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Sugarbeet truck drivers keep the harvest moving

The annual rite of fall in western Minnesota and the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota also attracts retired men and women, seasonal laborers and others who drive trucks for a variety of different industries.

A man in a gray hat and sweatshirt driving a truck.
Russell Shimek, Grand Forks, North Dakota, has driven truck during sugarbeet harvest for Curtis Knutson, a Fisher, Minnesota, sugarbeet farmer for 15 years. Photo taken Oct. 14, 2022.
Zachary Hoffner / Agweek
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CROOKSTON, Minn. — When the sugarbeet harvest season rolls around, Russell Shimek shifts gears from motorcycle sales and repairs to truck driving.

Shimek, who owns Throttle Addiction in Grand Forks, North Dakota, is one of thousands of people across the region who take time away from their regular jobs to haul the crop from the fields to the sugarbeet piling stations.

The annual rite of fall in western Minnesota and the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota also attracts retired men and women, seasonal laborers and others who drive trucks for a variety of different industries.

“Generally speaking, most of the drivers are coming from the Red River Valley. It’s still our friends, family, local people from small communities,” said Harrison Weber, Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association executive director.

The drivers are a variety of ages from many walks of life.

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“Lawyers, 9 to 5 workers, retired people,” Weber said.

The Red River Valley sugarbeet harvest requires from 7,000 to 10,000 workers, which includes, besides drivers, beet lifter and beet topper drivers and tractor drivers to pull sugarbeet carts, or when fields are muddy, to pull trucks through the fields.

Sugarbeet farmers, who typically harvest 24/7 in two 12-hour shifts, often hire as many as 25 workers for the sugarbeet harvest alone, Weber said.

Finding those laborers — like finding workers in general — is challenging, Weber said.

This year the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association Facebook page posted advertisements for sugarbeet truck drivers with movie and movie star themes. One post, for example, showed “Grease” stars Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta with a headline that said “You’re the one that I want… to drive a beet truck.” Another had a picture of the back of the Rocky character played by Sylvester Stallone, raising a fist, with the words "Be a Champ — Drive a Beet Truck” above it.

A sugarbeet piler fills a truck.
Curtis Knutson hires drivers from across the United States for his sugarbeet harvest. Photo taken Oct. 14, 2022.
Zachary Hoffner / Agweek

“We’re trying to kind of create a renewed buzz about helping for sugarbeets,” Weber said. The Facebook posts and in-house advertising generated a lot of interest, he said.

This year was one of the most difficult for Curtis Knutson, a Fisher, Minnesota, sugarbeet farmer, to find sugarbeet truck drivers, but in the end he had a full, reliable and competent crew in 2022. Over the years, his advertisements have attracted drivers from across the country, including the states of California, Texas and New York.

This year, Orlando, Florida, resident James Hays learned about Knutson’s sugarbeet harvest driver job on a Facebook page targeted at work campers who live in recreational vehicles and drive to a variety of job sites.

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Hays, who had worked as a television engineer for 38 years and as a reserve sheriff’s deputy in Florida for the past 10 years, contacted Knutson about a truck driving job. In late August. Knutson hired Hays, who doesn’t have a recreational vehicle, and told him he would put him up in a hotel in Crookston if he would come and drive a truck during harvest.

Within a couple of days of getting the job offer, Hays had packed his car and headed north. He had driven semi-tractor-trailers, but had never worked on a farm, so Knutson gave him some lessons.

A  green sugarbeet lifter unloads into a white sugarbeet truck
Russell Shimek drives a sugarbeet truck on Oct. 14, 2022, for Curtis Knutson, a Fisher, Minnesota, sugarbeet farmer.
Zachary Hoffner / Agweek

Hays drove truck for row crop harvest, cultivated fields after they were harvested, and was a sugarbeet harvest truck driver, working for a total of about two months before returning to Florida.

Sugarbeet truck driving required skill and precision driving and steady nerves.

