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Helmut Schmidt, Published April 12 2013

Cold, snowy and stressful: Spring’s late start beginning to put bite on wallets

Detroit Lakes, Minn. - Dan Berg looked out over the lingering snowdrifts at his Lakecrest Resort last week and wondered if northern Minnesota and Alaska flipped climates.

“Last year was soooo nice,” Berg said. “Crazy!”

Normally, Berg is getting the 17 cabins cleaned and the water turned on this time of year.

“Last year at this time, we had docks in the lake and boats in the water,” he said.

This year, there’s 30 inches of ice on the lake, and he walks out on its slushy surface without concern.

Berg is president of the Minnesota Resort and Campground Association. Bookings are steady, but the spring rush hasn’t hit yet, he said.

“They’re (customers) still thinking about shoveling snow and driving on ice,” he said.

The housekeepers arrive Monday, the 52-year-old said, but snowdrifts are still 3 feet high between the cabins.

There’s stress in the north woods. Will the lucrative tourist season be compressed? Will lakes be clear for the walleye fishing opener May 11?

“I think everyone is in the same boat. Wait and see,” he said.

Whether you sell bait or boats, grow plants or build bridges, a lot of livelihoods are on the line with the slow start to spring in the region.

For many, the cold is a pain in the posterior. But for others, watching snow fall is like watching their bank balances drop.

Anxious to work

Donn Diederich, executive vice president of Fargo’s Industrial Builders, said the long winter/late spring is delaying the start of the road and bridge construction season.

Load limits will probably last longer, limiting the use of heavy equipment and dump trucks, he said.

“We’re not getting a lot done. I’ve got some people out in Montana and Wyoming that are out there trying to get some work started and they’re all sitting in their hotel rooms,” Diederich said. “And I’ve got some people in Vermillion, South Dakota, that canceled the job yesterday for the rest of the week. We had 25 people down there that came home.

“To say that anything has started in the Red River Valley is obviously not true. There’s very little of anything that people have said they wanted to start.”

For many construction workers, unemployment benefits that help them get through the winter are starting to run out, Diederich said.

“They definitely are anxious to get back to work,” he said. “Hopefully they can survive and get to the point where we can start making money again.”

Industrial Builders is finishing work on an expansion at the Cargill seed processing plant in West Fargo, and building a river bridge north of Valley City, N.D., Diederich said.

He said asphalt and paving firms have about 20 weeks of weather that‘s warm enough to work.

“They definitely have not started. And those that have gone to different places in the tri-state area to find a place to get started, like western North Dakota, or western South Dakota, I’m afraid that isn’t going very well either,” Diederich said. “Rapid City (S.D.) can usually start working early, but I’m afraid this week they got 24 inches of snow, so it might be awhile.”

Rough for livestock

For the region’s ranchers, the cold, wet snow and freezing rain came at the worst time – calving and lambing season, said Greg Lardy, who heads the Animal Science Department at North Dakota State University.

It takes more feed to give adult animals enough energy to keep warm, he said, and the weather is especially hard on newborn calves and lambs, which don’t have the fat reserves to handle harsh temperatures.

“If they’re calving and lambing, you’re expecting temperatures in the low 50s. This is a much different climate, Lardy said.

For farmers in the region, the average start for planting and fieldwork is April 20, said Cass County Extension Agent John Kringler.

Kringler said cereal grains such as wheat and barley could be affected by a shorter growing season, as could corn.

Sugar beets won’t be badly affected by a cool start, he said. And soybeans, dry edible beans and sunflowers are usually planted later in the season.

Can you dig it? Nope

At Fargo’s S&S Landscaping, the phones are ringing as people try to get quotes for work.

S&S is working on some site plans, and will set up the firm’s nursery greenhouse next week, but “it’s tough to evaluate a project under snow,” said project manager Dave Liquin said.

Outdoor work normally starts by April 15. That’s now out to April 29 or later, he said.

“Frost is still in the ground,” Liquin said. “So there’s not a lot of landscaping we can do.”

A growing concern

The ball is already rolling on the production side at Baker Nursery Garden and Gift in Fargo, owner Eric Baker said.

The seeds for this season are already planted.

“There’s no way to stop them from growing,” Baker said.

“Sales are down. They’re not down substantially, but gosh, every day that goes by, the closer we get to spring,” Baker said. “People are not in the mindset (to work the soil). They haven’t seen the green grass.”

He is also trying to pick shipping dates for supplies. He only has so much space to store plants and other products.

