A John Deere Publication
forklift hauling snow
Specialty / Niche   November 01, 2020

Snow Farmers

Northern Minnesota farmers turn to producing snow in the winter.

An Iowa farmer once famously believed if he built it, they would come.

Well, in Northern Minnesota, their sporting event of choice is Nordic skiing. And specifically in Mora, Minn., it is the Vasaloppet: a long-distance ski race, sister to one held annually in Mora, Sweden. 

They built up the event, and lots of people have come. Thousands of people, in fact, have come from all over, including Sweden, since it began in the 1970s.

That is until Mother Nature stopped providing reliable snow.

“About 10 years ago, the snow started getting pretty sketchy,” according to Don Olson, past president of the race’s board of directors. “We could have held the race on the original course maybe two or three times in the last 13 years.” 

And that’s a problem. High level skiers now don’t just want enough snow; they expect perfect snow.

Tom Felger and Don Olson

You can’t hold a skiing event without snow. Tom Felger (left) and Don Olson (right) make snow in the barnyard of the Vasaloppet Nordic Ski Center and then haul and spread it on the trail.

“Twenty years ago, people had a little different attitude than they do now, you know,” explains Olson, citing more expensive equipment. “Before, they could ski through stuff that wasn’t pristine. If there was a lump or a hole or a rock in the trail or cow pies, you name it, it wasn’t a big deal.”

The board of directors decided six years ago to start making snow for the event. But then the snow gun they ordered didn’t come until a few weeks before the event. 

“I said, ‘somebody figure out how to make the snow. I will get that snow out on the trail, come hell or high water!’” Olson says, remembering the stress.

Farmers to the rescue. What problem can’t be solved with a little farmer ingenuity? 

A few farmers and Vasaloppet enthusiasts dubbed themselves “Snow Farmers” and got to work. 

They brought their tractors to town and rigged up (clean) manure spreaders to haul the freshly made snow to the trail and tried to distribute it better than Mother Nature herself. 

There was one problem left. 

The spreaders were putting out more snow in the middle of the track than the edges.

modified manure spreader

In addition to being a “snow farmer” and an actual farmer, Olson is an engineer. In fact he and his sons design modern microwave popcorn packaging machines! So it is no surprise he figured out how to perfect the science of snow spreading. 

“I modified another smaller spreader by mounting a chopper box cross conveyor behind the beaters so it would push the snow out the side to make a clean edge for classic tracks,” Olson explains.

Continuous loops. The “Snow Farmers” have fine-tuned their craft and effectively revived the race. The attendance is back into the thousands for the February event from only a few hundred the year before they first made snow.

But they are more proud of what it has done for the community through the whole winter.

“Now one of the things we enjoy is that every night the high school kids come out to practice, and a few nights a week the little kids come out to do what we call a ‘fast track.’ On the weekends the parking lot is full because people are out skiing. It is no longer just one race a season,” says Olson, a bit enamored with the outcome. 

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