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Beta Vulgaris

by Our Man in Wyoming
Sun Feb 28th, 2016

Beet Yard Silos, Wyoming

Within the Bighorn Basin, the annual Sugar Beet harvest is always referred to as "the Campaign". It begins when the nights of autumn are cold enough to bring to peak the lucrative beet-sweetness. I live directly across a narrow street from one of the two Wyoming beet yards, a street named Grace Avenue. 

At the right time of year, trucks converge from all directions, many different kinds of them, filled to overflowing. There is a right-angle turn they all must navigate, apparently the sharpest turn of any encountered on the route. There, some topbeets are inevitably wrested free by the centripetal forces, always at the same spot relative to the corner. So along this one stretch, the road is seasonally sprinkled with muddy unwashed sugar beets. At one specific spot you could set up a lightweight lawn chair, and every few minutes, gather in a beet using a catcher's mitt, without budging an inch.

But you wouldn't want to, you would soon fracture some of the bones of the hand. Sugar beets can be as small as a large potato, or as large as a large coconut. When I worked in the Tare Lab, I routinely needed to field beety projectiles as large as a human head, using a robust fiberglass bin as a recepticle. 

"Tare" is the portion of a received truckload which has no economic value. This includes stones and weeds, and many dense clods of sticky soil. Farmers bring canvas bags of unwashed product to the Tare Lab to be sampled and analyzed, a pickup truck-load at a time. After being washed and hand-sorted, the clean, tare-free beets are mashed into pulp by a powerful hydraulic ram. Then, in a sparkling-clean, glass-enclosed Lab room, the sugar content is assayed so that, according to a certain formula, the farmer can be fairly compensated.

Sugar Beet (Beta Vulgaris)

For a while I tended the Tare Lab's colossal washer/dryer, built in Orem, Utah in 1970. Its room-length cylindrical drum rotates slowly, at never-varying speed, two steady rotations per minute. Then a radial aperture opens at the clean end, and the current batch of beets tumbles out in one clattering mini-avalanche. Hour after hour, a worker is tasked to catch them in a bin, count and inspect them, then direct the bin onto a roller track. 

If any bounce and hit the floor it's a safety violation, as anyone could step on them and fall, possibly into the works of one of the machines. So one had to be vigilantly careful in managing the timing, when coralling the occasional stray beet: if your back was turned while occupied, and the next batch tumbled out, a couple of dozen Beta Vulgaris could be rolling on the floor in an instant. Then, pandemonium.

One time, whilst rounding up loose beets, urgently crawling on hands and knees, I discovered the sheet metal plate with the machine's date and place of manufacture, riveted to the hidden underside. A previous brother-worker had added an item of historical detail of his own:

Bob Stoddard worked here, 1983

When time allowed I appended an entry in kind, trotting out one of my pithy pen-names.

In recent years, the unfortunate rule has been: Whenever a sugar beet worker is injured or killed, It's Always a Woman. A few years previously, at the plant where I worked, a safety-conscious female machine operator instinctively reached in to retrieve her dropped hardhat -- and had the lower part of an arm trimmed off. 

A woman died only two years ago at the beet yard in a town named (with awful irony) Lovelle. It is NOT true that her mortal remains ended up in a 50-lb sack of sugar.

She was not pulled along, powerless to resist, through the shocking icy waters of the Flume, the deep concrete trough which conveys the raw unwashed beets into the plant. She was not buffeted and pummeled by the irresistible force of the tons of rushing water and hard tuber projectiles. She was not channelled upward three stories by the overwhelming force of the Beet Pump, and not sucked into the bowels of the processing facility. Her conscious awareness, if any, was not forced through the tweny three pairs of precision-ground rotating knives: thus she was not tranformed into the soft, slippery, noodle-like forms which are called here, 'Clousettes'. 

The digital Sucralometers did not all go haywire, encountering (as they didn't) a profile of sugars which they were entirely uncalibrated for. A fifty pound bag of sugar destined for Hershey, PA, did not arrive with a blush of womanly pink. It's only a local, juvenile myth!

What did actually happen is deeply, disturbingly unknown. She was a capable, qualified machinist. Regulations called for guard grilles over the entire length of the flume preventing anyone from falling in. After she went missing it took a long time to discover the location of the body. It was in a remote corner of the many-acre plant, and there is no clear idea of how it could have gotten there. 

I think it is related that I saw, on the job, gender segregation nearly as strict as had the Shakers in the Northeast (in generations past) or with some of the scarier Mormon sects of the Great Basin (today). 

All new Sugar workers receive hours of safety orientation. For our group, six men and one woman, the latter part of it took place in the austere little lunch room, which on one side consists of a sliding glass patio door, and more glass. We read through a thick stack of manual pages together, read aloud by the Production Manager, a folksy, but serious, sincere-seeming man who I liked very much. 

Midway through, the glass door flew open, and the Personnel administrator marched in, a middle-aged woman. Without warning or permission, she grabbed the female trainee by the arm, with everyone hearing her say:

"Come with me. We're putting YOU in the Lab".

The Lab rooms are the polar opposite of the Production floors in many ways, possibly all of them. You enter a Lab and receive refuge from the earsplitting machine-din, in fact, music might be softly playing in the background. They are cheerfully, brightly lit, and comprehensively clean. 

In the Tare Lab are two benchtop turntables, each with two dozen gleamingly-clean glass beakers arranged in precisely-spaced circles. The ladies place a pristine, folded (by hand) white paper cone of filter paper in each, one by one, then turning one place, working nonstop, and quickly, as a team of three. A tablespoon of white sample powder is dolloped into each, along with a splash of a milky developing fluid. The samples are run through analysis using a cheap ancient IBM-PC type personal computer. In this plant, it's a rare technology-nod to the current Millennium.

Recently Wyoming has received multiple economic blows, any of which might be knockout-blows. The Oil Industry is in full retreat, and that impinges upon another of the economic pillars, the mining of Bentonite. One of its two uses is recession-proof, the other is not. "In-home cat sanitation" depends on Bentonite, and sales will remain strong, I'm sure...but the Oil industry uses a great deal, too, and as it falls, so does Bentonite -- a double whammy.

Now there is a new economic blow: last year's Campaign represented a bumper crop, but that coincided with the initial introduction of Genetically Modifed sugar beets. And now the Confectionery Mega-conglomerate, Hersheys/Mars has announced it is turning its back on GMO sweeteners. 

The significance of this is pointed out in the recently-published report that American children consume their body weight in sugar every year.

I know this will have bearing in the Millbrook Region: Soon, snackers can secretly savor, with a greater measure of peace of mind, the chocolaty treats that they have loved deeply since childhood.

But will the same people openly disclose that they still munch on their M & Ms when they feel they need it?