Keep the home fires burning? Get out your wallet, and dig deep.
Toni Powling

Keep the home fires burning? Get out your wallet, and dig deep.

High fuel costs and a labor shortage add up to sticker shock for homeowners who heat with wood

As the mercury starts dropping with the shift from summer to fall, the heating season is bringing stress to a number of people this year, including one single mother in Brattleboro.

“It has been almost unbearable not to be able to heat my home. It's actually terrifying,” says Candy Anne, who requested that her last name be withheld because of the sensitivity of her situation.

Candy Anne heats her home primarily with wood, though she does have an oil backup. Her difficulty in obtaining wood began last winter when the person from whom she had been purchasing her two cords per heating season didn't deliver her order during the summer as he always had.

“I've never gone without wood before. I've been ordering two cords from this guy for 20 years,” she says.

And then, in 2021, things “went a bit awry,” Candy Anne continues.

“I ordered early and called several times, and he kept saying that he was coming,” she says. Eventually, by the end of September, her vendor delivered the wood.

“Generally, I've paid about $200 a cord, but he had already told me that it was going to be $245 a cord, and I had agreed to that price. He always has delivered dry wood on time.”

But when the wood man finally arrived at Anne's home, he asked her for $275 instead of the agreed upon price.

“I put the amount we agreed in his hand after he dumped the load, and he accepted it. After he left, I discovered that the wood was moldy. It turned out to be very difficult to burn.”

This year when Anne called, he didn't answer her calls, or he hung up when he realized it was her. When she comprehended that he wasn't going to come through with her delivery this year, she called as many firewood dealers as she could find - about 10 of them.

Eventually, one of them called her back.

“It was a local company. They were quite easy to communicate with and they told me the price and said they'd deliver within a few weeks. I kept in touch,” Candy Anne says.

“Weeks passed and they said they were busy, but not to worry, the wood was coming,” she says. “That turned out to be irksome because if I'd known what was going to happen next, I would have contacted someone else.”

Only days ago, the new supplier called Candy Anne. She received a muddled excuse.

“They said they were too busy to deliver my wood and asked me if I knew anyone who they could hire. If I could give them a name, then maybe I would get my wood. They also told me that the price had gone up since we had first spoken.”

After waiting and counting on this wood distributor, Candy Anne was annoyed.

“It's not my job to find them employees. They became irritable with me, and now I can't find any wood to buy,” she says.

In the end, Candy Anne was told that if they couldn't find anyone to pick it up, they wouldn't deliver her wood. And now, as the temperature is dropping, she still doesn't have the two cords she needs to heat her home.

Candy Anne is also suffering from long Covid, asthma, and a compromised immune system. She's been ill for over a year now and unable to work outside the home for some time. She also cares for a grown child with health issues.

And now adding to all of this, she doesn't have any wood coming. She can't afford to heat with only oil this winter.

“Why isn't there enough firewood for sale in the area this year?” she asks.

Harder to get

Toni Chapul Powling, who, with her husband Calvin C. Powling Jr., sells firewood from their woodlot in Newfane, says the answer to Candy Anne's question is complicated.

Powling agrees that getting wood this year is harder than it's been in the past. She considers theirs a small operation, selling between 500 and 600 cords of wood a year.

“We've been selling firewood for a long time. Way back in 1975, we'd sell a cord of dry hardwood for $40. That price included the wood being cut, delivered, and even stacked,” she says with a smile. “And that was good money, then.” (Estimates vary: Depending on the figures used, $40 in 1975 would be worth $225 to $550 in today's dollars.)

Those days are long gone. Now, Powling delivers a load of hardwood for around $250 per cord, depending on where it is going, “and I'm not making much money,” she says.


According to Powling, the costs have been driven up significantly by the price of gasoline.

“I use diesel for my truck. There was a time, not too long ago, when the price of diesel was close to $6 per gallon,” she says with amazement. “When the price goes up, the price of wood has to go up with it.”

Powling notes that diesel is just one piece of the puzzle.

“We own a family business. I've been selling firewood for many years, but my husband has been doing it his whole life. Calvin grew up in Marlboro, and he's a third-generation logger. Now our son is working with him.”

Powling drives to the area where her husband and son are logging. They pull out the firewood and take the logs to the mill. She and a helper process the wood, cutting, splitting, and throwing it in the truck for delivery.

