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What winter? Michigan farmers, anglers hit hard by warm temperatures

apple tree
Apple trees have to be closely monitored to ensure that they don’t bud too early. (Photo courtesy of Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc.)
  • Milder winter, less snow throughout Michigan
  • It’s a big deal for a recreation industry that relies on colder temperatures and the white stuff
  • Fruit farmers are worried the weather could hurt their harvest

While you might be putting your heavy coat in the back of your closet this week, Michigan’s mild winter has industries that rely on the cold scrambling to adjust to warmer temperatures. 

Temperatures in southeast Michigan are expected to hit the mid-50s on Thursday, compared to an average high of about 38 degrees. It’s been a bust for snow as well: 19.3 inches this season in southeast Michigan, down from 29 inches at this time last year.


Even in the Upper Peninsula, temperatures are 7 degrees above average. 


Some are celebrating, but it’s a problem for cold-weather businesses dependent on snowy winter like ski hills and fishing — while fruit farmers are worried about their crops.

Nearly $30 billion a year is generated from outdoor winter activities unique to Michigan, according to the Great Lakes Business Network. 

“When we have a warm winter where there isn't snow in everybody's backyard or they get a big dump of snow and it all goes away, it’s not easy on the industry,” said Mickey MacWilliams, executive director for Michigan Snowsports Industries Association. 

“We have learned how to adapt to that kind of thing. Snow making has gotten so much better over the years. So that when we have warmer temperatures, as soon as it drops back down again we make snow and there’s snow on our slopes.” 

All but two of Michigan’s 39 ski resorts in Michigan make snow, MacWilliams said. The state has the second-most ski hills in the country following New York which has 52, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

“We have phenomenal snowmakers that know how to work with the temperatures and humidity to make good snow, but the difference is when people get snow in their backyard … new skiers tend to come out,” said Mary Dawson, spokesperson for Pine Knob Ski Resort.

It’s another story for ice fishing.

“I haven’t even gone this year, that's how bad it was,” said Jon Keast, 32, of  Spring Lake in Ottawa County. He said the weather was too warm and that “the lakes never really froze over unless it was very small pockets of water.” 


The U.S Coast Guard recently rescued more than a dozen people who were stranded on a sheet of floating ice along the Saginaw Bay, the agency confirmed. 

The group had been ice fishing and became stranded when the piece of ice broke. They were rescued 2 ½ nautical miles offshore near Thomas Marine.

Although ski resorts operators can work around the mild winters, fruit farmers can be hit hard by fluctuating temperatures.

“It takes a lot to bring the trees out of their deep sleep,” said Nels Veliquette, chief financial officer for Cherry KE Inc., a cherry farm in Kewadin, just north of Traverse City.

Michigan is the nation’s top producer of tart cherries and the third producer of apples, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Typically, apples and cherry trees “hibernate” during the winter and start to bud during the late spring and early summer. But if temperatures are too warm during the winter, they can start to bud too early which puts the flower at risk of freezing, when the temperature fluctuates back down. 

“When they’re just there barely asleep because it hasn’t been that cold, we can basically lose all the viable flowers before they even come on the buds,” Veliquette said. 

Warm winters now devastate crops every eight to 10 years, which is more frequent than  they did in the 1970s and 1980s, he said. 

“The bigger issue here is we also have a loss of market,” Veliquette said. “If we don’t have a fairly stable supply of cherries in our inventory for customers to purchase, then they end up purchasing other fruits, and it's hard to get back into the … store shelves.”

weather machine
These wind machines help regulate the temperature of the apple trees when they bud too early so that the apples can grow properly during harvest season. (Photo courtesy of Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc.)

Many retailers that rely on Michigan farmers to supply their stores will outsource to other states or even other countries during a bad harvest year, he told Bridge. 

Riveridge Produce Marketing in Sparta near Grand Rapids, uses various techniques to prevent a bad harvest season for its apples, said Trish Taylor, marketing manager.

“There are times in the spring where we are running wind machines … that will push the warmer pocket of air down to the trees to try to keep air temperature warm where they need to be to blossom,” she said. 

With temperatures reaching the mid 50s next week, Veliquette and Taylor both said that they will pay close attention to the trees but it is too early to predict how the trees will bud and if the season will be fruitful or not.

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