Wednesday, October 29, 2014

One Mustang Adopted, 50,000 to Go

My friend Matt Livengood had a little over three months to teach Bud the Mustang everything he needed to know to become an adoptable horse. Bud arrived in April, 100 days before the Extreme Mustang Makeover event in Nampa, ID. At the end of July, Bud was a different horse.

Bud wore his Bureau of Land Management (BLM) neck tag for weeks; he wouldn't let Matt get close enough to put a halter on him. The tag had been Bud's ID since he was rounded up on the Black Rock Desert of Nevada and taken to a BLM holding facility. When he came to Matt's house, Bud left behind 50,000 other horses and burros waiting for adoption in BLM corrals.

When I visited Bud the first time he stayed as far away from me as he could in his round pen. He watched me closely and smelled for danger. Bud got his name from his size and resemblance to the Budweiser Clydesdales: he looked like he could pull a beer wagon when he trotted, furry fetlocks flying. Matt hoped his full name, This Bud's for You, would encourage bidders at the Mustang Makeover auction.

The early Bud was a rough-looking, wary guy. He was anxious and didn't look like a happy horse.

Several of Bud's fans were on hand the first time Matt sat on his back at the end of May. Bud was wearing his summer coat by then, which let his dabbles show. By this time, Bud would let his fans feed him grass and pat him.

Matt might have been more patient with Bud than Bud's own mother was. Because Matt never got flustered, Bud had no reason to misbehave.

Bud's a thinker. Once he had time to mull over his new life, he was in with all four feet. He watched, tried, learned, and seemed to enjoy the new activities and experiences. When the Makeover rolled around, the formerly free-roaming mustang was living in a stall, riding in a trailer, and behaving like a saddle horse. Bud was ready to leave Matt for a permanent home.

When I walked up to Bud at the Makeover he greeted me and wanted to know all about me: what I smelled like, what I sounded like, what my shirt tasted like, and whether or not I was going to use those handy human appendages to scratch him. (I did.)

Somewhere along the way, Bud had learned about paper. He decided it was good to eat. One bite and much of the diagram of the trail course he was to follow at the Makeover disappeared. Alayne Blickle, Matt's wife, said Bud just wanted to digest the course. Matt studied what was left and took Bud through his paces as if they were at home in their own arena. Except, at home there wasn't a crowd of people making a big scary noise with their handy appendages. You can watch Matt and Bud here.

"Team Bud," the friends who had come to cheer him on and see him off to his new home, was thrilled when our pair finished the prelims in the top ten and moved on to the finals. We sprang into action and developed a beach-themed routine for the evening performance. Team members ran to the dollar store for supplies, created a cardboard Dalmatian to ride in a borrowed red Radio Flyer wagon, and downloaded and dubbed music. We were sure Bud would have as much fun with the routine as we did.

Matt kept the diagram for the finals away from Bud as they practiced.

Bud turned to show off his dapples as he warmed up.

I made my horse show debut in a Hawaiian shirt when I helped set up beach chairs and a horse-sized beach ball in the arena. Despite Bobby McFerrin singing Don't Worry, Be Happy on his soundtrack, Bud was worried. He saw a huge crowd of people and an odd collection of frightening objects. The rock concert-level PA system hurt Bud's ears. Bud wasn't happy.

Team Bud watched its namesake melt down in the arena and knew we'd gotten carried away and pushed Bud too fast.

Matt stayed calm and waited to see if Bud would relax on the beach. He didn't. By the time the Budweiser ad at the end of his soundtrack suggested that "you've said it all," Bud had had all he could stand. Once he got away from the noise and strange sights, Bud calmed down and recovered.

Team Bud huddled in the stands and worried about what kind of home Bud would go to after we'd upset him with our beach idea. My stomach hurt and my mouth was dry while I watched the other finalists' routines.

It was hard to listen to the bidding for our dappled brown, melted down Bud. A woman in back was bidding. She seemed nice; would she get him? Yes. No. Yes; she did!

I wasn't the only member of Team Bud who quizzed his new owner after the auction. When she told me her plans for Bud, I knew she had looked through his temporary loss of composure and seen the sweet, curious, willing horse he is: Bud will be her next extreme trail riding horse.

These events test horses' and riders' ability to go over, under, and through obstacles made of wood, water, and soil. The horses have to back through some obstacles and others move when the horses step on them.

