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Sugar Days

Working the Harvest, Then Moving On

ISSUE:  Spring 2015

Jenn Ely Six winters ago, I took a break from college to live in Rock Creek, West Virginia, in a house an acquaintance had rented for a couple hundred dollars. The house was poorly insulated, and so, during the coldest months, we slept in the living room around a woodstove that piped most of its smoke, though not all of it, through a flue cut crudely into the ceiling. I did not last long in this house. In the spring, a trio of young vagabonds arrived by coal train and set up camp in the rhododendrons. They strung tarps from the branches and laid their bedrolls on the dirt. They had dogs and drank heavily, and though I wished they would leave, I admired their resourcefulness. Once, having neither firewood nor briquettes, they hauled an old couch into the yard, lit it on fire, and when it had burned to almost nothing, grilled chicken on the coals.

When I meet people living so willfully on the fringe, I wonder about money: Do they have it, and where do they get it? I wondered this about our guests because moving so often, as they did and I also have done, makes it more difficult to navigate life’s little bureaucracies—registering a car, say, or answering a summons, or receiving a paycheck, or finding a job. I would learn from these “travelers,” as they called themselves, and later from others like them, that they did indeed work, though only the sorts of jobs that did not threaten their mobility. The list included fishing in Alaska, corralling cranberries in Massachusetts, harvesting sugar beets in North Dakota, trimming marijuana in Colorado or California, and ingesting strange medications to register the side effects. These gigs often required commitments of no longer than two months, though what was gained in time was paid for in discomfort. The days were long, the weather bad. The work, if not painful, was painfully boring. None was ideal, I was told, but there was in this march of miseries one more bearable than the rest—and that was the sugar-beet harvest.

One autumn, years after I left the house in Rock Creek, I was living in my car and short on cash and decided to give the harvest a try. I had found a website,, and an e-mail address, to which I sent a note expressing my interest. Some days later, a man called and said there was a job open in Fargo with American Crystal Sugar, the nation’s most prolific producer of sugar beets. More than half of the sugar produced in the United States comes not from cane but from beets, and Crystal Sugar, based on the North Dakota–Minnesota border, generates roughly 3 billion pounds a year, or roughly 15 percent.

It was a gusty morning in late September when I drove to Fargo, a flat, sprawling city bound by the Red River to the east and fading north and west into fields of wheat and corn. The employment office was in an unmarked building on the city’s north end and was empty except for a woman with a blond bob guiding a Latino man through an application. I waited by the door until the woman stood and led me to the back and sat me down to watch a video. The narrator’s eyebrows bounced over the rims of his glasses, and yellow block lettering emphasized his points. I learned that I would not be picking beets, as I had assumed, but directing trucks to dump them, already picked, into a machine called a piler, which would run the beets out a long conveyor belt and drop them onto a stockpile of more beets. It seemed like easy work. It was work stripped to the bones. It was, as Bertrand Russell said, “altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relative to other such matter.” That was it: The sugar beets would come and then, by some push of a button and flick of a lever, grow into a mountain.

I got the job without much trouble. The blond woman said she would call in two days with my site assignment. She gave me a debit card onto which the company would deposit my wages and a camping permit for Lindenwood Park, in Fargo’s south end. There, at dusk, I pitched my tent under an oak by the Red River. The river had recently flooded and scraped its banks to mud. From a distance, the mud resembled sand, and I could see a man, his feet in flip-flops, reclined in a lawn chair as if he were at the beach.

No region in the nation produces so rich a sugar crop as the Red River Valley. It is so flat that you could prop a ruler on the horizon and so fecund that it is frequently compared, as great American river valleys tend to be, with the Nile. Yet sugar beets weren’t always the choice crop. As the North Dakota economy boomed in the 1870s, farmers prospered on wheat, and when, in the 1890s, low grain prices and a few dry years led to efforts to diversify, they planted alfalfa, potatoes, and corn. Beets they ignored, and one of the reasons was labor: Tending a sugar-beet crop was backbreaking and the valley too far north to draw workers from well-worn Southern migratory routes. Besides, wrote the railroad magnate James J. Hill in 1897, in a letter to the president of the North Dakota Agricultural College, how would America ever find a man willing to work for as low a wage as that earned by a beet laborer in Europe?

