A Salty Business

Local Companies Struggle With Supplier Shortages

Posted: March 4, 2014

Dustin Wilkins, assistant manager at Rocking R Ace Hardware in Harrisonburg, loads salt onto a truck for a customer during Monday's storm. (Photo by Nikki Fox /DN-R)
Rick Wilson, custodian with First Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, runs the snowblower on the sidewalk early Monday. (Photo by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)
Thom Metroka, owner and operator of the Artful Dodger in Harrisonburg, clears the sidewalk in front of the building’s mural on West Market Street on Monday. Facing increased demand, local businesses have had to reach out to salt companies beyond their normal range to try to stay ahead of the weather. (Photo by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)

HARRISONBURG — Winter weather tends to grind most commerce to a halt, but you better bundle up if you’re in the salt business.

Hot commodities during this unusually frigid winter are rock salt and ice melt, and suppliers in the Valley have struggled to maintain inventory as municipalities and contractors try to get their hands on as much product as possible.

This week’s wintry blast — which dumped up to 7 inches of snow in the Harrisonburg area Monday — is just the latest in a string of record snowstorms and cold snaps that have hammered the Midwest and eastern U.S.

Businesses that deal in salt and ice melt have found it difficult or impossible to find suppliers of the materials so critical to ensuring travel safety.

According to a study by Marquette University, road salt decreases crashes by 88 percent and injuries and accident costs by 85 percent apiece.

Facing increased demand, local businesses have had to reach out to salt companies well beyond their normal range to try to stay ahead of the weather.

Orville Smoot, president and general manager of Valley Fertilizer and Chemical Co., said part of the issue is that the weather hamstrung salt mining operations.

The Mount Jackson-based company distributes salt, which comes from mines in Detroit and New York, Smoot said.

Salt sales this year are up about one-third compared to a normal winter, he said.

“At the present time, I’m completely out,” he said Monday as the snow fell. “We were good up until this time right now.”

Rocking R Ace Hardware on South High Street in Harrisonburg, which deals in retail and wholesale, has had sales two to three times what it does in an average year.

And it could have sold even more, had it been able to find adequate supplies to meet the demand.

Rocking R waited just under two months for an order placed on Jan. 6, which arrived last week.

“It’s been kind of tough getting salt right now,” store manager Bill Freeman said.

Scott Lanier, assistant store manager of the Home Depot, said the store at Harrisonburg Crossing has been out of rock salt for a while, but customers were still coming in to buy shovels on Sunday, despite Monday’s storm coming on the heels of several others.

“I think people lose their snow shovels after each storm,” he joked.

Kurt Fellenstein¸ president of Trinity Turf in Weyers Cave, said he ordered salt from as far away as Utah, resulting in freight costs as high as the actual product.

“There was about a month ... where that was the only place we could get product from,” he said.

When salt and ice melt are so hard to come by, stock doesn’t stay on the shelves for long, Fellenstein said.

“It’s been a record year to say the least,” he said. “We’ve sold more ice melt this year than probably the last four or five years combined.”

Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or jhunt@dnronline.com

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