Bud has been elevated to royalty in his forever home: he's now Prince of Bud, or Prince for short. His new human companion is thrilled with his "willingness to learn, calm demeanor, and how fast he picks up on new things." In short, "He truly is my dream horse." No word on how many times her kids have used the excuse, "The horse ate my homework."

Saturday, October 25, 2014

In the Boise Markets: Bring Out Your Knives

After decades of torturing my kitchen knife on grinding wheels in farm shops or scratching away at it with a whetstone now shaped like a partly-used bar of soap, I took my knife to the sharpening parlor. It got professional treatment.

Michael Givens sharpens knives, and other formerly sharp objects, most Saturdays at the Boise Capital City Market.

The Knife Sharpener let me photograph him on a dark, rainy day, while he shaped, smoothed, and buffed my knife.

An oddly-shaped, unwieldy blade I learned was a lawn mower blade sent photogenic showers of sparks flying.

When I had used up my allotted number of questions for the day, I went around to the front of the booth to pay for my better, sharper, trimmer knife. Michael's wife and co-worker asked, “You had the lawn mower blade?”

"Oh, no," I said, "That belongs to someone with a lawn--and a house.”

Michael piped up from the back, “Someone who married their favorite former boyfriend.”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Dusty Doright

I’ve only used the “No” word one time with Dusty Dog. Once, while we were on one of our weekly walks, he crunched something in his teeth after checking out an intriguing-smelling hole in the ground. "Dusty, no”! I gasped. What on Earth was he eating? Dusty swallowed and rushed over to reassure me, a dead ringer for Oatmeal's dog.

Dusty’s human, Mollie, rarely uses that word, either. His favorite food is Anything the Cat Didn’t Eat (he’s allowed to clean up leftovers). Dusty could help himself to Everything the Cat Didn’t Eat Fast Enough with an short hop onto the chair next to the cat’s bowl. But he stays on the floor. Dusty could chew up shoes, backpacks, sofas, and pillows. But he limits himself to shedding gobs of hair the size of dachshunds on all of the above and more. Dusty could get into the trash or into the closet where his food and treats are stored, but he doesn’t seem interested.

Mollie says Dusty behaves out of gratitude for being rescued from the pound. Another friend, who also saved her dog from the noisy, chaotic pound, says her dog keeps a close eye on her, so she doesn't disappear.

Early this spring, when the sun was rising late, Mollie left for work at oh-dark-thirty. Her work phone rang later that morning. It was her next-door neighbor; he had tracked her down through her employer.

The neighbor had looked out his back window to see Dusty carefully inventorying all the exciting odors in the wrong backyard. Morning light revealed Dusty's wooden stockade fence flat on the ground, keeping the newly growing grass in place. The neighbor worried that Dusty might wander into the street and get hurt.

Mollie was swamped at work and didn't know when she could get away. But she knew her dog. She told her neighbor to address Dusty, point to their house, and say, “Git home!”

Mollie's neighbor did just that. Dusty looked up at the man, considered it, and trotted back to his porch. He was still there when Mollie broke away from work and got home to put him inside and close up his dog door.

When I visited Dusty later that week for our walk, we hung out in back for a while. He stayed in his yard and kept an eye on the neighborhood activities. He likes the view a lot better with the fence out of the way.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Extreme Mustang Makeover, the Bud Edition

As a child, I was enchanted by the story of "Wild Horse Annie" fighting to save America's free-roaming horses. I was desperate to leave boring junior high in snoozeville Minneapolis and head west. I dreamed of spending all day outside on a horse and sleeping under the stars every night.

As an adult, I live in the West and sleep outdoors more than most people would want to. But the "wild" (they're actually feral) horse question is more complicated than it seemed in junior high.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reports that almost 50,000 feral horses and burros still roam the western range. The agency, which manages the federal lands where the animals live, also houses a similar number in pens and pastures.

The BLM periodically rounds up and removes some of the horses so they don't interfere with other uses of public land. The agency tries to find homes for them, but their corrals are starting to look like the Humane Society during kitten season. In 2013, only 2,671 horses and burros were adopted, less than half the number adopted in 2005. A steady parade of horses leave the range and end up in the permanent limbo of BLM holding facilities.

A recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report points out that the BLM doesn't actually know how many feral horses roam the West. The NAS detected a lot of guesstimating in the agency's counting process, but was able to conclude that the horse population is growing 15-20% per year.

