Blount County is consistently listed as the third, fourth or fifth fastest growing county in Alabama—but Paul Thompson said it’s the county’s farmers’ needs that have resulted in his almost doubling the size of the retail showroom at the Blount County Farmers Co-op in Oneonta.
Paul and his staff—working alongside local contractors—finished enlarging the store’s main retail section by 1,600 feet the first week in October: from 2,700 to 4,300 square feet.
"We want to be able to offer more things for farmers and others," Paul explained. "We want to be able to take care of their needs whether they have five cows or five thousand.
"When you’re selling in retail, it’s a lot about the appearance. I want things neat and organized. If a customer comes in they can go straight to the animal health products, go down the shelves and note ‘here’s for the horses, cows, goats and here’s what I need for my chickens…’ It’s all in one place.
"And there were just so many additional products we wanted to sell but we needed the place to display them. We want to expand some in outdoor sports. We’ve expanded our hunting supplies. I’d also like to put in a small line of fishing items."
The brightly lit retail area now features the more centralized u-shaped counters, a larger area for boots and Carhart clothing and additional shelves for seasonal items like farming toys which are always a big hit for Christmas gifts.
The retail area has a large space for storage above, easily accessed from the warehouse.
"The county is growing fast. We have a lot of folks moving out from the bigger cities and they may have just five or six acres, but they have a horse or two, or want to grow a garden. We want to be here for them and also for those in subdivisions who just need help with their landscaping or their lawn. Doug Oliver has been great with that. We’re building a new arbor in front of the greenhouses and shade houses for our line of potted plants, riding mowers AND our new selection of outdoor furniture."
Paul came to the store as manager in July of 2007. He graduated from Auburn in December of 2006 with a degree in Animal Science and began in the AFC training program the next month, interning at the Taleecon Farmers Co-op under the leadership of Scott Hartley.
"He is a great manager," Paul said. "I learned so much from him. I guess that’s part of where I get my vision of what we can do here."
Paul grew up on a farm in nearby Walnut Gove, graduated West End High School and now lives in a house on that same family farm next door to his parents.
"We had beef cattle and a little bit of row crops. All I’ve ever wanted was to do some sort of work on the farm. This job was a perfect fit for me. I get to do something to help local farmers while doing what I love."
Paul said he didn’t just jump into the job and beginning making changes willy-nilly.
"I could see the store’s full potential. We’re still no where near where I think we could be so we have a lot to look forward to.
"We want to be open and welcome, whether it’s the farmer, his wife or someone who works for them who comes in.
"We wanted to make things efficient so you can come in, find what you need easily, buy it at a competitive price and go on about your day. But we still enjoy people sitting and talking farming. That’s why we have those rocking chairs out front."
The Blount County Farmers Co-op was begun by a group of local farmers in 1934 and moved to their current location on Alabama Hwy 75 near downtown Oneonta in the mid-1950s.
Paul does everything in incremental steps. Several folks initially thought he was nuts when he moved the loading dock to the far end of the existing building. But in his mind he was already planning to nearly double the retail space and this gave him room.
"I do things in sequence. I do things that I see can benefit us in the short term but in the back of my mind, I’m seeing how that will benefit us in the long run as well."
Some of the other changes in the last few months have included an attractive steel fence now surrounding the Co-op’s entire perimeter. While it was built to cut down on thefts, its attractiveness has added an new dimension to the entire business. And once again it was Paul and the Co-op’s employees who were there drilling fence posts and welding gates!
It’s the willingness to help customers by those same employees that make folks want to not only come into the Co-op to shop, but to return many times.
During a recent ten minutes, employees answered questions on everything from "how many volts does the charger need for horses?" to "my chickens have mites so do I hold them down and put this in their feathers?"
"If you don’t have that one-on-one with customers, then you’re not any better than the other stores," Paul said.
Employees, in addition to Paul, include Assistant Manager Tim Stewart; bookkeeper Kathy Harris; clerk Sheila Marsh; warehouse workers James Golden, J.T. Herring, Terry Cheatwood and Cotton Fells; truck driver Jerry Marsh; garden expert Doug Oliver; and spray truck driver Gary Adams.
"We just couldn’t do what we do without our great employees," Paul said.
"They share my ideas that farming truly feeds Alabama and we’re going to do everything we can to help our farmers. With the problems in the economy recently, we’ve tried hard to make sure we’re providing the best possible products at competitive prices. We try to get products to sell as low as possible so the customers get a break, whether it’s someone who farms full time or someone in town who has a few tomato plants in their back yard."
Paul feels a trend back to smaller farms is inevitable and he also sees more folks interested in home gardens.
"We need to remember that the gallon of milk didn’t just appear at the grocery store and tomatoes didn’t just jump into the basket. Every bit of the food we eat was grown by some farmer somewhere who worked hard to grow it."
On a recent store visit, one young professional couple from Hoover who moved to a rural Royal area home with their seven children nine months ago noted how the Blount Co-op had helped them with their chickens, sheep, goats and more.
"We can get just about everything we need for our farm right here."