THE CO-OP re­mains at Rappahannock’s core

Hum­ble be­gin­nings con­tinue to re­flect needs of to­day’s res­i­dents

Rappahannock News - - COUNTRYSIDE - By Sara Schon­hardt Foothills Fo­rum

Talk to just about any­body in Rappahannock and they’ve been to the co-op, whether they’re a farmer or not. “I don’t think there’s too many peo­ple that don’t come in or don’t have an ac­count here,” says man­ager Mike Can­non, a lo­cal whose knowl­edge of the county has made him an as­set to cus­tomers.

That clien­tele has changed over the 65 years that the co-op has op­er­ated here, re­flected in ev­ery­thing from the items it sells (more fer­til­izer and seed) down to a park­ing lot where Mercedes Benz SUVs park next to Chevy pickup trucks.

While an­i­mal feed and agron­omy ad­vice con­tinue to un­der­pin its op­er­a­tions, the co-op also stocks a large sec­tion of build­ing and gar­den sup­plies and does a brisk trade in fenc­ing.

Among the com­pany’s five branches, the Rappahannock store is the big­gest seller of live plants, said Ed Dun­phy, for­mer di­rec­tor of re­tail mar­ket­ing for all five out­lets of the CFC Farm & Home Cen­ter head­quar­tered in Culpeper.

The store has thrived in large part be­cause it has evolved to suit chang­ing times. To­day, it tells the story of a county where a grow­ing pro­por­tion of res­i­dents work else­where or are ur­ban trans­plants and the av­er­age farm is about half as big as it was 50 years ago (see the Foothills Fo­rum/Rappahannock News se­ries, “A Fraught Fu­ture?,” July 12, 2018).

Or­ga­nized in the midst of the Great De­pres­sion as the Culpeper Farm­ers’ Co­op­er­a­tive, the co-op op­er­ated off dues from just over 200 mem­bers and a $10,000 loan. By its very def­i­ni­tion, mem­bers jointly own and run the busi­ness and share in the ben­e­fits of its goods and ser­vices, such as grain pur­chases and feed pro­duc­tion.

The Rappahannock branch opened in

1952 in a small fa­cil­ity in Sper­ryville and later moved to the for­mer Re­di­viva Cold Stor­age ap­ple-pack­ing shed off Route 211 — the move high­light­ing a shift in a county where apples were once the main in­dus­try.

In 2017 the com­pany earned to­tal rev­enues of $34 mil­lion, $3 mil­lion from di­rect sales in Rappahannock. The branch here cur­rently em­ploys 13 peo­ple, in­clud­ing cus­tomer ser­vice and sales clerks and ware­house per­son­nel.

Un­like CFC’s other branches, Rappahannock has main­tained its gen­eral store feel in large part be­cause of the lack of big-box al­ter­na­tives. The agri­cul­tural mix is also dif­fer­ent in Rappahannock, a county with cat­tle op­er­a­tions but also a grow­ing num­ber of vine­yards, land­scape com­pa­nies and con­trac­tors.

“If you’re a farmer it’s a big deal, but if you’re just a land owner it’s a big deal too,” says Jim Blubaugh, a mem­ber of the Lion’s Club, which makes ap­ple but­ter each fall at the co-op, one of the few places with the space needed to clean and cut 50 bushels of fruit.

Long-time res­i­dents say the busi­ness has tran­si­tioned over the decades.

“They used to keep a lot more plumb­ing sup­plies and stuff that you use around the farm,” says Bob An­der­son, 87, a re­tired pi­lot who once raised thor­ough­bred An­gus cat­tle. He has been go­ing to the co-op for 50 years and says it has al­ways served an im­por­tant role in the com­mu­nity, though less so than when farm­ing was at its peak.

At the age of 32, Can­non is decades younger than much of his clien­tele, but he knows bet­ter than per­haps any­one the chal­lenges they’re fac­ing and many of his cus­tomers re­spect his deep ties to the com­mu­nity.

Per­haps no one is re­mem­bered bet­ter, how­ever, than man­ager Gor­don Thorn­hill, who guided the co-op for 40 years and died in 2013. His framed photo sits on the in­for­ma­tion counter by the cof­fee pot, where reg­u­lars have long gath­ered to ex­change ad­vice.

The gos­sip hap­pens next door at the Quicke Mart, where re­tirees, con­trac­tors and younger men who pull to­gether work of all va­ri­eties gather. Even here the co-op’s pres­ence looms in the form of CFC swag. On a re­cent rainy morn­ing An­der­son wore his CFC cap and an­other man in a CFC T-shirt stopped in for a break­fast sand­wich.

Part of what Blubaugh and other cus­tomers ap­pre­ci­ate about the co-op is its con­tin­ued sup­port for things like the 4H bake sale and the ap­ple-but­ter mak­ing.

“I think they see it has part of the tra­di­tion of Rappahannock County,” Blubaugh says.

The co-op still of­fers on-farm agron­omy ad­vice through a field ex­pert who will come out and work with farm­ers on their needs. It also of­fers to fer­til­ize land for peo­ple who want to keep their prop­erty in agri­cul­tural use but don’t run com­mer­cial farm­ing op­er­a­tions.

That in­cludes new res­i­dents, many of whom are in­vest­ing in up­grades to old prop­er­ties or build­ing new ones. And those new movers are im­por­tant, too, says Dun­phy.

“Even if it’s a small farm, those first three years they’re re­pair­ing fences, they’re putting new roofs on their barns … and when they get done with that maybe they’re not spend­ing so much but those first few years they’re al­ways in­vest­ing in the per­ma­nent in­fra­struc­ture of their place.”

PHO­TOS BY SARA SCHON­HARDT

Man­ager Mike Can­non sits at his desk at the CFC Farm & Home Cen­ter. He grew up around the co-op, be­com­ing man­ager 10 years ago, at the age of 22.

The cav­ernous ware­house at the co-op now holds an­i­mal feed where it once held apples.

The co-op got its start in Sper­ryville but now sits in a for­mer cold stor­age ap­plepack­ing shed off Route 211.

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