The report's most discouraging finding is the reason for the rapid growth rate: the BLM's removal program. When there are fewer horses on the range, there's more food for those left; the remaining horses get busy and make more horses. Although birth control would be a humane solution, the NAS doubted that it alone could reduce population growth to a sustainable rate.

The Mustang Heritage Foundation tells the story of the free-roaming horses that fired my imagination as a child. Their Extreme Mustang Makeover springs a handful of lucky horses from BLM limbo and pairs them with experienced trainers. Each pair has 100 days to get ready for the show ring, after which the horses find new homes at auction. The transformation from wary mustang to confident companion was recorded in the documentary Wild Horse Wild Ride. Spoiler alert: get your hankies out; the auction breaks up some close cross-species friendships.

My friend Matt Livengood was selected to participate this year. He's teaching This Bud’s for You (Bud, for short) everything he needs to know to be a safe, relaxed, equine partner for a successful bidder. A group of friends got together at Matt and Alayne's Sweet Pepper Ranch on Memorial Day. After a barbeque, beverages, and bantering, we gathered at Bud's corral to watch his progress.

Matt had Bud's saddle and bridle on before I got my camera out. Bud was already a pro at this part.

Matt had been putting weight on the saddle for many days...

...and even lying across the saddle while he patted Bud, swung the stirrup back and forth, and got Bud used to the strange things people do when they ride horses.

There were lots of human and canine spectators offering Bud advice during his lesson.

Whoa! Once in a while Bud had to stop and collect himself.

Matt kept working with Bud until...he swung up and sat on him. Bud couldn't believe his eyes; there was a person on his back!

Good job, Bud--and Matt!

Matt and Bud listened to each other constantly during the evening.

Bud looked pleased with himself (and relieved) after his first ride.

Bud even followed Matt without a lead rope. It showed he was paying attention and trying to understand what Matt wanted him to do.

Come watch Bud and Matt in Idaho's first Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Nampa Horse Park, July 25-26. If you languished in junior high, dreaming of roaming the West on horseback, this Bud could be for YOU.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Voting a Sort-of Secret Ballot

Twenty-six percent of Idaho’s registered voters participated in our state's recent primary election. I was one of them. Until this primary, I've honored the secrecy of the voting booth (which is a small, flimsy shelf in Idaho).

While I was dashing to the polls on foot (passers-by might have used the verb "lumbering"), I passed one of the candidates I planned to vote for. When I greeted him, he asked if he had my support. As in, would I vote for him?

Rain splattered the candidate and his sign. His ironed shirt was wrinkling and his hair was matting. A chilly breeze swept in from northern Idaho and tried to send his cardboard sign sailing to Owyhee County. I was cold, despite my raincoat and umbrella. I should have offered the man a piece of my rain gear. But, my support?

He didn't know who I was; could I break my rule? Should I lecture him on the sanctity of our secret ballot? Bore him with my story of visiting the U.S. Voting Rights Museum?

He hadn't asked me if I was going to vote for him, only if I would support him.

"You bet," I said, and hurried on. I was relieved when the rain stopped by the time I'd walked/dashed/lumbered another couple of blocks.

When I told the poll worker my name, she knew my party affiliation: Idaho now has closed primaries. Knowing my party doubles the odds of someone knowing how I voted. That must at least halve the secrecy of my ballot.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Farmington, NM Library Remembers the Past, Plans for the Future

The ancient residents of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, tracked the seasons from rock observatories. Current residents of the nearest large town can track the seasons across the stone floor of the library.

When I visited the Farmington, New Mexico library in mid November, the low noon sun touched the edge of the winter solstice marker engraved into the floor.

If I had visited on December 21st I would have found the phrase “Winter Solstice 12:00” framed in light and the solstice celebration in full swing.

On June 21st the noon sun shines from overhead through a window atop the east door of the library to illuminate the summer solstice marker.
The Farmington Library sought community input while planning their new building, which opened in 2003. The cultures and landscapes of northwest New Mexico are reflected in the Native American and high desert motifs of the building.

The main entrance echoes the east-facing doors of hogans on the Navajo Reservation west of town. The central atrium, where the sun traces the time and space between the solstices, is the heart of the building. The library’s collections and services encircle the atrium and follow the cycle of life in a clockwise circuit.

Life’s journey starts in the Juvenile Collection on the south, moves to the Teen Zone in the west, and continues through the adult nonfiction and fiction sections. Multimedia resources and magazines wait on the east side, next to the entrance.

