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How a Vermont landscaping business is adjusting to the highest inflation in four decades

a photo of a garden along a grassy stretch
U.S. Public Domain
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Winding Roads Landscaping is a small, family-owned business in Franklin County that has been hit hard by record-high inflation.

Inflation in the U.S. is the highest it’s been in four decades, and consumers are paying the price with hikes in everything from grocery staples like eggs, cheese and beef to gasoline

Fuel to fill the gas tank has been hovering around $5 a gallon. And diesel prices are averaging more than $6 a gallon. The high prices are tough on everyone, but business owners who rely on travel and fuel-operated vehicles for their livelihood are particularly feeling the squeeze.

Rob Burns is the owner of Winding Roads Landscaping in East Fairfield, Vermont. He shares how his family-owned business has been adjusting to these rising costs.

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Rob Burns. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: You know, as a landscaper, I'm thinking you must burn through a lot of fuel in a week, let's say traveling to different sites using a lot of different equipment to provide lawn care. How often do you find yourself filling up at the tank? And what is it costing you these days?

Rob Burns: Well, usually, we're filling up the mowers once a day, and the truck we're filling up about every other day. And last year, if you want comparisons, I was probably paying $30 to fill up the mowers. This year, closer to $60. The trucks, I've got a diesel truck, so last year I was paying about $60 to fill it up. This year, well over $120 to fill it up. So we're doing about $500 a week.

Everything's doubled for you basically, it sounds like.

Literally it has, yeah.

More from Vermont Public: Record-high fuel prices came at a bad time for Vermont farmers. But milk prices are up

Well, how has this then affected your business? I mean, have you had to raise rates for customers? 

We have raised some rates, we haven't raised them all. Some are like in an inflation kind of clause, where they don't need to be raised, but lots of them had, you know, some of them as little as like $250 per month. I've raised the rates hourly, and then with other things being expensive, too, we had to take that into account as well. So yeah, customers have been feeling that as well.

Well, how are they reacting? I'm hoping that maybe client loyalty is keeping them from canceling their businesses with you? Or are they just not able to keep up with the increased rates?

Client loyalty has been huge. All these customers, most of them, have been with me for a long time. And they seem to understand, so there has been no back-and-forth or nobody's been, you know, screaming at me because of the rates or anything like that. So they've been good.

a man with a light blue button shirt, hat and sunglasses sitting next to a woman with a red and white striped shirt.
Aleta Burns, Courtesy
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Rob and Holly Burns are co-owners of Winding Roads Landscaping in East Fairfield. Record-high inflation has doubled costs for their small, family-owned business.

I'm glad to hear that. You're a small family-owned business. I understand that your wife helps out with the business, too. You've got some kids to take care of, and how is this record-high inflation impacting your family?

Well, I can tell you this, it's been a lot busier year. We decided to take on more work this year. So we don't get as much family time. That's really what it's come down to, you know, we're home maybe one full day throughout the week now. So we could take on that more work to supplement lost income. So that's really the big thing. And we do have a teenage son, so he's been able to help us out this year, too. So that's been good.

I am sure that you would rather just concentrate on your business and doing what you do. I'm just wondering if there's anything that you'd like to see done to help relieve some of this pressure? I mean, there's talk of President Biden implementing a temporary suspension of the gas tax, he's reportedly also going to ask states to suspend their gas taxes for a time. Do you think any measures like that would help you out at all?

They would help, you know, a little bit. Being a family business, we're small-scale, so we don't have like 10 trucks to fill up and stuff like that. So it would help a little. We're not crying poverty. And I really have mixed feelings about stopping the gas tax as well, just because I know, we need that for income for the government as well.

So, yeah, that money goes to help with road repair, and all sorts of things that are related to travel as well.

I guess that leads me to my next question, Rob. And you may sort of already answered it in a way here. But you know, midterm elections are on the horizon. Again, this is something you're probably not wanting to think about as a small business owner, and inflation has become a political football, it's kind of inevitable. Do you blame any particular person or party for these price hikes? Or do you think it's just sort of something that's kind of a perfect storm out of the control of any president or political party as to what they could reasonably do about it?

Yeah, I think it's just the perfect storm. I definitely don't blame any political party. I mean, looking around the world and how inflation is hitting everybody. I can't blame Republicans or Democrats for that. It's just with the COVID lockdowns, production, all that kind of stuff. I just see this as the perfect storm of inflation. I feel like I saw it coming.

And when do you think this might ease up? I mean, are you an optimistic person? You're hoping that things are gonna turn around quickly, or are you kind of expecting you're gonna have to settle in for a tough stretch here?

Yeah, I just feel like with this being the highest inflation since, you know in what, 30 years or so? That I think we are going to have to, you know, these prices are going to remain level or go higher. I don't see them going lower.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station WBUR...as a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen Anderson is VPR's Managing Producer of Morning News. Karen has worked for public radio since 2000, in areas of production, traffic, operations, programming and news.
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