The answer was in Mexico. World War I had already squeezed the nation’s workforce when, in 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Act, limiting the number of Europeans who could enter the US. The act did not restrict the number of Mexicans, however, and the agricultural industry took full advantage, drawing hundreds of thousands of migrant workers across the border throughout the 1920s. Even in the thirties, when repatriation campaigns curtailed immigration, employers compensated by recruiting Mexican Americans from Texas. As Jim Norris writes in North for the Harvest, American Crystal Sugar formed a labor agency in San Antonio and chartered trains to carry workers north. When automobiles replaced trains, many companies bought tires for workers’ cars and gave travel allowances. Crystal Sugar advised farmers to house recruits and their families year-round and to treat them well: Norris writes that the company’s trade publication, Crystal-ized Facts About Sugar Beets, suggested that growers “[r]efrain from berating workers if they were sloppy or lazy” and try, instead, some “good-natured kidding.”

It is strange now to read of the company’s benevolence, even hard to believe, as the human-rights abuses of Latino migrant workers—especially of women and minors—have become a public concern. But at the time, writes Norris, such corporate compassion made sense. In the 1930s, Crystal Sugar was desperate for a loyal workforce, one that would return year after year and make the valley its home. In this it succeeded: By 1942, 75 percent of sugar-beet laborers in the valley were Mexican Americans or immigrants. Many would settle in Minnesota and North Dakota. But many also would seek steadier employment, and the sugar industry, as Hill had predicted, would continue to struggle to fill its workforce.

As with other industries, mechanization subsumed these workers. By the 1970s, only 6,000 migrant laborers worked the valley’s harvest, down from 30,000 decades earlier. In 1973, a growers’ cooperative purchased Crystal Sugar and, having long lamented the high cost of field labor, stopped providing housing and other benefits. Migrant laborers all but disappeared from the Red River Valley.

In 2011, the year I joined the harvest, our workforce bore little resemblance to the Latino masses about whom Norris wrote. These days, Crystal Sugar hires or subcontracts 2,200 seasonal workers, 1,700 of them for only two to four weeks in October. The short season poses a different sort of hiring challenge and draws, as one might expect, a different sort of laborer. I would meet three kinds: unemployed and underemployed locals; retirees, bored or lacking pensions, who drove RVs from one temporary job to another; and travelers, like the ones I knew from Rock Creek. It was an odd assembly, a carnival of exiles, and it struck me that this was the new proletariat, unfaithful but adaptable and eternally adrift. If the American dream had not abandoned my fellow workers, they had abandoned it. They would not buy houses. They would not open bank accounts. They would move on to the next job, and the next, because the nation needed its hoboes. 

I was assigned a night shift at a piling station across the river, a vast concrete lot marooned on the prairie and lit by a small house where trucks paused to weigh their loads. Two pilers stood at dueling ends, each the length and height of two semitrucks. Along their spines ran conveyor belts, from hoppers on the ground where trucks dumped the beets, to screens in the upper scaffolding where the beets were shaken free of dirt, and out the length of the arms, called booms. I had been impressed by these machines in the video, by what I took to be dangerous and fickle parts. Now, at rest on a slab of concrete, they looked shrunken and tamed.

There were four others in our crew: our foreman, our operator, and Frank and Rebekah, both of whom worked with me on the ground. Rebekah was a stout, imposing punk with stick-and-poke tattoos encircling her wrists and hands. She wore a black coat, black pants, black Airwalk sneakers, and eyeglasses rimmed in black. This was her eighth harvest season, and she took the work seriously, belting out orders when the piler lurched to life. I was to direct a truck through the gate, and then, as the beets fell out, approach the driver to mark a slip of paper. Sometimes the driver handed me a ticket, and I was to take a sample of beets to send to the processing plant, where they would be tested for sugar content. The more sucrose per beet, the more the farmer would be paid. 

It was simple, monotonous work, and the wind made it nearly unbearable. I wore three sweatshirts beneath a reflector vest, and still the cold cut through my zippers and burned my cheeks. It sharpened even the sounds, the metal clapping on metal and the tinsel squeak of brakes, and hardened the mud that stuck like gum to my boots. Rebekah, on the other hand, seemed hardly to notice the chill. “You having fun yet?” she would yell to me, and because I wanted to please her, I said that I was. 