The library’s round design reflects nature in its paucity of straight lines. Chrome bookshelves fan out to in pie slices in the adult section, between the atrium and the glass wall on the north. The round windows in the interior and exterior walls remind me of portholes.

I checked email and downloaded digital photos and GPS coordinates in the Southwest Collection, protected by legions of kachina dolls dancing in glass display cases.

Beyond the rows of kachina dolls, a modern protector watches over the library’s materials. The Farmington Library was the first in the country where patrons check out all their own books and media. Their system uses radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, instead of the bar codes used at most libraries and in supermarket checkout lanes. The RFID readers in the atrium don’t have to “see” a visible bar code or demagnetize security “tattle tapes.” Borrowed materials just have to be close enough that the machine can scan their RFID tag with radio waves.

Pet owners use RFID tags when they get their cats and dogs “chipped.” If a pet gets lost, their name and owner’s contact information can be read with a hand held scanner.

I first heard of RFID tags in salmon. Thousands of young fish in the Pacific Northwest are tagged and tracked as they swim down the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Ocean and again when they return to inland streams as adults to spawn and die.

I can't help picturing schools of shimmering books leaving the sea of library shelves and heading out into the world through the east entrance. I imagine the books expanding the minds of fifth graders, retired police officers, aspiring carpenters, and middle school teachers before returning to the stacks. Happily, the books, unlike salmon, make many round trips in their lifetimes.

When books return to the library, they are either walked in the front entrance or driven behind the READ sculpture to the automatic return in back. After patrons slide their returns through the slot, the RFID system checks in the materials and provides a receipt and a coupon for $5 off library fines.

This video shows the system in action. The last part, where materials are automatically sorted into bins, reminds me of the automatic gates that open and shut to sort tagged salmon for researchers to study.

The self check out--and in--system frees the library staff to help patrons and answer visitors’ questions. This has transformed the Circulation Desk of my childhood into the Service Desk in the Farmington Library’s atrium. A whiteboard next to the desk tells everyone they count: the board lists the number of people who visited the library and the number of book they checked out (themselves) the previous day. (A helpful commenter, below, pointed out that the numbers in the photo were from a Sunday, when the library is only open for four hours. On other days, 1050 to 1400 people visit the library.)

The library’s circulation system also freed up a security guard to do a short demo for me. He showed me the postage stamp-sized RFID tags inside each book. Then he showed me what happens when someone forgets to scan a book before they leave the library. We got prompt attention from the Service Desk.

The late afternoon sun had slipped below the southwest windows and the patch of light on the floor had disappeared by the time I left the library. I drove west into the sunset to Shiprock, NM before I turned north toward Boise.

The sun has made ten trips back and forth across the floor of the new library building. Last fall, before the winter celebration, the Farmington Library again asked the community to help plan their future. Area residents shared their ideas and hopes for the library in a time of shrinking budgets and growing populations.

The ancient residents of New Mexico faced their own challenges of dwindling resources. Farmington's modern library is meeting its challenges while grounded in the area’s ancient traditions.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Late Winter Rains and Army Cutworms

Southwest Idaho's Winter of Ice Fog ended when snow fell in early February. The ridge of high pressure that had smothered us under a season-long inversion broke up. This allowed a procession of rainstorms to wash in from the Pacific.

The Treasure Valley smelled of damp, warm soil. Ranchers, farmers, and water managers cheered the promise of grass, irrigation water, and ample snow pack. An artist used every shade from Absinthe to Wintergreen to paint the Boise Green Belt in living color.

The rains were too late to save this year’s crop of cheatgrass in the dry areas along the Snake River, south of town. Last fall, a prodigious storm had germinated a flush of the winter annual grass, along with its annual mustard cousins. Sadly for the plants, their good luck didn't last. Happily for me, their misfortune confirmed an accusation I'd made 11 years earlier.

Large numbers of miller moths had preceded the rains. The eggs they laid hatched into army cutworms a month or so later. The larvae soon got down to business eating the tiny green plants.

The dry winter that followed was ideal for the cutworms, which develop fungal diseases in damp weather. But the cheatgrass and mustards struggled without rain. The annual plants died from lack of water or were consumed by army cutworms. Perennial grasses, mostly short Sandberg bluegrass, survived on the hills above areas where the annuals had died.

Hungry army cutworms roamed the bare areas looking for food...

...or hid under cowpies, out of the wind...

