By Hannah Heimbuch
While warm sunny weather during the first part of 2014 put smiles on many a Homer face this year, a few local businesses felt the sting of low snow cover. From peony growers to snow machine shops, a warm winter and early spring meant adapting business as usual to fit those ever changing conditions.
“It definitely wasn’t one of our busiest snow years for major unit sales on snowmobiles,” said Manager Barret Moe of Lower Peninsula Power Sports. The East End Road shop specializes in snow machines, four wheelers and other motorized sports services. While they definitely saw the effects of a light snow year in their snow machine sales, Moe said, it wasn’t always an overall negative for the business.
There are two types of snow machine buyers each season, Moe said. There’s the kind that gears up in the fall in anticipation of the season, and the kind that makes their way into the shop during a big year, looking to get out on the snowpack. While the sales to the latter were low, those early birds stayed the course.
“We started off the season pretty strong,” he said. “(But) obviously the service part of it was a lot slower.”
While maintenance services were naturally lower on a year that saw generally less machine use, repair services were actually fairly strong, he said.
The reason? Less snow, more stumbling blocks.
“More people hitting stumps,” he said. “We did more repairs than normal service.”
They also sold more four wheelers than usual, and are starting strong now into outboards and ATV sales, he said.
“It wasn’t a bad year for us, it was just definitely different,” Moe said. “We were able to catch up on old projects and update our service center to benefit us in the future.”
Snow removal businesses across Homer took a hit this year, with a warm fall and only a few major storms to bring in a need for services throughout the season. That need quickly slacked off as melting trends in January and toward the end of February left many residents of the lower peninsula looking at bare ground. Temperatures climbed to the high 50s at the end of January, breaking records around the peninsula. As faux spring spread its warmth, many a plow did not see its usual share of berm-building duties.
But those in the snow business weren’t the only ones making moves to adjust to mild weather. For Homer’s peony growers, bare ground and winter melting can mean bad news for acres of sensitive and valuable roots, waiting out the cold season under cover.
“I tell you in January I was nervous,” said Michelle LaFriniere, owner of the aptly-named Chilly Root Peony Farm, on East Skyline Drive. “Everything melted off, for everyone.”
Even across their three ridge-top fields, exposed dirt left the fragile root systems of their wintering peonies, tucked under the top soil, vulnerable to the wind and cool weather the snow usually protects them from.
“Without snow load you’ve got to have something on there to protect it,” LaFriniere said.
So she and her husband, Mike Poole, had yard upon yard of clean, washed sand hauled up the hill, and spread it out across the rows. Now that spring is here in official form, it’s time to brush the sand away, she said, and see how many of their 7,000 plants survived the winter.
“I feel good that we did as much as we could,” she said. “I think I would be feeling a lot more apprehensive right now if we had done nothing with the kind of winter we had. Because it melted down again the end of February and March.”
Exposure isn’t the only threat to the Homer flower business during mild winters. Plants also face potential rot and damage from wet freezes when early melts and slow drainage leave the root systems waterlogged.
“Peonies, they don’t like wet feet,” LaFriniere said. “Any kind of water log, they sit and they rot.”
While she and Poole don’t tend to have drainage issues on the ridge, other farmers in the Homer bench area do at times, she said.
LaFriniere expects that with an early spring will come a particularly early bloom, she said, now that she’s watching the snow at Chilly Root melt away a month earlier than last year.
“Last year it came on early, and this year it’s going to be even earlier, end of July,” she said.
A few years ago she was cutting her final blooms in October.
“But I’m not taking orders for anything after September 10 this year,” she said. “I got a letter from a major grower in the Midwest. He was saying that Holland as well as the United States are a month early in their peonies.”
With that comes a concern regarding the economic climate, LaFriniere said, as peony growers try to meet the demands of a fluctuating market — wedding season in particular — while dealing with a significantly early growing season.
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