Subsequent outrage from Minnesotans persuaded me to actually visit the place to see for myself what it was like. To my surprise, I found I liked it quite a bit — so much so that I moved my family there the following spring.
Our move was predicated on a number of factors. There was the sense of adventure inherent in turning our lives upside-down at the whim of a single data point. There were compelling economic factors, including unaffordable housing, the skyrocketing cost of living in the Baltimore-D.C. region and the sense that our family was slowly being torn apart by the relentless forces of long commutes.
Then, there was the landscape — flat, dry and cold as it is, it governs the rhythms of life here in the Red River Valley. I didn’t really begin to appreciate what that actually meant until our first autumn here, when the beet harvest was in full swing.
About 13,000 years ago, an area of North America roughly the size of the Black Sea was covered by a glacial lake called Lake Agassiz. For thousands of years, the lake’s animal inhabitants ate, pooped and died in its waters, depositing a thick layer of organic material along its bottom.
When the glaciers receded, the lake drained, fairly rapidly, leaving all that material behind as beautiful black soil and raising global sea levels anywhere from two to nine feet in the process. As a result, the Red River Valley’s farmland is some of the most productive in the world, despite the short growing season of the northern climate.
In addition to staples like corn, wheat and soybeans, the soft soil makes for ideal beet-growing conditions. When October comes, the beets are ready for harvest, and every last person in the area knows it on account of the hundreds of semi-trucks laden with tons of beets that go barreling down the country roads.
You may think you have some understanding of what a sugar beet is, but take it from me: You probably haven’t a clue. A sugar beet resembles one of the dinky purple beets you grow in your garden the same way that a Sherman tank resembles a Honda Civic. The median sugar beet is the size of a large child’s head and perfectly white. They’re typically a foot long and weigh roughly three to five pounds. To my knowledge, there is only one accurate depiction of a sugar beet in popular culture: the bizarre white vegetables that Mario yanks out of the ground in the video game “Super Mario Bros. 2.”
In the 18th century, the sugar beet’s predecessors were fed to cattle before somebody realized the beets contained sucrose, the same stuff that makes sugar cane sweet. A few centuries of selective breeding produced the fat sweet monster farmers plant today. Roughly 20 percent pure sugar, a single beet can yield up to a pound or so of the refined stuff.
You may think that most of the table sugar you consume at home and in restaurants comes from sugar cane, and again you’d be wrong. Between 55 and 60 percent of it actually comes from sugar beets, according to the USDA. Most of it is grown in the mainland United States, in places like Red Lake County, where the soil is soft and the winters are cold.
During our first fall in Red Lake County, I rode on the beet harvest for a day with my neighbor, John. John owns a semi-truck that he drives as an independent contractor for the U.S. Post Office, and like a lot of guys with big trucks up here, he pitches in on the beet harvest every year to make some extra money. The harvest is so all-encompassing — and it pays so well — that even guys who don’t own big trucks take time off from their regular jobs to put in a few beet-hauling shifts.
I met John at the grain elevator in Euclid, a town northwest of Red Lake County on Route 75. John’s job was to pick up the freshly harvested beets from the field and haul them several miles away to one of the holding stations operated by American Crystal Sugar. There the beets would be weighed and then piled and left to sit out in the cold until the big processing stations in East Grand Forks and Crookston were ready to take them, slicing them up and boiling them down to extract and refine their sugar.
It wasn’t immediately clear to me why you need an 18-wheeler to harvest beets. I assumed there would be some large piece of beet-holding equipment along the side of the road that John would drive up to, dump the load of beets in his trailer and drive off.
Instead, I sat dumbstruck as he wheeled the semi, trailer and all, directly into the field and pulled up alongside a giant treaded beet harvester. When the harvester started up, John drove through the dirt alongside it, maintaining a constant distance and pace so that the beets tumbling off the machine’s conveyor dropped into the trailer. He also had to keep an eye on his mirror to make sure the beets weren’t piling too high in any one part of the trailer. If they were, he had to speed up or slow down as necessary to ensure they were being distributed evenly.
If you’re wondering how an 18-wheeler laden with 20 tons of beets drives through a soft field without getting stuck, the answer is it doesn’t. Things usually start to get dodgy near the end of a pass through the field, when the truck and the harvester have to turn around. The truck is almost bound to lose traction, so what happens is he gets a tow from a guy in an enormous tractor outfitted with treads, who sits waiting at the edge of the field for just this sort of thing to happen.
The tractor has a tow hitch on the back, and the truck has a matching bar on the front. The tractor backs into the truck with a thud, the hitch grabs the bar and the trucker gets a quick 180-degree tow so he can start the process all over again. Once the trailer’s full, the trucker drives off the field and the next truck in line takes its turn. All of this equipment is prodigiously expensive: Between the harvester, the tractor, the trucks and other pieces of machinery, there was easily several million dollars in agricultural capital motoring around the field at any given time.
The trucks end up absolutely covered in dirt and deposit enormous amounts of the stuff on the roadways throughout the season. Locals like to complain about the beet dirt, but no one really means it. Lots of dirt means a good harvest and money in the pockets of the farmers, the truck drivers, the processing-plant workers and their families.
Once we had a load full of beets, John drove us out to the receiving station about 10 miles away. There, he stopped to get his truck weighed and the weight recorded — and tease the girl behind the weigh-station window about this thing and that thing. Once that was done, he pulled up alongside an enormous mobile conveyor belt. A separate operator swung the belt’s components into place behind the trailer, and John raised the trailer and dumped all the beets out the back.
We watched them roll up the conveyor belts. At the top, they were flung out onto giant beet mountains that eventually covered the entire receiving-station grounds. Once the load was empty, he’d go do it again, dozens of times a day until the field was fully harvested or he needed to take a break.
It usually takes about two weeks of round-the-clock activity to harvest the season’s sugar beets. The refining and processing at the region’s sugar plants goes on for months more, lasting well into the following spring. The piles at the receiving stations finally disappear with the last of the winter’s snow, usually sometime in April or May. One of the advantages of a climate that stays below freezing — and often below zero — for weeks and months at a time is that you can simply leave piles of agricultural commodities like beets out on the ground without having to worry about them rotting or going bad.
Viewed through this agricultural lens, the Red River Valley’s notoriously cold winters didn’t represent a shortcoming, but rather a positive natural amenity, one that made possible a lifestyle unavailable just about anywhere else. Throughout that first year in northwest Minnesota, I came to see many of the region’s other natural features in a completely different light as well.
This article is adapted from the book “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie” to be published Sept. 10 by HarperCollins.
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