...but within reach of hungry centipedes.

The larvae became arboreal and climbed sagebrush...

...and fourwinged saltbush and kept eating.

Army cutworms also climbed the hills to munch on Sandberg bluegrass, which seemed able to outgrow the larvae's feeding.

When they ran out of plants to eat, the cutworms dined on their fallen relatives.

In 2003, I saw bare areas around Winnemucca, NV that resembled this year's dieoffs along the Snake River. After months of sleuthing, I found that army cutworms were probably responsible for the 2003 damage. This year, I caught the culprit cutworms in the act.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dangerous Honking Epidemic Sweeps the Treasure Valley

This public health menace increases heart disease and stroke and threatens driver and pedestrian safety.

The scourge touched me as I walked past the front bumper of an urban cowgirl’s pickup truck in downtown Nampa. The truck’s horn blasted a 100-decibel HONK! I jumped as fight-or-flight chemicals fine tuned by thousands of generations of my nimble ancestors kicked in. Cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine gushed into my bloodstream. My heart pounded, my breathing increased, and my muscles tensed. The driver had waited until she was across the street, safely away from the blast zone, before she hit the lock button on her key fob. She was at the end of the next block, still chatting with her family, when my heart rate and breathing slowed to near normal.

My successfully evolved body prepares me to run or protect myself when I’m drifting off to sleep and a neighbor HONKS outside my bedroom window. And again when he forgets where or not he locked the car after he cracks a beer--HONK. And when he checks again as he’s going to bed--HONK. Each time, more stress chemicals clog my bloodstream, raise my blood pressure, and suppress my immune system.

At 2:25 a.m. another neighbor can’t hear the car HONK with the noise of the bar still ringing in her ears. She HONKS several times. Then it’s just 3½ hours until two robust HONK-HONKS as the remote start roars to life on a third neighbor’s red Dodge Ram truck with after-market muffler.

I fall sleep between the HONKINGS while my risk of heart disease and stroke increase. Loud noises are deadly dangerous and sudden loud noises are even more so.

Car and truck horns are close to the pitch of a human scream for help. The same internal safety system that protects me from noisy, dangerous predators insists I pay attention to the screams of others of my species--whatever is killing them might get me, too! Each HONK alerts me to danger.

Turning left into four lanes of heavy traffic on Fairview, I check two lanes left, two lanes right, look for drivers using the center turn lane as their private driving lane, watch for bicycles and joggers on the sidewalk to the left, to the right, check for cars turning from the street across the intersection, double check for cars to the left, right, bicyclists, joggers, then finally pull ou--HONK! Where?? Who’s going to hit me? Who am I going to hit? I CAN’T SEE WHAT’S WRONG!! Someone locked their car in the parking lot across the street.

"HONK" no longer means “Watch out! You’re in danger!” It means “I’m going inside now.” While being assaulted with deadly sudden noise, we’re being retrained to ignore HONKING while driving and walking. What if we need to warn someone that their life is in danger? What if someone needs to warn us that our life is in danger?

Percy Nilsson drilled holes in the tires of an ice cream truck in Sweden because he wanted to start a conversation on HONKING. The truck’s 100 HONKS per hour drove him to drill.

Just yesterday, I heard HONK, HONK, HONK--blasts from three separate drivers--as I walked the length of the Post Office building on 13th Street in Boise. The trip takes about 1½ minutes, which means an hourly HONK rate of 120: 20% more than the rate that punctured tires in Sweden.

Let’s start a conversation on HONKING in Boise before we have an epidemic of flat tires.

Let’s stop damaging the health of our neighbors and endangering the lives of other drivers and pedestrians. Let’s reprogram our car locking systems to healthy, safe silence. In a pinch, we can resort to the ancient technology on the inside of car doors and the even older one appended to the end of our arm.

Treasure Valley residents, please stop HONKING your neighbors into an early grave. Your neighbors will wave thanks using that same handy appendage.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Dusty Dog Likes Snow

After a winter of region-wide dry, warm, sunny high pressure (that trapped Boise in an icy, gloomy, cold inversion) we had snow last week. My friend Mollie’s dog, Dusty, couldn’t resist dragging his nose in the powdery fun stuff as he galloped around on our walk. He looked like an over-eager hot chocolate drinker with whipped cream on his nose.
When I stopped to take some photos in the off leash area, Dusty came back to get me.
Then he told me to keep up, so he wouldn't have to come look for me again.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Writer Overcomes Roadblocks to Bike to the Lowest Places on Earth

Jim Malusa is only able to reach escape speeds with a Patagonian breeze at his back or on the last curve down to the Gulf of Aqaba. He presents an irresistible target as he pedals to the lowest points on six continents. His book, Into Thick Air, is equally hard to pass up.