“There is a labor shortage. It's hard work, and I can't find anybody who wants to work with me. It's time consuming because I'm splitting the wood, getting it on the truck, and running deliveries,” she says.

“I've increased the hourly wage, and we still can't hire enough people,” Powling says.

Other prices have gone up as well.

“It's fuel for the skidders, the chainsaw oil, the splitters. The cost of hydraulic fluid has gone way up. Power-saw chains have doubled in price. Everything is costing us more, so we must keep raising the price of the wood,” Powling says. “I hate to say it, but we've contemplated raising prices again.”

“It's very hard for me to raise the price,” she continues. “A lot of my customers are on a fixed income, and many of them are elderly. We've been providing wood for these people for 40-plus years.”

“It's just hard - you know they are struggling, and we think of these people as family,” Powling says with a sigh. “I'm not making much as it is, but I do try to help the elderly out.”

Powling changed her answering machine message a few months back to include the fact that says she is no longer accepting new customers.

“Sometimes people leave their name and number anyway, and I erase those messages right away,” she says.

“I am very soft hearted. My husband is the same way,” Powling says. “I feel badly. I know people are struggling.”

But, she says, “I must make sure my regular customers have the wood they need, and I don't make promises I can't keep.”

She says they are hanging tough - unlike some other local distributers, including at least one in Jamaica and one in Guilford, who have gotten out of the business as the profit margin shrinks.

Each of those two businesses sold about 1,500 cords of wood. That means that this fall, their former customers are trying to find 3,000 cords of wood from other sources in the region.

One of those other sources is Connor Hamilton of West Brattleboro, who has been cutting firewood “since I could hold a chainsaw in my hand around the age of 12.”

He thinks the difficulty in finding dry firewood this year is a version of supply and demand.

“It's getting harder and harder to find wood,” Hamilton says. “But it's not the wood itself, it's the loggers.”

He attributes an increase in the demand for pulp for paper as the reason he can't get wood to cut for his customers.

“A lot of my local suppliers are sending wood up north because they can get three times the price, and of course, a lot of us wood dealers use the same loggers,” he says.

Hamilton says that big companies, such as Sylvamo, a subsidiary of International Paper, can afford to pay whatever they need to keep up their inventory, so more money can be made from pulp than firewood.

Complicating the situation, the Androscoggin Paper Mill in Jay, Maine, suffered an explosion in 2020. The company announced in recent days that the mill will close permanently, spiking even more demand for paper pulp, which means even less firewood being available.

“The last 12 years, the cost of firewood has had to increase every year. If I have the supply, I can do between 350 and 400 cords a year,” says Hamilton.

“I am glad people are talking about the problem, because I think the state is going to need to help us find a solution,” he says. “People need wood to stay warm, and it's getting harder to fill the orders.”

Help is available

The state keeps statistics on home heating in Vermont. According to a report on the website of the state Agency of Natural Resources' Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, “4 percent of Vermont households report[ed] 'pleasure burning' of cordwood in an open fireplace during the 2018-19 heating season.”

That year, “Overall, 39 percent of Vermont households, an estimated 101,841 homes, report[ed] burning cordwood for at least one purpose in 2019,” the study added.

Vermont has set a long-term goal of “meeting 90 percent of the state's total energy needs from renewables by 2050.” In a report for the state, the Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC) reported that “heating with cordwood or pellet stoves provides homeowners a lot of flexibility to burn more wood and less oil and propane when the price of oil or propane spike.”

If you need fuel assistance, with either heating fuel or wood, Southern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), based in Westminster, has some advice.

Pat Burke, SEVCA's head of family services, recommends applying for seasonal fuel assistance through the state before you seek help from the nonprofit.

“To be eligible for state assistance, your household income must be equal to or less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level,” says Burke.

A chart and telephone number to call can be found at

“The first thing we're going to ask you is if you've applied for assistance through the state, so please do that first,” she advises.

For those who have already applied for state assistance, SEVCA offers its Crisis Fuel & Utility Assistance program.

“The crisis fuel program starts the Monday after Thanksgiving,” says Burke. “I would also suggest that people call us and ask about weatherization. We come out to your home and make sure that it is well insulated so that you don't lose heat,” she says. “We'll help you tighten up your home. That will assist with the fuel bill as well.”

Burke advises calling the SEVCA Family Services person in your town.

“We'll help you figure out what can be done,” she says. “We fill the gaps that way.”

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