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Meet The Snow Farmers Who Are Rescuing Winter Sporting Events


This weekend, the town of Mora, Minn., will host one of the oldest cross-country ski races in the country. Despite a trend of warmer winters and inconsistent snowfall, the race will go on thanks to a bunch of intrepid volunteers dubbed the snow farmers. Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Skiers have raced in the Vasaloppet - about an hour and a half north of the Twin Cities - since 1973. But in the last seven years, there's only been enough natural snow to put on the full race once. Enter Don Olson.

You got room for me?

DON OLSON: Oh, yeah.

KRAKER: Olson is perched behind the wheel of a big tractor. He's 67, an engineer by day who also runs a 1,500-acre farm in the summer. In the winter, he farms snow.

OLSON: It's an undertaking that is almost crazy when you think about it.

KRAKER: Behind the tractor, he's pulling a manure spreader he jury-rigged to spray artificial snow on the ski trail. One load of snow covers about 30 feet of trail. Part-MacGyver, part-stubborn Scandinavian, Olson estimates it will take the crew of snow farmers about 1,500 loads to cover the 18-kilometer race course. That's right - 1,500 trips.

OLSON: A lot of people have worked their tails off to create this race, to keep it going. And at this point, I absolutely don't want to see this tradition die in Mora, Minn.

KRAKER: A few years ago, Olson says the race was on the verge of dying. Organizers had to cancel it in 2012 when there wasn't enough snow. In 2015, Vasaloppet USA president Debbie Morrison says they scraped together every snowflake they could find just to make a 2-kilometer loop.

DEBBIE MORRISON: But we knew from that point on, we couldn't continue to do that. We had to take matters into our own hands.

KRAKER: So the next winter, once it got cold enough, they began to make snow. Olson says they only had about three weeks to figure out how to cover the trail before the race. And Morrison says it was just in the nick of time.

MORRISON: 'Cause there has never been enough snow since. And we've been dependent on our snow farmers making the snow for us.

KRAKER: Now, every winter, they plant a ribbon of white snow through the woods at the Mora Nordic Center, even if the surrounding ground is brown. Mora High School Nordic coach Peter Larsen says that consistent snow makes a huge difference for his program.

PETER LARSEN: We have our biggest team I think the school's ever had. We had, like, 79 skiers on the roster this year from a high school that graduates just over a hundred.

KRAKER: Talk to any cross-country skier in Minnesota, and they'll say conditions have changed in recent years. In southern and central Minnesota, the only places to consistently ski are at parks that make artificial snow. Average winter temperatures in the Twin Cities have risen 6 degrees since 1970. That's one of the fastest rates of warming in the country.

But Minnesota senior climatologist Kenny Blumenfeld says climate change hasn't necessarily meant less snow. It's just less predictable.

KENNY BLUMENFELD: We're always going to have winter, so it would be kind of foolish to just get rid of the skis altogether. But I think the writing is on the wall. We've seen winter repeatedly kind of turn in a poor performance.

KRAKER: Organizers of the Vasaloppet say, eventually, they may have to install expensive snow-making equipment. But for now, they rely on the snow farmers, who refuse to let climate change and poor snow years get in the way of a skiing tradition. For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Mora, Minn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Kraker