I did not talk much with Frank, who worked the opposite side, though I caught occasional glimpses of him. He was sixty-six and moved like a man who had worked a long while. His physicality had not abandoned him entirely, however. Now and then I’d see him bent over a stray beet, and with some effort he would straighten and then, as though suddenly twenty years younger, rear back and hurl the beet at the pile.

When I asked Frank where he was from, he said he lived in Lindenwood Park. I had begun to expect this sort of answer from workers my own age, for whom the place they slept the night before, however few nights they planned to stay, was more home than anywhere else, but from Frank it surprised me. Later, he pulled from his pocket a small leaflet. Had I heard of He told me that some years ago he had bought a condominium in Florida and thought he would retire there but soon sold it and bought an RV. The beet harvest was his second assignment. His first was Adventureland Amusement Park in Altoona, Iowa. He enjoyed the work but not the rides; “I don’t like anything centrifugal,” he said.

One night, our operator quit, and Rebekah took his place. Time passed slowly without her on the ground, and whenever the piler was shut down for maintenance, I would join her in her Ford Explorer. The car was empty except for a tangle of blankets in the back. Rebekah would turn on the heat and light a cigarette and take a sip from a cold cup of coffee. Since quitting high school, she had traveled mostly by freight, finding work at factories making ribbons, John Deere consoles, and pieces for chainsaws. She worked only a short time at these jobs and never stayed in any place for too long. But since discovering the beet harvest, she had always returned to Fargo. She was thirty. We would talk like this, about life and work. Then she would tune the radio to the metal station, and we would sit in the dark, listening to the strained, distant voices.

I worked one more shift before the heat came and the company put the harvest on hold. This was a welcome reprieve for some in Lindenwood Park, but for others, who had come with little or no cash and now sensed it would be awhile before they saw any, the change in the weather caused considerable anxiety. “If this thing ever ends,” a worker named John told me, “I’ll have four thousand in the bank and can finally go to Mexico.” He had already procured a van for the trip and fitted it with a mattress, which he bought with earnings from working in a factory in Indiana and piling beets the year before. He had made three thousand dollars at that harvest but doubted he would make nearly as much this year. He would go anyway, he said, since in Mexico the food was cheap and, more to the point, “you can get a handful of dope for, like, eight dollars.” 

I had met John one evening while sharing dinner with some workers, near a chain-link fence that divided the park from the highway. We ate spaghetti on plastic plates and shouted over the bellow of traffic. There were a dozen travelers in this camp; more who came and went each day. Most had worked the harvest before and treated it as a sort of reunion—an anchor in their roving lives, which could be otherwise lonely and unpredictable. And so the night proceeded festively. By eight, when I’d arrived, the whiskey was gone and all that remained was liquor resembling orange soda. This my hosts shared liberally, though there were rules: one sip and pass it, and no lingering with the bottle. There were many rules like this one—the consequences for breaking them ranging from a slug to the ear to an outright beating—but if I broke any no one mentioned it.

Jenn Ely Each night would unfold like this one, with the conversation wandering from trains to drinking to punk rock to winters in New Orleans to tales of near capture by railroad bulls or the Freight Train Riders of America—a gang whose present existence they debated—and finally to money and how to make it. The beet harvest, all agreed, was easy money. “Cranberries take maybe a couple of months. Apples are by the pound—not the greatest deal,” a girl explained. Beets were by the hour, and the work paid well—that year, $10.60 for each of eight hours in a twelve-hour shift, time and a half for the other four and on Saturdays, and, on Sundays, double-time. If you returned the next year, you got a raise, and if you recruited friends, you earned fifty dollars a head. With some determination, a person might make $4,000 and live on it for quite a while if she avoided paying rent.

