Editorial: Agricultural supply stores reflect farm service reality

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The last agriculture retail store in my area closed July 1, and after getting over my frustration at the fact, I realized it tells another part of the story of how agriculture is changing.

I’m not the focus of most companies that sell products to farmers. I have a small acreage, do things with it part-time and when I need something it’s likely because either something old or obscure has broken or I haven’t planned out the job particularly well.

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I put up a pasture fence this spring and ran to my Parkhill co-op outlet several times to get some supplies that I found were not available at other more urban-centric rural supply stores.

Another small local agricultural supply store closed up in Lucan a few years ago, replaced by a store that focuses on dogs and pets.

I wandered through the Parkhill co-op store looking at the final sales and I realized that it probably wasn’t too difficult for the co-op managers to make the final decision to close it. I expect the financial figures were pretty telling.

For Hensall Co-op, which supplies massive volumes of high volume inputs to farmers and then exports even larger volumes of farm products around the world, worrying about a small store that sells a limited number of rubber boots makes little sense.

Many of the items in the store, while of great value to the people who did buy them (like me for several things), were of great value to a limited number of people.

I just liked being in a store that had good fencing supplies, a selection of waterers and watering equipment for livestock (not just backyard chickens) along with some medicines and animal identification tools.

But those of us that need those supplies every once in a while aren’t enough to carry the stock and transportation costs, let alone staffing for what is a small building.

All of the merchandise at my local outlet is available, it’s just not available that close to me.

There’s a great fencing supply outlet about an hour north of me. I may have to visit them more often, but will need to have several things to get if I’m driving that far for small parts. Many people just have that competent and experienced fence supply place put up the fence for them and that makes good sense.

The real factor for agriculture retail, as it is for any retail is warehousing and supply chain efficiency.

Any farmer who produces anything close to commodity crops or livestock has a supplier who is more than happy to deliver what they need to them. That’s especially true on the livestock side where route trucks and veterinarians bring whatever is needed. In some livestock sectors, especially hogs, anything coming into the barn has to be quarantined and disinfected. They sure aren’t running out to their local supply store for an ear tag or two.

If farmers’ usual supplier doesn’t have it, there’s an online supply company for agriculture that can likely get it for you.

The main players in online supply in Canada are Canadian, which is good to see. They are visionary companies that realized they needed to have online ordering years ago. They’ve built significant warehouses, with efficient delivery systems that the local, small-building co-op can’t match.

They can focus on products that help farmers do their jobs and not worry about some of the extras that the local feed-related co-op store has to include to entice more buyers – like Christmas lights and garden supplies.

I know there continue to be small-scale agriculture retail success stories across the province. A young couple recently took over the Shur-Gain dealership and local farm supply store in St. Marys – now my closest outlet. I expect they will do just fine. Other co-op retail stores remain. I know there are some exceptionally interesting stores that provide farming supplies to Mennonite communities, especially since the expansion of Mennonite farms into more intense vegetable production.

But my area is like many now in rural Ontario where the daily supplies for farmers no longer come from a local retail-type store. And that might be just OK.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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