People seem to lie in wait for Jim. An Afar man who teaches English in Djibouti, an Australian family that lives in a “dust bowl shack with whip snakes in the outhouse and a pedal radio for communications,” and a Russian wedding party filling the only cafĂ© in town, all ambush him and force their hospitality, food, water pipes, and drinks on him. The drinks often contain alcohol, which both delays him and slows his progress when he finally wobbles away. Jim faces many obstacles in his travels--missing his young family, battling headwinds, and struggling up hills--but only fails at one: resisting the temptation to stop and talk. And eat. And drink.
A Jordanian family welcomes the American bicyclist passing their house. They show him every photograph they own, feed him goat soup, dress him in local clothing, entertain him with card games, and give him breakfast after he spends the night. By then, they knew each other’s stories, because, “[g]uest and host knew that they would only have this day, so they had to tell everything about themselves that day.” Jim must have used each of his nine Arabic phrases more than once during the visit.

Other characters that catch the author’s eye and impede his progress include a “four-pound rat-dog with a fogged-over eye;” a Coptic priest who is a Mr. Natural look alike; a hyena, the “slouching prince of poor posture and worse dental hygiene,” that he imagines he hears from his sleeping bag at Wadi Rum; and a Russian musician who “follows the international dress code of accordion players and appears to be from a neighboring planet.”
If you’re looking for a book on bicycle maintenance, this isn’t the book for you. On the other hand, there are useful tips: a good weld on the frame of your bike can hold from Moscow to the Caspian Sea (verified by Jim), and installing a second inner tube, and a second hole in the rim for the valve stem, will let you repair a flat without tools: just pump up the second tube (unverified).

If you want to know the best times to visit the most famous museums in the world, this isn’t the book for you. If you’re looking for a guide book to five star--no, four star-- no…OK, if you require any stars, or hot water, in your hotels, this isn’t the book for you.

If you’re looking for a fact-dense history of the areas Jim pedals through, this isn’t the book for you. On the other hand, he does provide intriguing factoids that could bolster street cred in the right circles: Henry David Thoreau endorsed celibacy, Moscow was twice burned by invaders in the 16th century, and the Las Vegas, NV Yellow Pages devoted 92 of those pages to Entertainment, Adult the day he visited.

This is biologist Jim Malusa’s first book. Several of the journeys originally appeared on Discovery Channel Online. In his quotidian life, he hasn’t strayed far from home. Jim still lives in Tucson, where he grew up and studied writing with Ed Abbey. His story telling skills are no secret in his home town: he is one of Barbara Kingsolver’s favorite writers.

My only warning is to think twice about reading Into Thick Air if those close to you already question your grip on reality. Your chuckles, guffaws, and belly laughs will confirm their suspicions.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2013 Sugar Beet Harvest Was a Challenging One

Metal dinosaurs come to life each fall across southern Idaho. Joints flex and belts whir to life at rural crossroads from Blackfoot to Nampa. Convoys of trucks unload sugar beets into the clanking creatures through the short fall days and into headlight-filled nights.

The beet dragons arrange the roots into tidy piles that demonstrate betaine physics in their angle of repose.

Trucks shoulder past each other on the narrow roads between the “beet dumps” and the fleets of harvesters in the fields.

Each harvester is attended by a bevy of trucks waiting their turn for a high horsepower, high volume pas de deux across the corduroy soil. As one truck is filled and peels off, another smoothly cuts in to take its place.
When the beet fields are empty and the dumps are full, larger trucks carry the beets, which look like sturdy, white garden beets, to processing plants. The plants extract from the lumpily pyramid-shaped roots the granulated white sugar we use in cooking. Livestock eat the high fiber beet pulp that is left.

In 2013, Idaho sugar beet growers produced record high yields, but were hit by a double whammy of low sugar content in the beets and low prices for the crop. I wrote about the challenges of this year’s harvest in a recent issue of the Intermountain Farm & Ranch section of the Idaho Falls Post Register. Growers hope that new higher-sugar beet varieties and careful management will boost sugar contents, and profits, next season.