Mistake Monday – ALWAYS Check The Gas Gauge

Grape Harvest Law #1: Anything that can happen, will happen.

Grape Harvest Law #2: There is near perfect correlation between the worst things that can happen and the worst times at which they can happen.

Grape Harvest Law #3: Deal with it.

Grape Harvest Law #4: Repeat Laws #1 through #3 until all grapes are harvested.

Harvesting 2,192 Tons

Harvest on big ranches worked like this: the hand picking crews worked from 7AM to 5PM. Then the machine harvesters worked from 8PM to 6AM. That left 4 hours for me, each day to eat, sleep, and reload. The last employee left the ranch at 5pm, and I tried to be in my house by 6pm before returning at 8pm. Harvest was a grind, no doubt, but you generally had some breathers in there – a day or night shift where you were picking a little or not at all. But as harvest comes to a close, everybody is running on fumes, and you have these last minute sprints where it’s hard to remember if you’ve even eaten that day.

The Mission

It started on Thursday at 8PM. We had 2 machine harvesters that would each harvest 3 trucks per night and 4 – 14 person hand crews that would each harvest about 1 truck per day. That’s 10 trucks of ~22 tons each in a 24 hour cycle. Do that for a 48-hour sprint and you have 440 tons picked. For these endeavors, rhythm, pace, order, and controlling the chaos, are all required to catch falling knives.

The first 40 hours went down like a well-oiled machine; pumping out grapes like a perfect song and dance. Man it was great!!! Thursday night was great. Friday day was great. Friday night was fantastic. Saturday day was going well.

Beginning to Unravel

At 2pm on Saturday, roughly 40 hours into this cycle, I had a bin and trailer break in the field. Fortunately, the bin was empty, and we had extra trailers so replacing those were easy; EXCEPT it meant this tractor driver was now out of sequence and rhythm. To pick as fast as possible, you need one bin being filled by the crew and another empty bin ready to go behind it. It’s a little circuit. That’s the rhythm portion.

Once the tractor arrived at the loading zone, it wouldn’t shift back into drive. No clue why. Just stuck in neutral. We had zero extra tractors, which caused us to park it. That put us at 7 tractors, meaning the crews had to share tractors to stay on pace. Now the numbers of how many bins each tractor needed to pick was out of sync. My job was to make sure we picked right number of bins. Not too few, not too many, which is normally not complicated, but with 4 picking crews, that are picking at different speeds and different amounts you’ve got to figure out how to compensate.

It’s only been an hour?!

At 3pm, Crew #3 picked 10 bins and called it quits – they were over it. I implored them to stick it out and finish 1 more bin, but it wasn’t happening. Thankfully, 6 of them agreed to stay and join another crew. I also had to ensure other crews didn’t follow suit. I told all of them they would be getting a 20% bonus for the whole shift. That put a little fire under them, thankfully. Crisis averted. There was no way in hell that we would get all 44 bins picked if anybody else quit. I wasn’t even sure we were going to get 44 with everybody.

At some point, I started miscounting bins. I figured this out about 4:15pm, and I was fairly certain we picked one bin too many. As all the tractors shuttled into the loading zone, we had indeed picked 1 bin too many. Now, I don’t know if you have ever picked too many bins, but there is only one solution. Unload that bin into all the other bins by topping them a little full. This requires shovels and buckets. That’s the only way. We proceeded to shovel 4,000 lbs of grapes from the one bin, into adjacent bins.

Stumbling Across the Finish Line

Meanwhile, we are sending the full trucks off the ranch to go to the winery. But I’m well aware of moving pieces even in chaos. I knew there was one truck in particular with a few lightly filled bins that we could take off and utilize. I needed that truck. I’d given the truck driver the delivery paperwork and told him to wait while we re-situated bins. As I went back to shoveling out 4,000 lbs of grapes, 20 pounds a scoop, that truck driver put his truck in gear and started driving off. I flagged him down, and at that point he stuck his left arm out the window and used his left hand to…. flip me the bird. WTF?!?! My margin for error, literally, just drove off, AND flipped me the bird on his way out! Now we have fewer bins to spread out the extra grapes. But we filled them anyway. Quite full and by any means necessary, with plenty of anger and haste directed towards the truck driver who just told me to you know what. I’m not proud of that but well, ya do what ya do. Somehow, we managed to pick 45 bins of grapes even though we only needed 44, with exhausted crews, frazzled drivers, and everything else. That’s all that really mattered.

Trucks were loaded and sent off, crews headed out, and all the tractor drivers were going home, too. Around 5:30 PM, my best employee, Bob said, “Hey, we still need to get that broken trailer and bin out in the field.” I told him to head home. I wanted everyone to go home – they earned it. The cacophony of the day had turned into bucolic silence. The sun was setting, there was chill in the breeze, and song birds were just floating around enjoying life. All I wanted to do was go home and pass out. But, I’m a 100% kinda dude so I hopped on the forklift and headed to the very far edge of the ranch where that bin was. This is about 1/2 mile away from the loading zone.

It All Goes Up in Flames

Shoulda checked the %&*(!# gas gauge. The forklift literally started to putter out as I’m about 100 yards from the bin. It’s about 6pm now. I should be at home. This shouldn’t be happening. There’s nobody on the ranch but me. Nobody. Normally, my wife would be, but she was out of town. So it’s just me, the forklift, and a 1.2 mile walk to the gas can. Of note, my truck is right next to the gas can, which I considered a win. So I started walking. I was enjoying my walk and just day dreaming about how nice my bed would feel when I got there.

I made it to the barn and the first gas can I picked up was empty, the second was empty, in fact ALL 8 gas cans were empty. Seriously. Guess where the gas pump was? One mile away on the other side of the ranch.

A map probably helps. I was in my own Bermuda Triangle. Me and the forklift on one end, the gas can and my truck on another, and the gas pump on another.

I am only one person, so I can only move one thing at a time, and I can only move it in one direction. It’s like an evil Chinese finger trap. How can I conquer this in the least moves possible? Here was my thought process:

  1. I could walk 2 miles and use the machines to cover the remainder, but that meant I had to overlap paths.
  2. I could walk the whole triangle = 3 miles.
  3. I could walk two legs of the triangle and walk 4 miles in the process. *Spoiler alert! I didn’t pick this one.

I was running on fumes, but could at least do that math. The decision to walk 3 miles or walk 2 miles with overlapping vehicle trips – was tough. I didn’t have the brain power to play it all out so I just walked the whole 3 mile triangle. It was easier, mentally. Straight lines, one direction, one foot in front of the other.

I walked 1.2 miles to get the gas can. Realized they were empty. I then walked 1.1 miles to the gas tank to fill the gas can. Next, I walked 1.0 miles back to the forklift to fill the forklift with gas. Then, I drove the forklift with the bin back to the loading zone to drop off the bin. Drove the forklift back to the barn and put that on the trailer. Then, I walked in the backdoor of the house. It was 8:14pm. I took off my clothes as I walked to the bedroom, lay on the top of the bed, and didn’t wake up until 2pm the next day.

Grape Harvest Law #5: Always check gas gauges, especially if you’re the only human on a 600-acre property.