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West central Minnesota's seasonal businesses eager to get going after long winter

Larry Larson, of rural Willmar, waters tomatoes in his greenhouse. He and his wife, Mary, are about 10 days behind schedule planting vegetables that they sell at local farmers markets. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

WILLMAR — The arrival — finally — of sunshine and warmth will launch seasonal businesses into high-speed action to make up for time that was lost while the region was buried under ice and barraged with a series of late-season snowstorms.

Businesses that rely on Mother Nature have been chomping at the bit to get to work this spring but have had to rein in that energy while waiting for the big thaw.

“We’ve got a lot of work,” said Arie Tensen, from Tensen Marine in Raymond.

The family-owned business has about 60 boats in storage that will have to be serviced. He worried that starting too soon could jinx the season.

“We can’t do it now because as soon as we pull them out of storage, it’ll snow again,” said Tensen in an interview last week.

He was only halfway joking.

The company has a line-up of boats and pontoons to deliver and at least 40 docks to install. That’s not going to happen until the ice goes off the lakes, but when it does, every customer will want immediate attention.

“Everybody wants everything at the same time,” said Tensen, with a laugh.

Usually the docks would have been put in by mid-April, but last week there was still 30 inches of ice on Games Lake, he said.

The weekend blast of sun is doing damage and the ice is quickly receding.

Some businesses are feeling the time crunch.

Boxes containing thousands of onion sets arrived last week and were sitting in storage at the Larry and Mary Larson farm near Willmar. Usually those onions would have been in the ground by April 15 to be ready for the first local farmers market the first week of June.

The Larsons, who have been raising vegetables for market since 1990, usually get the first sweet corn planting in by April 15.

Connie Dickerson trudged through a snowdrift last week to get to the water slide that spent the winter on the beach of the still frozen Lake Florida, where she and her husband, Bob, run their family resort.

Typically the ice is off the lake by April 10, she said.

April is usually a time of bustling activity at the resort as the grass is raked and cabins are cleaned and water lines turned back on.

With the last big snow April 18 — followed by flurries on the 24th — it was impossible to open up the water lines to the cabins, she said. “We’ve had snow on top of snow on top of snow on top of snowdrifts.”

With the first guests set to arrive Memorial Day weekend, Dickerson said the late spring warm-up means they will put it into high gear to get the preparations completed.

“It’s the same amount of work, and now we’re going to have to do it really fast,” she said.

But she’s keeping good humor. “Can’t do anything about it anyway,” she said.

About a month ago she posed for a photo in a canoe that she and her husband pulled onto the frozen lake. She had a glass of wine in her hand and a beach umbrella. It was a good thumb-nosing exercise.

Some businesses were able to do some behind-the-scenes work while waiting for the go-ahead from Mother Nature.

The Larsons raise many vegetables in high tunnels. With a metal frame structure covered with high-strength plastic that sits on bare ground, the indoor garden has an underground water system, fans, controlled heat and floor-to-ceiling trellises.

It allows the Larsons to extend the growing season on both ends.

This year it was too cold to heat the units and begin planting on schedule. The only thing growing now is a batch of lettuce that had just poked up from the soil.

But the Larsons spent time amending the soil, laying down plastic and getting trellises installed.

Larry Larson also spent time in a smaller greenhouse carefully grafting hybrid tomato plants onto disease-resistant root stock. With careful incisions on slender stems that are held together with tiny clasps, Larson is doing surgery on hundreds of tomato plants that will later be transplanted in the high tunnels.

Larson said it’s not uncommon to have a late spring, but this one was unique because there were numerous snowstorms in April.

“Mother Nature rules,” he said, with a wide grin.

Grain farmers have wavered between joy with each snowfall that brought much needed moisture and nervousness for a delay in getting in the fields.

Recent reports from the University of Minnesota Extension Service show topsoil and subsoil moisture levels are slowly recharging, with 59 percent of the state reporting adequate topsoil moisture supplies.

Any remnant of snow vanished from fields in the weekend sun and breeze that will launch a flurry of fertilizer applications and planting activity.

Howard Pierce, who farms with his brother, sons and nephews west of New London, said “all the moisture is very much appreciated” but that as soon as it’s dry enough, farmers will be swinging into action. “Things will move pretty quick,” he said.

Pierce downplayed concerns about the late season. “It’s not late by far yet. There’s still hope,” he said. “Just have patience.”

According to a report from David Nicolai, University of Minnesota Extension crops educator, corn yields won’t suffer unless planting is delayed until late May, when yields could be cut by about 15 percent.

The Eagle Creek Golf Course in Willmar opened Friday, about three weeks behind average. The grounds are in “mint condition” now — surprisingly — are in need of rain, said Joel Jacobson, the PGA club professional.

The late season has been financially tough for all courses, said Jacobson. “I’m not going to kid anybody. We’re behind the eight-ball,” he said.

The last few days were a “big catch-up weekend for us” with people lined up with membership payments. “Everybody had a little bounce in their step,” said Jacobson.

After being in the business for 38 years, Tensen has also seen late springs before and he knows it can turn around quickly.

Intense sunshine and a good rain can break up lake ice in a week, he said. “And then everyone will want their docks done. They’ll want them done yesterday,” said Tensen.

So far Dickerson has not fielded calls from customers concerned about the late spring, but she did get a cancellation for August. The family told her they were worried it might snow in late summer in Minnesota and opted for a waterpark instead to play it safe.

All Dickerson could do was sigh.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750