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As sugar beet harvest approaches, digging up workers proves challenging

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The Red River Valley's sugar beet harvest is just a few weeks away. And growers and processors say finding the seasonal workers to handle this year's crop may come down to the wire.

Forum News Service reports new commercial developments in the Valley have siphoned off some former sugar workers, while others have headed for North Dakota's oil patch.

Dan Gowan of American Crystal Sugar tells the news service many of the local workers the sugar co-op usually hires during harvest season have taken jobs with retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart.

Jared Sands, who chairs the East Grand Forks District of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, says there's a shortage of truckers to serve farms, even though hourly wages have risen from the middle teens to $25.

On its website, American Crystal says it's hiring 1,300 seasonal employees to work at 45 receiving stations. The company says short-term employees can earn up to $2,000 in two weeks by putting in 12 hour shifts seven days a week.

One of their pages contains short videos describing the positions available and the work environment.

Forum News says the tighter labor market has American Crystal looking more toward workers from outside the area. Seasonal employees who don't have housing in the area are now permitted to live in a camp near the East Grand Forks sugar plant, which last year was a temporary home for 326 workers.

Perhaps the search for harvest workers is giving American Crystal a taste of what its subsidiary in Sidney, Montana, is already going through. The general manager of the plant there says Sidney Sugars advertises nationwide and year-round to fill its 300 positions during the harvest and production campaign that runs from October through mid-February.

For some seasonal workers, an annual trip to the Valley to help with the harvest has been part of their routine for decades.

Sugar beet cultivation moved into the Red River Valley after World War I and has always been a labor intensive crop. An article in the Minnesota Historical Society's magazine, Minnesota History, traces the fluctuations in the labor supply from surplus to shortage dating back through the Depression and World War II.

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