But Hartford Farmers Co-op Meets the Needs of Most
Hartford Farmers Co-op is many things to most anybody who walks through the door.
That’s the plan and that’s the goal of store Manager Todd Smith and his dedicated staff of employees.
Diversification is the name of the game in today’s struggling economy. Smith and crew realized the best way to survive in the business world is to do what farmers in the field are doing -— diversifying their operations.
"We moved into the new building in 2004. We’re very proud of it and of being a part of the business community of Hartford and the surrounding area," Smith said.
Hartford is located in the Wiregrass area of Southeast Alabama and, by some standards, the town of about 3,500 is a bit secluded.
"You have to go about 30 miles to go anywhere to get everything you need," said Cherie Orr, office manager. "Here at the Co-op, we can’t provide everything people need, but we can supply many of their needs, kind of like a general store."
Becoming more of a general store would broaden the Hartford Farmers Co-op’s customer base, so Smith and staff went about the business of doing just that.
And Smith didn’t mind using a little trickery to get the job done.
"Todd told me he was having a contest to see who could organize and decorate the corners of the store," said Andy Fredrick, sporting goods director and spreader truck driver. "Well, I set up a corner for hunting supplies and I think it looks real good. But, there wasn’t a contest."
Fredrick’s corner of the store sports a camouflage burlap wall, trophy mounts, canvas blinds, plot seed, deer scents and a variety of deer hunting items.
If there had been a contest, Fredrick just might have won the prize.
The Co-op carries a good supply of horse tack and miscellaneous Western items and sun hats for field or yard work.
"We have added toys and will have a lot of toys in for Christmas," Orr said. "The John Deere toys are very popular. I think the popularity of John Deere has grown since the song ‘John Deere Green’ became popular. We’ll have small John Deere toys up to the wagons and bicycles."
Orr and Evelyn Strickland, the bookkeeper of 31 years, suggested the Co-op add a line of canning supplies.
"We sold more garden seed and plants this year than ever before," Orr said. "We thought there would be more interest in canning this year and we’ve been pleased with the response. A lot of people are canning tomatoes and other vegetables. We’ve just about sold out of canners and have had to reorder stock pots."
Regular customers are excited about the items in stock and the diversification is bringing in new customers.
And, this year, all customers — new and seasoned — will have the opportunity to purchase 2.5-pound bags of raw and roasted peanuts at a value price because the nuts will be bagged on site. Carthell Hatcher, a 36-year Co-op employee, will be in charge of the peanut bagging operation.
"We’ve got an automatic bagger so we’ll be able to bag the peanuts right here, and that will be a savings to our customers," Smith said. "We used to bag the peanuts on site but not with an automatic bagger like we have now."
For Strickland, the bagging operation is a bit nostalgic. Her mom bagged peanuts by hand at the Anderson Peanut Company facility years ago. That’s how she got interested in the farming industry and why she enjoys working with the Co-op so much.
For Strickland and all the employees at Hartford Farmers Co-op, the Co-op is one big, happy family — including the customers who frequent the store, whether it’s to shop or just sit around and swap stories and share the laughter.
"We’re family," said Albert Neal, who celebrated his 72 birthday in September. "I retired and my health got bad, so I had to go back to work on account of my medical expenses. When I started working at the Co-op, my health got better. It did that for me."
Whether the Co-op can take credit for the improved state of Neal’s health is debatable, but those who frequent the store know the fun and fellowship they share there is "good for the soul." For, if laughter is the best medicine, then Hartford Farmers Co-op is a powerful tonic.
The Co-op is a gathering place for those who share common interests like farming, hunting, fishing, gardening, football, baseball, etc. The list is a long one and up close to the top is horseback riding.
Up to 20 riders will gather at the Co-op for a trail ride taking them out of town, along wooded rows, and across pastures and fields.
The riders laughingly call themselves the "Turn Around Gang" and admit they often turn around and go back for a variety of reasons. But no matter where they ride or how far, they always have fun.
"When we were riding the other day, a friend stopped and said, ‘You know, this is fun,’" said Jacky Smith, who is retired but owns 11 horses. "There’s no drinking or rough talking. We’re just out having good, clean fun."
The gang comes from different walks of life like Robert Earl Skinner, a peanut farmer who "allows" his sons to do most of the farming now. Paula Pollard is in the gristmill business and is also the leader of the gang. Jerry Moseley is retired but dons a tux every now and then and hitches his horse to a surrey and rides in parades or chauffeurs couples on their wedding day. Karen Milton works in Hartford but fell in love with horseback riding after moving from Louisiana.
Loyd Cotton actually rode his horse to death, so he’s out of the saddle right now.
"Loyd said he was going to ride until he was 90 if his horse lasted that long," Moseley said. "Loyd’s just 85 but his horse didn’t last that long."
The diverse gang of horseback riders get together often for peanut boils, fish fries, and the fun and fellowship of friends together.
Diversity is the name of the game at Hartford Farmers Co-op and among those who gather there to shop, swap stories, saddle up and share the fun and laughter that comes when friends gather in a cooperative effort.
Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.