John Diepersloot
Gary Kazanjian  /  AP
John Diepersloot looks over his orchard with a hail cannon behind him at his ranch in Kingsburg, Calif., which uses loud sound to shatter hail before the ice chunks can pockmark fruit apples, peaches, plums and pears. California citrus growers waged a losing battle over the weekend to save their crops from a three-day freeze.
By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 1/12/2007 5:47:39 PM ET 2007-01-12T22:47:39

With air freezing this year's citrus crop in California and summer-like weather in the Northeast, this winter has been breaking temperature records — of both extremes — across the country. It’s also creating havoc for businesses.

In California’s San Joaquin Valley, farmers waged a losing battle last weekend against three nights of freezing temperatures, using huge fans to circualte warm air. But initial tallies estimate that as much as three-fourths of the a $1 billion crop of oranges, tangerines and lemons, exceeding the $700 million loss from a 1998 freeze.

So far, the overall the impact on the U.S. economy has been relatively muted. Losses suffered by farmers or the ski industry have been offset by big energy savings from lower heating bills in cold-weather states. The loss of California's citrus crop could nudge food prices higher, but the overall impact on consumer's pocketbooks would be negligible.

“It’s usually is a wash at the national level — unless it’s a horrific weather event like Hurricane Katrina,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at Global Insight. "You almost can't see it in the national statistics."  

But those overall averages don’t tell the story of the countless businesses from Maine to California that have been scrambling to head off losses — or take advantage of unseasonable opportunities — caused by this winter’s weird weather. Snow-deprived ski resorts are California citrus growers are already paying a heavy price.

California farmers aren’t the only ones worried about their crops. Unusually warm weather in upstate New York has farmers there worried that apple trees, grape vines and strawberry plants could be confused into thinking spring has arrived early.

"There is a lot of concern, especially with fruit growers, that trees might start to bud way before their time," said New York Farm Bureau spokesman Peter Gregg. "If that happens, it makes them vulnerable to a freeze."

In the Catskill mountains, beekeeper Carol Clement’s bees have been buzzing so much she’s afraid their honey stores won't last through winter, so she’s given them some sugar to tide them over. Maple syrup producers are considering putting their taps in weeks earlier than usual to catch sap that doesn’t usually start rising until March.

Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this week that last year was the warmest in the U.S. since record keeping began 112 years ago, due in large part to an unusually warm December. Part of the cause of the unusual weather is a so-called El Nino condition that involves a periodic warming of Pacific Ocean waters near the equator. But ongoing climate change is also a factor, according to government forecasters.

"It is unclear how much of the recent anomalous warmth was due to greenhouse-gas-induced warming and how much was due to the El Nino-related circulation pattern," said NOAA.

In the Northeast, where temperatures soared into the 70s this month, the multibillion-dollar ski industry has been struggling to attract customers. The Mountain Creek ski resort in Vernon, N.J., had to postpone its opening into mid-December. Since then, they’ve had a tough time making the snow that Mother Nature so far has failed to provide.

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“We were able to make it 15 days into the season,” said Greg Peck, vice president of  operations for the resort. “Then starting the first of the year after a few rain storms, it made it very challenging to operate in the month of January. “

Other traditional cold weather destinations are also feeling the financial heat. The Upper Peninsula town of Big Bay, Mich. — a popular snowmobile destination with a half-dozen motels, a bar and two stores — is still waiting for the snow.

"The weather is having a severe impact on the economic situation in Big Bay (and) the entire Upper Peninsula," said Dana DeMay, owner of the Thunder Bay Inn.

While typically snowy travel destinations remain bare, many in the West have more than enough cover, after back-to-back blizzards dumped dozens of feet of snow. At Ski.com, call volume is up 20 percent so far in January — with much of that coming from the vacation shoppers from the East Coast, Northeast and Midwest, said Mark Uhlfelder, vice president for the ski tour operator.

“We always think of the Caribbean as our competitor in terms of the travelers' vacation dollar,” he said. “If it's balmy in the East, which it has been, then they're going to make the choice to come to a winter type of place, whereas if you have icy cold weather and it's been very wintry, generally East Coasters want to go to a beach."

Other businesses, from construction contractors to northern state golf courses, are getting a surprise economic boost from the milder-than-normal weather. Last month’s employment figures were stronger than expected for the construction industry, as the warm weather helped give the industry a boost and ease the impact of the housing slump.

The milder temperatures have helped the construction industry in three ways, according to Bill Fairchild, Chairman-elect of the Associated Builders and Contractors.

“First, we've been able to get the projects delivered quicker,” he said. “Secondly, we saved some money for our clients because we’re not having to spend money on winter conditions, temporary heating, tenting, things like that. And we've been able to keep our work force steadily employed."

Golf courses are among the beneficiaries of the warped weather. The Milwaukee County park system kept six of its golf courses open through the new year, compared with two last winter, and business has been brisk, according to operations manager Brian Zimmerman. Willie Smith, head pro at Carroll Park Golf Course in west Baltimore, said the weather was good for business at the course, where about 100 players were out at noon on a Wednesday earlier this month

"I got a half-full parking lot, so we're doing pretty good — because of the weather," he said.

In Middlefield, Ohio, about 30 miles east of Cleveland, ice dealer Mike Yoder booked December deliveries of about 360,000 pounds of ice to Amish customers who don’t use electricity to keep perishable food — compared with about 90,000 pounds for the month last year.

For consumers, the impact of a thermometer gone wild is also mixed. Much like the joke about the economist with one hand on the stove and the other in an ice bucket; on average, it feels OK. But a lot depends on what kind of products you consume.

Even if crop damage in California and elsewhere pushed food prices higher, those added costs would be offset by savings in other areas; drivers are getting a break at the gas pumps, and homeowners in cold-weather states are seeing big savings on heating bills.

When all the numbers are added up, said Behravesh, some consumers may find they’ve come out ahead.

“The good news is that a lot of people were worried that high gasoline and fuel bills would hurt low income people and now we’ve got the offset," he said. "The pain is a lot less than we all thought it would be and there may even be a little bit of a boost for spending."

State, county local budgets are also getting thrown for a loop by the weather. Snowless cold-weather cities and towns are saving a bundle on snow removal, as plows remain garaged, salt-spreaders idled and highway workers log little overtime. IN Waterbury, Conn., the public works department has saved more than a half million dollars so far this season. School officials there also expect to same about the same amount on natural gas heating bills.

Officials at Denver International Airport, on the other hand, have told the city that they’ll need millions of dollars of additional funding to cover the cost of plowing out from back-to-back storms that closed the airport for two days. The airport, which is owned by the City and County of Denver, lost millions more in revenues from concessions at the terminal and landing fees from cancelled flights. A state of emergency declared by the White House for the Dec. 18-22 storms will make federal funding available to Denver and 12 other Colorado counties.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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