Hot Flashes

How winter-dependent small businesses are fighting warm spells

Vermont got about 85 inches of snow this year, but to Gilbert Gagner, it just wasn't winter. Lake Champlain didn't freeze over until the first week in February, meaning Gagner, the owner of Martin's General Store in Highgate Springs, Vt., had only three weeks in which to outfit ice fishermen with rods, bait, and wooden shanties that he drags onto the ice. Normally, a six-week season provides 20% of his income. Now, says Gagner, "It's starting to make me nervous."

Sure, a mild winter hurts ski resorts and cold-weather tourist destinations, but it also clobbers the small business owners running the gas stations and convenience stores that keep those tourists fueled and fed. Maple syrup sap is flowing out of season, and growers are harvesting less. Some beekeepers even suspect warmer winters have contributed to the mass death of honeybees, as flowers bloom earlier and drought reduces pollen.

But even if the weather isn't particularly hardy, entrepreneurs are. Gagner plans to boost summer boat tours and guided fishing trips on Lake Champlain. Dale Enerson of the North Dakota Farmers Union says that because the state's growing season is now about 10 days longer, farmers are growing more soybeans, corn, and winter wheat. Homebuilders are also busy, with housing starts up 9.5% in February. That's one way to skate off thin ice.

Edited by Jeremy Quittner

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