GRAND FORKS, North Dakota — Lisa Borgen has seen worse years for the sugarbeet harvest. So for now, despite the heat of summer that lingered into October and a labor shortage, she’s not ready to panic.
"I will say that it has been more difficult this year,” said Borgen, a vice president at American Crystal Sugar, which has facilities throughout the Red River Valley. “We may have some shortages, but it is not emergent or dire."
In fact, Borgen said, things were worse just two years ago, when snow and rain kept farmers out of their fields. But her optimism comes in the face of a labor pinch that’s crimped available truck drivers and plant workers and other help throughout the company’s farm-to-factory supply chain. And it came as warm weather kept American Crystal’s farmers from harvesting beets en masse into big storage piles, for fear the heat might spoil them before processing.
That’s kept ongoing processing slow. When she spoke to the Herald, Borgen didn’t expect the harvest to begin for several more days — weather permitting.
“Right now, in our perfect world, we would be five days into beet harvest, because it's Oct. 5,” Borgen said earlier this month. “But instead, we haven't done a lot of beet harvesting, because it's too warm. We can't store beets in warm weather. They just get rotten."
American Crystal’s autumn challenge captures an image of a unique moment in the American economy, in which workers across the country are suddenly hard to come by. There is a shortage of workers for Vermont ski resorts, for Italian wineries, and for health care workers around the United States.
In Grand Forks — and around the country — truck drivers are especially hard to find. That’s already snarled local school busing plans; now, said Rachael Hunter, a Grand Forks-based senior official for sugarbeet hauler Transystems, it’s crimping heavier industry too.
“Having the truck driver shortage has certainly been a handicap for all trucking in the Red River Valley and across the country. For us, it means that we can’t meet customer demand. We’ve got equipment, we just don’t have bodies to put into our equipment.”
Hunter is quick to point out that Transystems can still pull off beet harvesting work just fine. But when she spoke to the Herald in recent weeks, the company was about 25% short of the driver total it would like.
"We can run a successful beet campaign with the deficit. It's just going to be harder on the employees that are working here.”
Borgen said there’s a labor pinch for plant workers and for other harvest workers, too, staffed through a third-party company that helps with beet piling sites and the like.
John Riskey is the president of the union chapter that represents many workers at Drayton, East Grand Forks and Moorhead locations for American Crystal Sugar. He argued that the union lockout — in a company labor dispute spanning 2011 to 2013 — has dimmed American Crystal’s recruiting power. He added that the pandemic changed worker perspectives.
"The pandemic — the workers just changed their way of living – where they want to be, and if they need to work and if they really want to work."
Borgen disagrees that the decade-gone lockout has hurt recruiting power. But she did say Americans are tilting the economy into an undersupply of workers — something economic experts say is a key part of the bus driver shortage in particular, as a big crop of senior drivers retire.
“Another thing is, there has been a bit of a change in the way young people grow up and have ideas of what kind of work they want to do,” Borgen said. “Doing manual labor, industrial labor, farm labor isn't nearly as popular as it was 20 years ago.”
American Crystal has also had to contend with the same COVID challenges as the rest of the country. Renae Fredrickson works at the company’s sugar plant in Drayton, and is an officer in the union chapter; the virus, she said, can be especially hard on parents.
“Somebody will get in contact with COVID, so then the daycare is down, and then our employees have to figure out what to do with their kids, and they're missing work,” Fredrickson said (though she said she believes the company is intent on helping find a solution).