The real boys of fall: NDSU students juggle coursework and helping with harvest
FARGO — From August through November along the Minnesota-North Dakota border, semis carrying loads of crops head to elevators en route to feeding the world. Driving those trucks, a few overlooked harvest workers are just trying to make it in the world doing what they love — all while working toward a degree that will one day help them do just that.
From operating combines to driving truck to unloading other farmers at the grain elevators and everything in between, many agriculture students from North Dakota State University pack up their textbooks, lace up their work boots and climb into their cab to help farmers around the area harvest their crops.
How they got started
For Adam Meister, a senior majoring in agricultural systems management (ASM) from Hanover, Minnesota, working during harvest while going to school full time is nothing new. He has worked for B&B Farms in Kindred, North Dakota, for two harvest seasons, but he doesn't stop there.
"I worked there all summer-long," Meister said. "I pretty much am a hired hand and do what I am told. I helped with spraying activities, work in the shop. During harvest now, I just help where I can."
Many students who work for area farmers during harvest work jobs similar to Meister. However, some students find their time to shine after the crops come out of the ground.
Adam Walter, a senior also majoring in ASM from Centerville, Minnesota, has found his niche the past two harvest seasons at the CW Valley Co-op in Comstock, Minnesota.
"I talk to farmers, dump (the grain) trucks, take care of the shipping process mainly, and keep up on maintenance," Walter said.
The mounds of sugar beets that pile up between Canada and South Dakota need someone to haul them. Jeremy Rhines, a senior general agriculture and agriculture economics student from Sidney, Montana, is the man for the job.
Working for Ackerman Farms in Hillsboro, North Dakota., Rhines gets his turn driving many different crops to the elevators.
"I usually drive tractor and truck. Beets, soybeans, corn, barley, stuff like that," Rhines said.
Many of the NDSU students who work as hired hands on farms during harvest grew up in agriculture or, at the very least, have a background in it.
"I grew up on a decent-sized farming operation," said Rhines, who works on his family farm in Sidney, Montana, during the summer.
For Meister, the farm experience he gained before finding himself in this job came from a small, family operation. "We helped out a lot around my uncle's farm, but I haven't learned or done as much as I have done here," Meister said.
Juggling a busy schedule
Most college students spend some of their free time after class doing what interests them—working out, hanging out with friends or going out downtown. But for these young men, when class dismisses, it's only the beginning of the day.
"Usually I put in at least 10 hours (a day). I start at 11 and work until midnight, usually after classes are done. I guess that is more than the average farmhand, but I get my stuff done," Meister said, and that is just the three days a week he works after classes.
On the weekends the real work gets done. While many NDSU students are gearing up for Bison football games and tailgating, Meister has already been working for a few hours.
"Usually on the weekends, if we start at 8, we usually go until 11 at night. We usually put in 13- to 15-hour days, I guess." Meister said.
For a full-time student, working that many hours per week can be draining.
"I would guess (I work) maybe 60 hours a week. I only sleep around 4 hours a night," Meister said.
While 60 hours per week is on the extreme side of the spectrum, for Rhines and Walter, seeing a 40- to 50-hour workweek is common. For Rhines, a 12- to 14-hour workday is typical during beet season, and that doesn't include his commute from Fargo to Hillsboro.
How harvest affects them
Working between 30 and 60 hours a week doesn't come without consequences, though.
"I would say the biggest commitment that I give up is sleep. And my personal life," Meister said. "I have no time to go out with friends and stuff like that. And that is 60 hours a week not working Tuesdays or Thursdays."
Megan Ratke, an NDSU freshman and Meister's girlfriend of two years, worries that with Meister working so much, he is going to miss out on much more.
"I just feel like there is no time for him to have fun in college. And I feel like he is working his college years away," Ratke said.
Even though all girlfriends of young farmers know what they are signing up for when harvest rolls around, the demanding schedule these young men keep can be a major strain on even the strongest relationships.
"I know it is his job, and it is something that he loves, but you have to do what you can," Ratke said. "There is no time for dates or anything. Trying to hang out with him after work is usually a no-go because he is tired and the only time he is home is when he is sleeping. Plans are always changing, so that is hard, too ... but he loves his job so I can't really get mad at him. You can't get mad for working."
Haley Stephenson, Walter's girlfriend of two years, agrees.
"Oh yeah, you get put through the ringer," said Stephenson, a sophomore at Northland Community College in East Grand Forks, North Dakota. "The little things become huge that really don't need to be. Little things build up until they're World War III."
The young men aren't oblivious to the situation.
"It affects my relationship big time," Walter said. "It is hard to see each other, plus Haley lives two hours away from me ... you end up staying up later to finish schoolwork and trying to finish stuff while I am working, too. "
Why they do it
Although they deal with challenges that would make many want to throw their hands up and quit, the work ethic these young men have, coupled with the work that they do, has positives, too.
If they were to work only during harvest, their earnings could potentially carry them through the whole year. However, many work year-round to keep their pocketbook padded when it comes time to pay the bills.
"If I just did straight harvest, I would be able to pay the bills. If I needed it to, I could easily make it. I do work year-round, though, so I never feel like I am behind when I have to pay bills and stuff," Walter said.
Although the money they make working like this is nice, it isn't the only motivator. A lot of it has to do with getting out of the city and having a little peace in nature.
"I really like being out in the field," Rhines said. "The rural farm area and the fields. Also the thought that I am feeding the world."