All quiet on the harvest front in NW Minnesota

This is a piler, a machine that unloads the sugar beets from the trucks hauling it in from the harvest in Crookston, Minn., separates the beets from the dirt, returns the dirt to the truck and piles the beets outside near the American Crystal factory in the city. That’s some of them in the background.

By the end of the harvest, there will be piles of sugar beets all the way out to where I was when I took this picture. And there are several yards just like it near the factory.

In the spring, this might start to smell a bit. It’s the smell of money. Sugar beets are Minnesota’s “money crop.”

But there was nothing happening on Wednesday. The yards were empty, the machines were silent. There were no trucks. Along the fields from Ada, Minn., into Crookston, harvesters, combines, and trailers sit idled. It’s been raining and snowing and the harvest is on hold.

“What happens to all the workers when it’s like this?” I asked my guide, Allan Dragseth, whom I was in town to interview for a NewsCut feature series I’m working on.

“They’re laid off,” he said.

These are the realities of life in agriculture that we city slickers — and our big-city media — rarely consider.

When the weather is bad, we’ll occasionally pen a story about a farmer’s woes without considering who really bears the heaviest burden: the migrant worker who doesn’t work when the weather is bad.

In some cases, the machines are operated by retired farmers, who live in recreational vehicles and travel the country helping out. A campground in Crookston is a testament to the lifestyle.

“If it keeps up like this, I worry they’ll just start leaving,” he said.

They’ll search for work where the weather allows it.

And that’s how weather — and perhaps climate — creates a labor shortage in rural Minnesota.

  • >>the migrant worker who doesn’t work when the weather is bad.<<

    This happens in the city to those employed by residential exterior contractors as well.

    Many "city-slickers" are well aware of what drives the rural labor shortage and know that current US policy isn't helping with this and is, in fact, exacerbating this problem.

    • All the “migrants” aren’t immigrants to the country.

      • Erick

        According to the USDA 49% of hired farm workers (not just migrants) are U.S. citizens and 43% were born in the U.S. including Puerto Rico. (

        • I can see where being retired and having an RV and motoring around the country pulling into a town and making some money for a few weeks doing something you know how to do would be kind of a neat thing for some people.

          • Mike Worcester

            Have you read the book Nomadland? It goes into great detail about the people who do that both out of economic necessity, and because they can.

        • RBHolb

          A lot of residents of the Red River Valley take their vacations during harvest time and “drive beets” for a couple of weeks. They don’t do the field work; they drive the trucks.

          • ec99

            The father of my son’s fiancée is retired and drives beet trucks. The pay is really pretty good.

      • RBHolb

        “Why don’t they go back to Texas?” was a common muttering I heard when I lived in Crookston and an apparent migrant worker would rub someone the wrong way.

      • I was talking about certain economic policies.

  • Guest

    “If it keeps up like this, I worry they’ll just start leaving,” he said.
    They’ll search for work where the weather allows it.

    I had not thought about the just plain leaving to find work. I was thinking the same hours per year would happen, just shifted. But when the delay causes your harvest crew to leave for greener pasture…..OUCH. That is not mentioned as a risk, even tho it is real.

    • jon

      There are more job openings in the US right now than there are unemployed.

      If you can’t keep people working then they have other options.

  • ec99

    “In the spring, this might start to smell a bit.”

    More than a bit. Anyone living near the Crystal Sugar plants in NW MN and NE ND can testify to the enormous stink.

    • RBHolb

      If you’re in East Grand Forks, you get the added reeking of the potato processors.

      • ec99

        That too. Makes the whole town smell like a McDs.

    • kevins

      At the plant in Moorhead, it smells like scented detergent (sometimes) as they try to mask the odor from the treatment ponds…lots of goose poop too.

      • ec99

        Same all over. The ponds reek. Not sure what the geese like about them but they are there to add their contribution.

  • chlost

    The farm owners I know have crop insurance. If those crops don’t get in, they get paid for the losses.
    If the migrant workers don’t get paid, I’m not aware of payments they will receive, I am imagining that they don’t qualify for unemployment, as they would be independent contractors. Of course they have to go to other areas for work if the weather doesn’t cooperate here.

    • Stacy N

      Just a quick clarifying note to make sure people are aware – crop insurance only covers a portion of a farmer’s loss. It does not cover the cost of production, so while insurance softens the blow a bit, it’s still very much a blow if farmers have to use their insurance policies.

      • Do migrant workers get unemployment?

        • RBHolb

          Probably not, since they usually don;’t work for one employer long enough to qualify (assuming they are employees and not independent contractors).

          If I recall correctly, they aren’t officially hired until the crops are ready to harvest.

        • Kassie

          Also, they wouldn’t get it unless they are legally allowed to work in this country, which many aren’t.

  • Jeff C.

    I get my veggies from a CSA in WI. The farm owner hires the same group of migrant workers each spring to work at his farm. They are skilled workers who know about planting, growing and harvesting plants. He doesn’t have enough jobs on the farm to have them work all year, so at the end of the harvest they go south to warmer climes and I’m guessing they work on farms there until it is time to drive north for another season in WI. Before learning this, I tended to think of migrant workers working in fields as “unskilled” labor. Some of it is, maybe even a lot, but not all of it is.

    • Kassie

      I grew up a few houses down from a migrant farm in Brooklyn Park. My friend was a child on the farm and she was in my school every fall and spring from Kindergarten through High School, but spent most of the school year in Texas. All the families on the farm came back year after year.

  • Jim G

    Migrant workers do not make much money. Their housing conditions often are converted animal shelters without the comforts of modern utilities, like heat during the cold months and air conditioning during the hot season. I lived 63 years in Minnesota and know rural economies depend on migrant labor to bring in the those sugar beets, apples, sweet corn and fruits we love. Three years ago we moved to Oregon’s Williamette Valley where many of America’s berries and other fruits are harvested by migrant workers. I am now one of the volunteers who bring clothing and fresh vegetables to the camps where these workers are housed. Times have changed, however these workers’ conditions have not. If anything their conditions have only grown more dire under Trump’s administration’s special treatment of migrant labor.

    • kevins

      Hey Jim…how are you?

      • Jim G

        Okey-doke. I am trying to finish painting the exterior of the house before the rainy season sets in. Then it’s back to Minnesota for Mom’s birthday with a little hunting thrown in too. Take care of Minnesota. Vote!