It just dawned on me this morning that I have been writing about sugar beet harvest for 25 years. The first eight years were here in Torrington, taking pictures and reporting on harvest progress for Holly Sugar. Then 17 years covering the end of Holly Sugar and the creation of the Western Sugar Cooperative and its progress at a neighboring paper.
Those years have included a lot of good times, and some bad times. But, so far, the industry is still one of the major factors in the area’s economy.
But, covering the ups and downs hasn’t been my only connection to the industry.
My family moved to Wyoming in 1970 from northeastern Colorado.
It all began with a quick search for a job here after visiting the area in 1969.
During a visit to the local employment office, we learned the only farm job available on that cold January day was on an irrigated farm at Veteran, where they also had cattle and sheep in feedlots.
Well, coming from dryland country, that didn’t sound like anything we’d be interested in. We planned to return to Colorado the next day.
That evening, a friend suggested we stop by the place her son worked because they were looking for help. We did. And here I am, nearly 50 years later. It turned out the place her son worked was the same as the one at the employment office, but there was more to the job than what was presented there, mainly the people.
So, I got to be a hired hand during beet harvest, driving truck and picking up beets that had fallen on the ground, tossing them into the truck while waiting for my turn under the puller. (It still drives me nuts to see all the beets left in the field as the result of today’s harvesting methods. When I’m waiting in the field to talk to a driver or ride the harvester, I want to pick up the beets and toss them into a passing semi.)
My sugar beet career expanded a few years later when I was a sample carrier at Holly’s Torrignton plant for two campaigns, followed by a harvest spent in the tare lab.
They were good years. One campaign, the lab crew gave me a road runner pin for Christmas because of all the miles I put on collecting samples, not only on my shift, but filling in on others. And we had great chili feeds concocted by fellow lab staff, and enjoyed absolutely to-die-for cabbage burgers made by the wife of a fellow shift operator.
And come to think of it, sugar beets might be the reason my mother’s father moved from West Virginia to northeastern Colorado. Several young men came out west, and Grandpa and two of his buddies tried their hand at raising beets. They got the first crop up (no idea how large it was in the very early 1900s), and asked who I’m guessing was the field man, what the next step was. He took them to another farm where they were hoeing the beets. That was it. Too much work for Grandpa and his fellow adventurers. They went out on the dryland southeast of Sterling and started raising wheat and other dryland crops.
But that wasn’t the end of Grandpa’s adventures with beets. Six of the young farmers worked at the Sterling factory during campaign. They rented what evidently was just a one-room house. They worked 12-hour shifts at the sugar factory, seven days a week. Three slept in the one bed while three worked. The three at home made a meal for the returning three before going to work. I don’t know how long the campaigns were back then, but it must have been a grueling experience. I was told that Grandpa worked on the evaporators and distillers. He supposedly received 15 cents per day for one job, and 20 cents for the other.
And our family history with the sugar industry continued, even though we remained drylanders. Grandpa’s youngest son worked a campaign or two, at Sterling, before going into the oil industry.
I have wrapped up the family ties to sugar beets. It’s been very interesting. The one part I don’t miss was trudging up and down three flights of stairs and dashing out into the frosty nights, collecting all those samples.
I know procedures have changed, but I hope today’s sample carriers enjoy their jobs as much as I did. And I’m serious.