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Wednesday, 09 November 2011 08:01

Workers busy harvesting annual sugar beet crop

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By Jamie Woodford
It’s stirred into your coffee, sprinkled on your cereal, or mixed into the muffin batter, but before sugar lands in your pantry, it’s extracted from sugar beets. Even before that the beets are handled by hard-working people on the ground.

At Rogers Sugar Lantic’s operation in Picture Butte, sugar beets are trucked in from the farm, weighed and then dropped off at a piler, where the mud encased beets are processed before going to the factory in Taber.

Steve Mazutinec, a piler operator oversees the beets as they make their way up a conveyor belt into a gigantic pile, to make sure no problems arise such as plugged grab rolls or fallen chains.

“There’s dirt on these beets, and I’ve got to give them back as tare ... so when (trucks) bring a full load, then you’ve got to (separate) the dirt,” he said. “They’re not paying for your dirt, so we subtract one from another.”

As the beets make their way up the belt, the dirt is collected and transported on a separate conveyor belt to be put back into the trucks that are then weighed again to determine the actual weight of the beets without the dirt.

Mazutinec worked in the sugar factory from 1969 to 1978.  Although he’s now retired, he’s been coming back for the past four years as a seasonal worker to keep busy.

“I’m just doing this to have something to do. It’s only going to be about three weeks or something like that, and we’re just about done: a piece of cake,” he said.

Bonnie Colley has been a part of the sugar beet operation for three years now. She started out as a tare person — someone who collects samples of beets to be analyzed for its sugar content which determines the amount a grower is paid — and is now the night shift foreman of the piler operation.

In addition to receiving trucks and ensuring tare people “take the right sample from the right truck,” Colley’s job is to make sure everything is running well with the piler machinery.

“Especially with the mud,” she said. “It builds up on everything.”

Luckily this year wasn’t too bad for mud, even with the late spring rains.

“This year was good. It was muddy, but no, this was not one of the worst (years),” she said. “I think we’ve been really lucky.”

Day foreman Aubrey Fletcher agreed with Colley.

“This year was good compared to other years. We’ve had years where it’s been mud from day one to the last day,” he said.

“Mud sticks to everything, so you got to scrape the hopper in the bottom of the piler and you have a hopper on the top of the piler. You can’t have them full of mud because otherwise the beets back up, so you’ve got to scrape the mud out all the time.”

Fletcher has been working in the industry for 43 years.

“I’ve worked at the sugar factory in one capacity or another since 1968,” he said, noting he was somewhat destined to work with sugar beets.

“My dad started in 1936. He helped build the sugar factory, and he went to work in it after it started,” Fletcher said, adding his own children have also worked in the industry at one time or another.

“It’s basically a family affair.”

He said there have been a few changes over the years, but some things have stayed pretty much the same.

“(The shift) is pretty small. There used to be 100 people per shift at the sugar factory, now it’s less than 25,” he said, but “pilers (haven’t) changed much. The design has changed so we can accommodate big trucks, but the basic piling part is all the same.”

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