Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Sugar Days

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Sugar Days

Article excerpt

Working the Harvest, Then Moving On

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 let- tering 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. …

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