To live a life that defied money, one had to be good at procuring it. Each day that passed without work, the travelers decamped to odd corners of the city. At a highway exit to the west, one could “fly a sign” and supposedly earn more than a hundred dollars in an hour. Content with the day’s earnings, he or she would then move on to other chores. I was recruited for some of these excursions—to the food bank; to the post office to check general delivery; to the Salvation Army,which had vouchers for harvest workers who could not afford warm clothes. One day, I drove some workers to Moorhead to fetch their friends who had camped in a grove of cottonwoods. As we crossed the suburbs onto the prairie, a sugar factory rose on the horizon, its steam clouds so bright they looked pasted onto the sky. Then the grove appeared, a single stand of trees in a stretch of grass and dirt. There was a man waving and a woman trailed by a dog. They had on backpacks and dragged a cooler to the road. Then they vanished into the trees and emerged, again, with a lawn chair, a tent, a Coleman stove, two crates, and a thirty-gallon trash bag. “I’m in one place for three fucking days and I start collecting,” the man said. The sun, still rising in the sky, burned through the windshield as on a summer day, and as the car staggered under its new weight, past beets and cottonwoods and fields freshly plowed, I thought of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, lurching in their jalopy toward work and its promises. 

On the eleventh day of the harvest and still no end to the heat, the Grand Forks Herald ran a story about workers in East Grand Forks, an hour north of Fargo. There were, according to harvest supervisor Al Sorenson, some hundred men and women who had come by rail or hitched ride. “They are young foot-loose types, living on the road, maybe homeless … finding odd jobs when they can,” the article read. Sorenson told the Herald that “[t]his new generation of hoboes and travelers is filling a need by its fluid nature… . It’s a willingness to do about any work that makes them valuable.”

It is possible that the hobo—rucksack, handkerchief, boots flopping at the soles—has a grander role in American lore than he does in American history. “The records for those workers are virtually nonexistent,” Jim Norris said when I asked about hoboes who once worked the valley’s harvest. In his research, Norris finds mention of “drift-in whites,” but among Latino migrants of the 1920s through the seventies, they were a minority. By definition a hobo is any migrant worker, but in other ways the archetype is more subtly defined. “A familiar typology,” writes labor historian Frank Tobias Higbie in his book Indispensable Outcasts, is that “hoboes wandered to find work, tramps worked only to facilitate wandering, and bums neither wandered nor worked.” I like this definition, but it does not distinguish Latino migrants from their “drift-in” counterparts or from the drifters who work the harvest today. There is, perhaps, another important delineation—between those who work for a way into society and those who work for a way out.

There has always been this kind of worker, whose lack of ambition, if that’s what you call it, never fails to draw critically curious people. “Among the industrial causes of vagrancy, probably the most potent one is the seasonal and irregular character of employment in a good many trades and occupations,” wrote Alice Solenberger in 1911, in a study of homeless men who visited the Chicago Bureau of Charities where she was a director. Her encounters exasperated Solenberger: “I’ve got money,” one man explained simply when she asked why he had no job. “Casual laborers become so used to living from hand to mouth,” she wrote, “that many of them will refuse better work when it is offered.” And yet there long has been a need, however small, for the kind of worker who does not hope for something better. When historians refer to agriculture’s “labor problem,” like the one that helped provoke sugar-beet farmers to mechanize, they do not mean that the industry struggled to find hard workers, but that the workers they found aspired to work harder and eventually got other gigs. It is not a secret: Industrialization favors the unfettered. This is what the Grand Forks Herald meant by our “fluid nature,” our “willingness to do about any work.” It meant that we could not care less about a pension, and when the harvest was done and the wages paid, we would cash out and head for Mexico.

The shedding of salaried employees in favor of temporary recruits has inspired a great many labor disputes in recent decades, including one settled last year between factory workers and the management of American Crystal Sugar. I knew little about the dispute until one morning in Lindenwood Park, when I returned from a walk and found a woman peering into my car. She had noticed the camping permit on the dashboard, she explained, stamped with the Crystal Sugar logo. Her husband worked for the company for twenty-five years and had recently retired. Now workers were rallying against a forced lockout, having rejected a contract that would reduce their health benefits and allow the company to hire more subcontractors. Crystal Sugar refused to negotiate. “The company will break the union,” the woman said, “and then all those people will be out of work.” She wanted to know if I was a scab. I said I was only here for the harvest. Still, I felt a pang of guilt. 

“Don’t worry about it,” a friend assured me when I visited his camp that evening. “The strike’s at the factory, not on the pilers. What we’re doing is totally different.”

