By Young Carhartt
Sugar Beet Harvesters Everywhere. The Time Has Come. Lock Out, Tag Out, Throw Away The Key. Burn Down The Factory. SOS. Call For Bodies. This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Two Of Us. Fuck The Borders From Wyoming To Minnesota. Against Refined Sugar And Its World.
These are the words that came to mind, just for a moment, when it felt like there was nothing left to lose during the October 2019 sugar beet harvest. During our negotiation with the bosses for more money, safer work conditions and better housing, a Northern Plains autonomous zone flashed through my mind. Trash barricades and tire fires across the sugar beets piling yard, a message to the industrial barons and landlords that their time was up.
But that choice came down between making a statement or making a few thousand dollars. And I was broke. The sugar industrialists knew they could go broke too. Confused by the anger and demands of our large crowd of dirty 20-somethings living out of cars, the Express Employment representative simply said “I mean, you guys chose this lifestyle.”
Take off your mask, pretend to take some deep gulps of the fresh prairie’s air and join me for a moment by the fair confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. This is not a call to action, just a chance to stretch sore limbs and reflect. On the very stretch of river where Sitting Bull was forced to hand over his Winchester rifle to the US military, you will find the sugar factory and this lifestyle.
The atmosphere of the beet harvest could be gauged somewhere between an Earth First! rendezvous and Juggalo gathering. But instead of sabotaging industrial machinery or getting fucked up, you get paid to operate industrial machinery and get fucked up. For a month of work, you can drive away with an average of $4,000. That’s a huge check if the only other job you can get is as an underwater ceramic technician (dishwasher).
My first season in 2018 was a good gamble. Some more notable memories include punks mobbing the only hotel hot tub in town with bottles of champagne, forming a choreographed dance crew on the clock rather than work, and a lot of downtime in the break room for absurd conversations fueled by burnt coffee and kratom. October 2019 was a different hand of cards; overtime hours were cut, beet pilers were broken and stuck in mud every night and a record number of beets went rotting in the fields. From the farmers who had to pay over $300 an acre for their rotten beets to the workers shoveling a biblical amount of mud out of the pilers, it was a miserable experience.
The large expanse of prairie between the Mississippi River and Rocky Mountains happens to be a great place to raise sugar beets, as some white settlers came to find out. The sugar factory, beets fields and piling yard are located in a place commonly called “the middle of nowhere” but is actually the homeland of the Assiniboine people. It’s much closer to the 49th Parallel than the closest big cities of Denver and Minneapolis, which are both a 10 hour drive away. It’s a place where you can see the pulsing colors of Northern Lights, if the open flames of oil wells don’t block it out. On a quiet night camping next to the river, you are just as likely to hear coyotes as you are drunken semiautomatic gunfire.
Out on the dirt roads, the only visible connections you can trace back to the U.S. are the oil pipelines. They cut through this part of the planet like a rich kid’s really expensive and really hazardous tinker toy. It is safe to assume that some men very far away from here are making more money than you or I will ever have in our lives, while the water and the communities of people who use it are left with the side effects. The drilling, movement and consumption of oil is of the highest priority. Everything and everyone else is in the way. Water is not sacred, it’s an afterthought. It is slimy on your hands as it comes out the faucet, and it is an unspoken rule to never drink it. It’s like falling into a Beehive Design Collective poster at your infoshop or drug dealer’s wall.
Amidst a mural of factories, railroads, monocropping, gas stations, Trump flags, empty boomtowns, neon casinos, fast food, McMansions and trailer park man camps, there’s a natural world holding it all. You fall through the river valleys where herds of bison, sagebrush, wild horses, prairie dogs, wildflowers, dinosaur bones, tallgrass, prickly pear cacti, cottonwoods, deer and antelope play. It is outstandingly beautiful in a region that is an outpost of American colonialism, and its only role to the rest of the country is based on the extraction of resources. But you land into this mural on a curious detail. It’s an abandoned train bridge and tunnel covered in graffiti. It’s crawling with the laziest, brilliantly creative and soon to be drunk people in the US workforce for the month of October. They’re burning pallets, playing instruments and eating birthday cake: punks.
Coming to the Northern Plains from all directions is this ragtag night crew. Down the highways in busted vehicles with dashboards full of animal bones, dead flowers, faded cassette tapes and parking tickets. Like pages ripped from Steinbeck and thrown into the winds of I-94. It’s a rugged individualism balanced with a queer collectivism. Underneath everyone’s attitudes, dirt & glitter is a mutual understanding that for the length of the harvest, everything, good or bad, would be shared.
