Harsh Spring Hurts Farmers, Businesses, Sun Lovers

This is not the spring to be selling gardening supplies, beer at a baseball park or renting bicycles in the upper Midwest. The weather has been unusually cold, wet and raw. And that's kept many who would be buying at home, and it's hurting the bottom line of many businesses.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

At the northern end of the Mississippi River, some farmers are still waiting for their fields to dry out so they can plant crops. It's been unusually wet and cold in much of the Midwest. Some say they're still waiting for spring, and thats affecting, not just farmers, the weather is keeping gardeners, golfers and others inside - which is having an effect on the businesses that sell to them.

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NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: Chicagoan Sue Dewan is searching through the flats inside the greenhouse at Meinke's Garden Center, and she's searching with a purpose.

Ms. SUE DEWAN: I'm here to buy all kinds of flowers. I'm buying impatiens and I'm buying hanging baskets. And...

SCHAPER: It's mostly been a cold, blustery, wet, and raw spring here in Chicago and in the rest of the upper Midwest. And Dewan is growing impatient - and not the flower, but about getting outside.

Ms. DEWAN: Well, I've put off my gardening. So now I kind of want to get something going. So it's frustrating.

SCHAPER: You've been eager?

Ms. DEWAN: Yes, very eager.

SCHAPER: And anxious?

Ms. DEWAN: It's been a hard winter so I am very eager for some warm weather, some color, in my garden.

SCHAPER: Even more eager to get the cash registers ringing is Jim Meinke, one of the family owners of this flower and garden shop that his father started more that 40 years ago.

Mr. JIM MEINKE (Flower and garden shop owner): It's a slow spring, yeah, it's really hurt the business quite a bit. You know, April, we've lost a lot of sales in April and then certain things like the spring crops, like pansies, we're not sure if we're going to be able to sell those too well later on 'cause they prefer cooler weather.

SCHAPER: Now Meinke is worried he'll be stuck with all those pansies as May continues to be unseasonably cool and wet.

Mr. MEINKE: You need to sell product to make space to plant new things and we don't have that. And then, you know, we had to bring things inside that really can't take the cold.

SCHAPER: The weather on the weekends, usually the best days for business, has been particularly bad lately and it's not just the small, independent garden centers like Meinke's that are suffering as a result. Big home improvement retailer Lowe's is reporting poorer than expected earnings in the first quarter, in part because of slower sales of seasonal items, such as garden tools, hoses and plants, primarily in the Midwest.

Mr. GARY SCHNITKEY (Economist, Professor of Farm management, University of Illinois): I would rank this in the two or three worst springs in this decade.

SCHAPER: Gary Schnitkey is an economist and professor of farm management to the University of Illinois, and says this late, wet spring has prevented many farmers from being able to plant their crops, especially corn, until just recently.

Mr. SCHNITKEY: Just to give you an example, last week - as of the end of last week, we had 69 percent of the corn planted and that compares with 96 percent a year ago.

SCHAPER: Schnitkey it's been so wet in parts of Ohio and Indiana, southern Illinois and Missouri that some fields may never dry out in time for sowing this year's crops. And this late planting could lead to lower yields at a time when supplies of corn globally are tight. The good news is that corn and soybean prices are up quite a bit over last year.

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SCHAPER: The Midwest's golf courses, too, report that business is down this wet and chilly spring.

Mr. JEROME ZACHARIA (Retired Golfer): If you're a golfer, sometimes you dream about it. And you're dreaming and you look outside and it's snowing; you know, and it really hurts.

SCHAPER: At public course in Chicago, retiree Jerome Zacharia says Tuesday's temperatures in the 50s seem balmy compared to conditions just a day earlier.

Mr. ZACHARIA: The wind was blowing so hard and it was so cold that one of the guys wanted to turn around.

SCHAPER: Zacharia says he'd normally golf three or four times a week, but is way off that pace so far this year. But he's optimistic the worst of this brutal spring is behind us and that the weather will finally begin to improve. The forecast for this weekend calls for some sun and temperatures in the 70s.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

INSKEEP: Oh, you could go on and play golf. I don't think the worst is going to come down for quite some time yet. So the wet weather is affecting everyone from Midwestern gardeners to the oyster industry near the Gulf of Mexico. All that freshwater moving down the Mississippi is expected to enter the salty waters of the Mississippi sound. And oysters, which are stationary species, do not thrive in fresh water.

Scott Gordon, director of the Shellfish Bureau Office of Marine Fisheries predicts there will be 100 percent mortality of oysters. The soonest they can be reestablished, he says, is in August of this year in time for a harvest in 2013.

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