John was more strident. “I’d fucking scab if it came down to that,” he said. “I’m here to make money. I can sympathize with what they’re doing, but I’m not sitting in some apartment all day hoping they’ll give me my job back.”

I had read in the papers that fires had broken out in the factories—the fault, according to some union members, of hastily trained replacement workers—and so one afternoon, I drove to the factory in Moorhead. I expected a crowd but found instead four picketers, resting in lawn chairs under a tent like spectators at a sporting event. A woman in a “Union Thug” T-shirt gestured to a security guard behind the gate. “They’re afraid we’re going to come in and wreck something,” she said. “We’re from the Midwest! First couple weeks, people even said to us, ‘I can’t believe how well behaved you are.’” The woman’s name was Bev Jones. She had worked at the factory for seventeen years. Beside her was a man with a foot-long beard and a tin of chewing tobacco in his breast pocket. “First thing I done was shovel pulp,” he said. “Then I was in the washhouse hauling tailings. Then I was up in the knife station, and then I got to be a utility man, and then I got to be foreman. Then they eliminated my job, so I’m a process tech. I’ve been that ten years.”

“I stood in line to get my job,” another man recalled. “This was thirty-four years ago. My buddy and I come into the office, and the boss come around the desk, starts pounding his fist, swearing at us, how we were going to be to work on time.” The man chuckled to himself. He was oddly at ease, considering all he had at stake. If the company won—and it would two years later—no one would rehire him. He was a casualty of his own fidelity. This was the nostalgia, I thought, of someone who had lost. “He’s retired now—the boss,” the man said, “but I see him at the YMCA.”

The wind picked up as the weather cooled, but Fargo’s citizenry still came out for their barbecues, pinning paper plates under soda bottles and yelling loudly over the gusts. Every now and then, a family would park an RV in the campsite next to mine and roast marshmallows or watch movies on a laptop propped on a picnic table. Once, I saw a groom hold his bride at the riverbank for a photo shoot; not far to the photographer’s right, just out of view, was a mess of tarps and liquor bottles.

Jenn Ely It seemed the longer we lived in Lindenwood Park the more invisible we became. I mentioned this once to Chantal, a traveler with dark eyes and blinking olive skin. “Being stationary in one town is hard,” she said. “It’s like being a bum. People know you after a while, and they stop giving you things. That’s why you have to keep moving.” She was not the first to tell me this. The road, I had begun to realize, was an antidote to more than boredom. One man, not quite twenty-five, confided that he was prone to violence but could manage his anxiety if he did not stay anywhere for too long. Another told me he liked himself better when he was forced to get by, and anyhow, the last time he went home, his father, a drunk, kept him only one night before dropping him off at a curb with a hundred dollars and a case of beer. Others said that as children they were prescribed drugs to make them focused or happier, and when they left home and the pills, they finally felt alive.

Each day that passed without work rubbed these good feelings dangerously thin. A traveler who had left a fishing job in Alaska to attend the harvest wondered if he could get the fishing job back. Another thought of leaving for California, where the marijuana-trimming season had just begun. John, who now passed his afternoons at the public library, had downloaded videos of drug lords beheading their captives and was having second thoughts about Mexico. He read online that there was an oil boom in North Dakota and jobs paid upward of twenty dollars an hour. One man in John’s camp, when he heard this, would hop a train to Williston, but not everyone was as impressed. A wiry anarchist accused John of “living to work”; what was the point of living as he did, if still he labored as much as a man tied to an office desk?

The tension escalated to a final brawl one night, when one man hurled a screwdriver at John and another man bit a woman’s cheek. I was asleep, but Chantal, who had escaped in John’s van, told me the story the next morning. “Being homeless does this to you,” she would say later. “A lot of these travelers just gave up at some point. It’s like they don’t care they’re going to die.”

Did she care if she died? I asked.

“Maybe at the beginning,” she said, and then added, “you just kind of get used to it.”

I did not return to the travelers’ camp after that. It had been days since I’d seen some workers sober, and in others I had noticed something more than drunkenness—a hung, half-lidded nod that I’d come to recognize as the effect of heroin. I found this more disturbing than the violence. I could not watch them self-destruct. Even their stick-and-poke tattoos, the cigarette-burn scars winding artfully around their arms, meant for me a kind of transience that I could not relate to—transience embodied, which had less to do with nomadism than it did with courting death. 