“I went through a large bottle of antacid tablets,” Hays said.

He also was aided by “Drive Linx,” a dashboard-mounted device his boss’s brother Scott Knutson invented. Drive Linx has blinking lights that show the driver when they get off-track, instead of the truck driver needing to turn his or her head to look at the tractor driver to stay in sync.

The Knutson family members were patient teachers, and Hays learned not only about sugarbeet truck driving, but about the crop’s production and how it is processed.

“Over the years we trained an awful lot of people to drive,” Curtis Knutson said. Often it’s easier to teach employees who don’t have experience to drive trucks during sugarbeet harvest than those who do.

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The inexperienced drivers don’t have any preconceived ideas about how to drive and haven’t developed poor driving habits.

“It’s better if we start from scratch,” he said.

A few days after harvest, Hays planned to be back on the road, heading south.

“As much as Minnesota is nice, I don’t want to spend the winter there,” he said, as sugarbeet harvest was drawing to a close.

Some workers come back and work for the same farmer, year after year, bringing with them their experience and driving skills.

It's great when you can get the same guy coming for seven, eight, nine, 10 years in a row,’ Weber said. “Anything over 10 years I would consider a seasoned veteran of beet harvest.”

Sugarbeets are unloaded onto a yellow conveyor which unloads them into a pile.
Russell Shimek hauled sugarbeets to the Crookston, Minnesota, factory on Oct. 14, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

This is Shimek’s 15th season driving sugarbeet truck.

“I married the farmer’s daughter,” Shimek said. He started driving for Curtis Knutson when he married Knutson’s daughter, Amy.

“When he asked for her hand in marriage, I asked, ‘Can you drive truck?’" Knutson joked.

Shimek grew up on a diversified grain farm near Adams, North Dakota, and also had worked for other farmers, so he was used to hauling commodities from fields to farms and elevators.

Driving sugarbeet trucks, however, is more complex.

“The sugarbeet harvest takes more time and more people,” he said.

Shimek enjoys the fast pace of and the opportunity to do a job that’s different from the work he does at the motorcycle business he owns in Grand Forks.

Shiimek worked the noon to midnight shift for the 2022 sugarbeet campaign, then checked in at Throttle Addiction at 8 a.m. and worked until 11 a.m., before driving to rural Fisher, Minnesota, or to rural Crookston to start all over again.

Depending on how sugar beet fields are yielding, the distance from the fields to the piling stations and how many trucks are dumping loads there, the number of trips Shimek made varied.

The target was about one per hour or an average of 12 per shift. Toward the end of the campaign, as harvest wound down and there were fewer trucks dumping at the piling stations, the numbers increased.

“Fifteen or 16 lately,” Shimek said in mid-October.

Shimek shared the knowledge he gained from years of driving experience with some of the other 15 drivers for the Knutsons over the two-way radio in his cab or in person.

“I can answer a lot of the questions. I’m familiar with most of the trucks and where the fields are located and, just in general, how things are going,” Shimek said.

A man wearing a gray cap and gray sweatshirt steers a truck.
Russel Shimek uses Drive Linx, which is clipped on the dashboard in his sugarbeet truck cab, to help him keep pace with the sugarbeet lifter. Photo taken Oct. 14, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

The dry weather during Knutson’s 2022 sugarbeet harvest helped it go smoothly.

“This year has been really fortunate. There has hardly been any mud,” Shimek said. Pulling trucks through mud requires more labor and slows things down, he noted.

Each year, the sugarbeet harvest offers some type of a diversion from Shimek’s day job. Even when it goes without a hitch, the harvest moves swiftly, typically requires a double digit number of workers and, most important, strict attention to following safety protocols.

“It’s a change of pace, you know. There’s always some sort of excitement. It’s able to do something different than your regular job,” Shimek said.

Related Topics: SUGARBEETSAGRICULTURE
Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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