American agriculture heavily relies on a large transient workforce of migrants to harvest its food, and this includes the more classical hobo. While over 80 percent of US farmworkers are Latinx, why does the sugar beet harvest specifically attract crowds of punks? If you believe the oral history of 1st generation punk train hoppers, it began in the mid-90s when East Coast blueberry harvest gutterpunks heard from ski bums that the beet harvest in Renville, MN was easy money. 25 years later you will be run out of Renville by the sheriff if you have so much as a rattail. Not only because the town was host to more than 25 years of punks being out of the gutter and into the operator’s booth, but because somewhere along the line “Burn Down the Factory” stopped being an empty threat. It is worth noting here that one source of the word “punk” is of Native American origin. It’s the Leni Lenape Nation’s word for the wooden dust, ashes and embers useful for starting fires.
The author William Least Heat-Moon defines the Western myth cycle shortly; “A stranger enters town. A stranger leaves town.” Walking down main street I could tell from people’s expressions. I was the stranger. While standing by the cannons of the abandoned military outpost Ft. Buford, it felt obvious that there was a connection between Sitting Bull’s surrender and me getting paid. And one between the buffalo’s extermination and fields of genetically modified sugar beets.
If I tell someone that I spent October at the sugar beet harvest, a certain coziness glazes their face. They think of lush farm fields, smiling faces and sunshine. It looks more like any dystopic-apocalyptic sci-fi film. Darkness and clouds of dust surround heavy machinery on a moonscape of Monsanto dirt, pumping living things into piles. Open flames shooting out of oil wells compete with the floodlights to cast surveilling light on every movement, from coworkers sneaking sips from a Real Tree flask, down to the fox crossing the piling yard in a panic. The constant grinding gears weighed against the constant silence coming in through the night and across the empty fields. The eco-feminist and nihilist voices in my head stage their debates from 6PM to 6AM. 12 hour shifts are a long time to shiver and stare off into truckloads of beets shooting across conveyor belts. Most of my thoughts revolve around how I’ll spend my wintertime and paycheck.
~~Spirits are low for the night shift. We’re a skeleton crew and it’s all hands on deck as the sun begins to set. The line of beet trucks stretches all the way to the horizon. The dayshift is glad to get back to their RV park. It will take hours before any of us hears the cracking open of a PBR can or feels the warmth of Top Ramen. Within 10 minutes the piler I’m working becomes clogged with heavy mud, caking every moving part of the machine. The punk foremen (& in the nightshift’s case the label foremen is gender-neutral) pull up in a beat-up truck to try and help followed by their boss in a much newer truck. The foremen’s boss is known as The Agriculturist, the ultimate decision maker and liaison between the factory and piling yard. She is unimpressed by the night crew’s audacity to ask for more money and has in the past cut our overtime hours as punishment. She throws a shovel in my direction.
I begin digging mud out when there’s a disturbance from the other end of the piling yard. An RV tears across the dirt weaving through empiric lines of beet trucks and kicks up clouds of dust blowing in my direction. The RV screeches to a stop and the passenger door bursts open spilling empty Bud Lite Lime cans across the ground. A scrawny figure in a bright orange safety vest & black ski mask bursts from the RV and sprints towards me and The Agriculturist. He screams like a bat out of hell, “BURN DOWN THE FACTORY!! FUCK YOU!!” hands me a fresh box of Domino’s Pizza and gives the boss middle fingers. The RV’s pilot and comrade in a ski-mask peel away to deliver scammed pizzas to the rest of the night crew, understaffed & hungry on the pilers. I take a slice and pass the rest off to the foremen, all of us covered in mud but laughing for the first time in what seems like ages. ~~
Although the settlers in this part of the US would welcome Trump graciously, it’s hard to imagine that the president, or anyone else wearing a suit for that matter, could ever be bothered to pay a visit. You’d have to see a burning factory and the suspension of law and order first. Since the arrival of Lewis and Clark in 1805, the west has been militarized, bought and sold all to the benefit of rich white men.
In 2020 AD, when every day seems worse than the last, and the only news is bad news, it becomes crippling to feel that there could be something worse than “No Future”. I try to imagine a future that isn’t techno-fascist environmental catastrophe with cops to enforce any inequality. I look for lessons from Sitting Bull, his knowledge that a different world is always possible and is physically right under our feet. I try to imagine a belonging that doesn’t require Usernames or Passwords, a belonging without Terms or Conditions. A belonging that aims for living with the seasons instead of against them. I think of pallet fires in train tunnels and its spontaneous choir of singing voices that can create a night’s shelter. Sharing birthday cake in the darkness and making wishes before the fire goes out.