The harvest resumed, and I returned to the piling station. I worked the ground with Frank for some time and then joined Rebekah in the cage. It was a small space, hastily assembled: a bent door, a shelf screwed in the corner, thin walls that shook violently in the wind, and a boom box with a taped antenna that blared metal over all the rattling. I was glad to see Rebekah, though she looked tired—her cheeks sallow, her chin crumpled, her eyeliner smudged into blue pockets beneath her eyes. Her enthusiasm for the harvest had waned. She wanted to leave Fargo, though to where she had not decided yet. I sat on a stool and watched her guide the boom steadily over the pile. Once it snagged, and she lifted the hoppers—first left, then right—and pulled hard on a lever to set them down again. “You got it?” she said. She lit a cigarette and watched as I shifted clumsily. After a while, she stamped the cigarette out on a window frame and went to take a nap.

Two nights later, Rebekah didn’t show, and I operated the piler alone. I was beginning to think she had abandoned the harvest altogether when, around 1 a.m., she appeared in the cage. There was a man with her, no more than thirty, with clear blue eyes and a triangular face, short of teeth and thickly tattooed. His name was Jared. Rebekah asked me to train him, though he did not need my lesson. Years before, he had worked in Renville, Minnesota, the site of the world’s largest sugar-beet factory. He told me that the first travelers to ever work the harvest had come there in the early nineties and squatted in a chicken coop on an abandoned farm. One eventually got a house and dozens of travelers stayed there, but this year, so many had come that there were no jobs when Jared arrived. The harvest had been found out. It was bound to happen, he said, laughing. “It really is the biggest fucking scam punks ever pulled.” 

I remember I laughed with him at this. It was an absurd thought, a billion-dollar corporation playing host to the fringe. Rebekah lit another cigarette, and we all took turns pushing buttons and pulling levers. The boom swept out into the night, and the pile grew like a sand-castle wall, rising and sloughing and rising again. 

Ours was a poor harvest; in the end, each worker made little more than $1,500. Chantal went home to New York, got an apartment and a job at an adult-entertainment store, but she was unhappy and soon gave it up for the road. John went to Mexico after all, and then returned to North Dakota, to the oil fields, where, I heard, he made more money than ever before. The oil boom would steal many young workers from the harvest, and so Crystal Sugar leaned on retirees like Frank; in 2014, about a third of its hires were work campers. Rebekah, of course, returned to the harvest, and later, I learned, she took a job at a sugar factory in Montana.

I hear from them rarely, but on occasion I see their photographs on Facebook honoring friends who have passed, most often in accidents and overdoses and suicides. Among them, I have recognized only Jared, who died last year in New Orleans,and who still comes to mind when I think of the harvest. It was not a scam, but it was, I believe, a mutual relationship: The company always had needed workers like these, and the workers, as hoboes did before them, would always need work like the harvest. This was not a perfect mutualism, nor was it a dependency. The company would replace those who did not return. And the workers would move on, to the next city, to the next job, to the next life, because theirs was a hard-earned existence, though it was not the work that made it hard, but the life itself. 


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Ian Brown's picture
Ian Brown · 9 years ago

Beautiful story, Sierra!

Riban Conbajos's picture
Riban Conbajos · 9 years ago

Fantastic. Excellent piece. 

Ryan Potter's picture
Ryan Potter · 9 years ago

Fascinating read. What a cast of characters. I know these people struggle often, but I'm left with the feeling that many of them are far more content with life than most traditional nine-to-fivers. Personally, I think having less leads to more happiness and these people are perfect examples of that.

Baker's picture
Baker · 9 years ago

I can't remember the last time I felt so grateful while reading a story. The combination of hands-on experience & writing skills is just remarkable. And it may just be subconscious sexism, but for some reason I assumed the writer was male throughout the story, almost like it was perfectly balanced. 

Betty Gallagher's picture
Betty Gallagher · 9 years ago

Sierra - what a tale of life lived with travellers, hoboes and wanders!  You became their friend and confidant.  I am so impressed at your gifts as participant-observer. 


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