Bird food sells better to suburban clientele


September 18, 1992|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

They don't sell horse feed like they used to at the Anne Arundel County Farmers Co-op.

These days, instead of buying hog, cattle and poultry feed by the ton, a customer will pick up 5 pounds of rabbit pellets. Instead of hauling fertilizer by the tractor-trailer load, patrons buy it by the bag.

"We were overrun by the suburbs," says Basil Smith, manager for 20 years. "But you change with the times."

Sixty-five years ago, the county Farm Bureau and a truckers' association opened the co-op in Brooklyn to supply feed and tools to local farmers.

But crop fields gave way to new homes, shopping centers and malls sprouting along Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie, where the co-op had moved in 1946. It phased-in lawn and garden supplies and an impressive array of bird feeders.

Then in 1982, plans for downtown urban renewal forced the store to move again. It was replaced by a Taco Bell. Now, a board of directors oversees a retail and warehouse operation in two buildings on Eighth Avenue.

The suburban onslaught has meant not only a different kind of customer but more of them -- 800 on a typical spring day. It has meant more lawns to keep manicured and more rabbits, parrots, cats and dogs to keep fed. The co-op sells 25 varieties of grass seed, 130 types of fertilizer, 110 kinds of dog food and, in a week's time, 2,000 pounds of rabbit pellets and 500 pounds of parrot food.

"It used to be just farmers came in here," said Bob Jankiewicz, a warehouse worker. "It's so modern now, compared to the way it was 15 years ago. When you walked in, you could smell the horse feed."

Still, the co-op is one of the few places around where customers will find fly ribbons, cow bells, suspenders, coal and the Biggest Tomato in the Territory Contest, under one roof.

Most co-op customers are homeowners and what Mr. Smith calls part-time farmers, anyone who raises a few acres of produce.

Mary Shelby, 74, and her husband, Clarence, 75, have come to the store for years to buy seeds in bulk for their vegetable garden. The Lansdowne couple come, too, for lime, garden tools and plants from the outdoor nursery.

"I don't like that seed that's in packages; sometimes it looks more than a year old," Mrs. Shelby said, watching as employee Hipolit Kris measured 2 ounces each of turnip seed, mustard seed and smooth kale on a counter-top scale before scooping it into envelopes.

"This guy has everything," Mrs. Shelby said. "I like to ask him what all is in these bottles."

The vegetable seeds are stored in glass oil bottles once used by filling stations. Some 140 varieties line shelves over the counter. Below them, a chalkboard advertises the tomato-growing contest, an annual store event that runs through first frost and nets the winner $100.

Though the co-op now uses a computerized point-of-sale system and sells lawn mowers and hedge clippers, it hasn't forgotten its past. Scattered among garden hoses and wicker baskets sit pieces of antique farm machinery collected at farm auctions, a wooden wheelbarrow, a cavalry saddle, a horse-drawn plow, an oxbow and a huckster cart.

"There's a lot of nostalgia," said Elsie Cullen, a store employee. "We get people who came here with their grandparents years ago."

For Phil Upton, 41, manages the parts department. His father, Crosby Upton, retired last year after 50 years with the co-op. The senior Mr. Upton started as a delivery boy, traveling from farm to farm with feed for large animals. He met his wife, a bookkeeper, in 1945 at the co-op.

Phil Upton spent much of his childhood tagging along with his father, who by then managed the parts department.

"I used to ride around with Dad to dairy farms in Howard County or to Galesville or Davidsonville," Mr. Upton recalled. "He would take me along to work on a tractor."

Both the younger Mr. Upton and his brother worked their way through college at the co-op. Now, Mr. Upton has taken over for his father, handling thousands of parts stored in cardboard boxes.

He and other employees also have become unofficial caretakers of the store's resident cat and her 5-week old litter. Customers already have claimed the kittens.

In an age of high-volume stores such as Hechinger's and Home Depot, employees say, the co-op's service brings customers back again and again.

"Over the years, you get to know them and their kids and grandchildren and the size of their garden," Ms. Cullen said. "They trust us to give them good advice."

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