Anytime the summer is hotter or cooler, drier or wetter than usual, you will see news stories about farmers, with speculation about damaged crops or losses.

Minnesota's loggers also depend on the weather, though they usually get the kind they need — cold. The colder it is, and the longer it is cold, the better it is for cutting and hauling wood.

This winter, the warmest on record for Minnesota, has been a huge challenge for them.

Most of Minnesota's timber is in lowlands and wetland forests, rather than on hills and mountains. Depending on the year, two-thirds to nearly three-fourths of timber production in Minnesota happens from December to April, when the ground is frozen.

"It's not just those species that grow in wetlands. It's the fact we often have to cross wetlands to get to upland sites," said Rick Horton, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, the trade group of mills and other wood producers. "You think of ice road truckers. We're hauling an 88,000-pound load of wood across a frozen wetland ... Without that deep cold, it's awful hard to access a number of sites."

Typically, Minnesota loggers produce about 35,000 to 40,000 cords a week in winter. This year, it's been around 25,000 to 30,000, said Jon Drimel, forest operations section manager at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"Right now, we'd be hitting our peak of woods activity," he said. "We haven't seen as much wood moving."

Instead, loggers expect an announcement any day from the Minnesota Department of Transportation that the higher trucking loads permitted on wintertime roads are done for this year, which will effectively end winter logging. After that, loads have to be lighter, meaning it takes more shipments to move a quantity of timber.

In northern Minnesota, where bigger loads are normally allowed by late November or early December, it wasn't allowed this winter until Jan. 11.

"This winter got cold late and didn't stay cold," said Ray Higgins, executive director for the Minnesota Timber Producers Association, whose members are loggers. "This year, they went out a month late and we'll have a much shorter season, maybe more than a month shorter. That hurts."

Meanwhile, the big buyers of timber, paper manufacturers and lumber mills, are looking elsewhere to maintain supplies.

Farmers tend to get a hand in extreme weather from the market. Perceptions of a crimp in yields of corn, soybeans or other crops will send prices upward.

For instance, farmer income in Minnesota in 2022, when a soggy spring gave way to drought in summer, was the second-highest on record as prices soared from supply worries. The highest was in 2012, another year of drought.

It doesn't look like Minnesota's loggers will get that kind of relief. Prices for lumber are up around 6% so far this year, at around $550 per 1,000 board feet. That's far below the pandemic-era peaks of $1,600, but above the $400 level where they hovered for much of the 2010s.

The price of lumber is now largely shaped by construction demand. New housing starts hit a post-pandemic peak in April 2022 and, as of January, were down about 25% since then. That's expected to change; interest rate cuts expected later in the year are likely to loosen pent-up demand for new building.

Some loggers have shifted production in recent weeks to sites they would normally work on in warmer weather. The tradeoff is the prospect of less work this summer. "If the summer wood has all been cut, now what?" Horton asked.

Loggers don't work in a free market. It's influenced by government agencies, and argued over by environmental groups. About half of the 17 million acres of forests in Minnesota are privately owned. About 10% is owned by the U.S Forest Service, and the rest is owned by the DNR or counties, which make their own contracts with loggers but tend to follow the state agency's guidance.

The DNR auctions to loggers the chance to work on parcels in contracts that last three years. The length gives loggers flexibility about when and how much they will work a parcel. The diversity of owners and of tree species in Minnesota helps that flexibility of supply, while also making the state's forests less susceptible to fires, the DNR's Drimel said.

Even so, loggers will be asking the DNR to extend some of those contracts to four years and possibly five, Higgins said. "Some of the counties are already doing it on the timber contracts they sell," he said.

Drimel said the DNR is looking at extreme weather along with pest infestations as it re-examines forest management. "If we expect more winters like this, if they're shorter or if we get more snow, what other kind of strategies do we need?" he asked. "There's conversations to be had. There's no easy solutions."