many as what was packed into that oven. We’re talking turds on top of turds on top of turds here, folks. I vacuumed them all out (finding four – yes four – pot and skillet lids hidden in the near-impenetrable insulation-turd forest). Then I shut the oven door and put a note on the range telling Sarah not to use it. I was afraid she’d get mouse poisoning.

I asked her a week or so into the harvest what she thought of her living quarters, and she seemed pleased. This is despite the fact that she didn’t have running water or access to the toilet, which I flat-out refused to clean. I’m going to spare you the details regarding that little throne. Suffice to say, cleaning it would have had to commence with a shovel or big spoon. So, I guess the moral of the story is: what you don’t know can’t hurt you. I personally would not have been able to sleep one wink in there.

Back to harvest: Did you know that farmers don’t get to choose when to harvest the beets? Neither did I! It’s all under contract with the sugar processing plants. The plant tells you when you can start. It’s tied into the weather pretty heavily, as far as I could tell. Sugar beets have a long growing season, so you want to leave them in the ground as long as possible, but you don’t want them to freeze. My uncle’s farm is in North Dakota, did I mention that?

The younger guys were chomping at the bit to get going as soon as they were allowed. My uncle cautioned them to wait, as rain was forecast for the first day of harvest, and he didn’t want to start things off with a mudbath. The weather was pretty beautiful for the vast majority of harvest, actually. The week prior to the start we had a few days in the 90s. But the first week of October, it cooled off to the 60s and 70s. It dropped low enough at night to keep the temperature of the beets in the correct range. The internal temp of the beets needs to be above freezing, but below 55*F. I’m not entirely sure what happens if the beets are too hot; I think you can’t squeeze as much sugar out of them. We did have one day where it was too warm and harvesting got shut down (the dump stops accepting beets). That night, when it was cooler, it was too windy, and the dump stayed closed. Some of their equipment gets broken in high winds, apparently. And we had a few rain showers, which we sometimes waited out in the fields. Those fields turn to mud really quickly, though, and the trucks have a really hard time moving through them, particularly when they’re loaded down with beets. The dump also doesn’t like to collect beets when it’s wet, so they will often shut down during rain as well. So really, there’s a very small window of opportunity in which to actually harvest the durn things. It’s all part of the challenge, which my uncle claims is why sugar beets are the “most fun crop” to grow.

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Me in “my” tractor, pulling the defoliator.

Stayed tuned for the second half of “So you want to be a farmer…” where you will hear about tires mysteriously falling off of tractors, meet “Gary’s tractor,” have a good laugh, see lots of pictures, and of course, become more enlightened about how food gets to your table!

“The best thing…

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn […], “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

-T.H. WHITE,
THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING