"How would you like to wake up in the morning knowing you need 8,000 gallons of fuel and have to pay for it in 10 days?"
That's the question Tommy Barnes, owner of Ideal Logging in Edgemoor, asks about once a week, now with increasing uncertainty as rising fuel costs have returned.
For businesses in the agricultural and logging industries, tightening their belts and scaling back operations are ways to weather fuel prices that experts say will only continue to rise.
While some local businesses are confident they'll survive the hikes, the balancing act for others is reaching a tipping point.
Already struggling against shrinking demand for solid woods for construction, loggers are now facing rapid increases in fuel costs.
Almost every piece of equipment needed to clear timber requires fuel: equipment for felling and bunching, cutting, removing limbs, debarking, and chipping all run on gas or diesel.
Then there are the trucks that transport the product to the mills. Not only fuel, but petroleum-derived engine oil and tires also drive up maintenance costs.
Some mills are paying loggers a little extra to help compensate for higher fuel costs, but usually those adjustments are "slow to react," kicking in after the logger has already absorbed the bulk of added cost, said Crad Jaynes, president of the state's Timber Producers Association.
And mills sometimes don't adjust what they'll pay because they've signed a contract for the price, leaving loggers with few ways to recoup costs.
Before the recession, more than 40,000 people were employed in jobs related to forestry, including loggers, mill workers, truckers, contractors, tree planters, and others, said Tim Adams, director of resource development for the South Carolina Forestry Commission. About 4,200 of those jobs were in logging and trucking.
They contributed to a $17.4 billion industry, Adams said.
A more recent report isn't available, but Jaynes believes logging contractors have dropped by a third in more than a decade.
"I'm afraid we're going to see more of our logging force go by the wayside."
Farms fare better
When Chester farmer Rusty Darby harvests what he expects to be 300 to 400 acres of wheat in coming months, he, too, will have no control of how much the flour mill will pay.
Fortunately, agriculture hasn't been hit as hard as other markets, he said. "There's been a world of demand for agricultural products, so we've seen a rise in our prices," he said. But it will surely cost more to drive truckloads of wheat more than 100 miles to the flour mill. At 6 miles to the gallon, the costs add up.
Darby also runs a wholesale fuel business as a way to decrease costs for his farming operation. In just three days, Darby's cost for fuel increased by 30 cents a gallon.
At the Farmers Exchange on Cherry Road, owner Bynum Poe is confident his family business of 70 years will get through the crunch.
"We just have to tough it out. Hopefully, you're not in a position where you're overextended," Poe said.
The Farmers Exchange sells a lot of fertilizer, corn-based animal feed, and seeds and materials for growing vegetable gardens.
In a way, the business has benefited from a growing interest in backyard vegetable gardening brought on by groceries being more expense now that fuel costs are higher.
But increasing fuel surcharges are being tacked onto orders, combining with already high costs for fertilizer and corn products.
Those costs eventually reach the consumer.
The rising cost, he said, "winds up getting bounced eventually" from seller to customer, he said. "We try not to pass on more than we have to."
Steve Goorer, a Rock Hill-based landscaper, buys fertilizer from Poe. He said "local businesses are surviving because (they) take care of each other."
But for loggers such as Barnes, relief must come soon. The future of timber may lie in using wood for fuel, an idea environmentalists have criticized, he said.
"There have been times the past few weeks we're operating at a dead loss every day," Barnes said. "It's just to keep our supply going and to keep consistent with the mill and to keep our people working."
"You can only absorb so much and we're pretty saturated."