“Everyone else is doing what I’m doing, holding off,” Baker said. “There’s only so many docks and so many trucks a day. This happened to us the last time we had a late spring.

“Am I worried? Kind of. Realistically, it always seems to work out. But the nice thing about it is, when people wait” there is less worry about late frost, he said.

This cold isn’t a treat

Pat Gores owns Pat’s Treats, which operates three ice cream trucks in the Fargo-Moorhead area from mid-April to mid-October.

“I have two of my trucks buried in some snow piles,” Gores said. “They’re on the side of some sheds that don’t get direct sunlight.”

For his business to do well, he needs at least 60 degrees and clear skies.

“Last year, we only lost about five days the whole season due to weather,” he said. “I think this year is going to be different. I don’t think sandbaggers eat much ice cream.”

It’s the early and late-season days that produce the best ice cream sales. His trucks can bring in $1,000 a day, he said.

He hopes to start hawking ice cream by the end of April, but he’s got his doubts.

“It’s just hard for anybody to focus on fun things in the spring when we have galoshes on and we’re placing sandbags,” Gores said.

No knees in the breeze

A few hardy motorcyclists hit Fargo-Moorhead roads last week, but the latest round of snow put the brakes on that.

Zach Peterson, general manager of Legendary Indian Triumph of Fargo, is pulling for a tune-up in the weather.

When he saw snowflakes hitting the ground Thursday, he thought things “definitely could be going the other direction.”

Still, Peterson figures “it will give people more of an itch when (good weather) comes. They had to wait a little longer. Everybody’s ready to ride after a year like last year.”

Got an icebreaker?

Boat sales have done well, despite the weather. People have taken to shopping at the winter boat shows, said Jim Piekarsky, who’s worked for 41 years at J&K Marine in Detroit Lakes.

The showroom was quiet earlier this week, but there was plenty of action in the yard, as a string of pontoon boats were mounted onto trailers.

Piekarsky expects a hectic start to the season. About 1,500 to 1,700 boats are in storage or have been sold and must be readied for pickup, he said. That doesn’t include boats that need repairs or tune-ups.

He hopes the wet weather will do at least one positive thing: recharge area lakes. Some dropped 2 feet in the last year.

“Spring will come, it always does,” Piekarsky said.

Betting on ice-out

At Main Street Restaurant in Detroit Lakes, the 10 O’Clock Coffee Club is keeping an eye on Big and Little Detroit lakes for their annual ice-out contest.

“This is high stakes. We each put a dollar in,” Ron Zeman declared. “A lot of us wish we had another chance to change our date.”

Last year, the ice was gone March 24. This year, a lot of the competitors have fallen by the wayside.

The coffee club was formed just after World War II, and they’ve got the contest down to a science, Bill Briggs said. Each day is subdivided into three eight-hour blocks

Zeman has April 26. Briggs has April 27. But a couple of club members have May 7. Given the weather, they could be the favorites.

LeRoy Squires, a coffee club member, said his maple syrup collection is decidedly slow. He’s tapped about 20 trees so far, with no results.

Usually by Easter, he’s boiled enough sap to take a jar of maple syrup to his neighbors and his coffee club buddies.

“I’ve checked my buckets, but no sap at all,” he said.

Worries for the opener

Customers were scarce on Wednesday at Quality Bait and Tackle a few blocks from Little Detroit Lake.

“We’re not getting the pan fishing in,” said Glenda Store, who owns and operates the shop with her husband. “A lot of guys, their boats are still in storage. There’s too much snow in front of the doors.”

She said Little Detroit had 8 inches of slushy ice on top, and 20 inches of hard ice beneath that.

“This cold could have an effect on the (state fishing) opener. Everything depends on (water) temperature,” she said. Walleye and northern pike, bass and crappies spawn as the water warms and the shiners they eat start to run.

‘Snow, snow, snow’

Meanwhile at Lakecrest Resort, Berg isn’t twiddling his thumbs. He’s been cranking away at his other job, selling boat docks and lifts.

He’s been assembling aluminum docks on a rise in the woods away from the cabins. He’s nearly out of storage room due to snowdrifts.

“And I can’t deliver them for the snow,” he said. “Snow. Snow. Snow. Slows us down.”

Berg said it’s time for spring.

“Enough is enough. It’s been seven months (since the first snowfall). I think we deserve … a break,” Berg said.

“I saw a flock of robins the other day … I thought that was good news. Then I thought, maybe they’re just dumb.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583