Feed stores offer livestock feed to farm animals. Welcome to the small-town feed store — retail the way it used to be.
Española, New Mexico — You have to be careful when you walk in to the Country Farm Supply feed store on the main street here. Maybe you only stopped by for a bag of hen scratch — but you could end up going home with a donkey. Or maybe several African geese, a handful of guinea hens, a billy goat, some fancy turkeys, a llama . . . and a donkey.
These things can get out of hand. Feed stores offer livestock feed to farm animals. When you spend too much time at the feed store, animals just sort of happen, much like the proverbial poop (which we’ll get to later).
Take, for instance, Arturo Medina, who drove 20 minutes down from Chimayó to the Country Farm Supply feed store here on a balmy May morning for an $18 Sweetlix block to keep his donkeys from bloating on the new spring grass.
He leaned against the counter — the glass countertop is the perfect height for leaning and chatting — and popped the question. "Anyone want to buy a donkey?"
Hay prices in the Southwest are through the roof, so Arturo, who loves his donkeys and even sings his grandma’s old Spanish songs to them, has decided to sell a few. Several people jot down his phone number before heading home — at $150 for a 6-month-old donkey, it’s a good price.
A short, pudgy guy in a bright red T-shirt comes in and wants a bottle of malathion. A young couple walks in looking for something to control the grasshoppers eating their garden. With a bit of advice, they walk out carrying two Royal Palm turkeys, two Rio Grande turkeys and two ducks (geese, you see, eat mostly just grass).
Phil Diaz, who lives just up the road, comes by for seed to replant his five acres of pasture. Employee Chris Cortez slings the 50-pound bag of alfalfa seed over his shoulder like it’s a pillow and grabs a bag of orchard grass seed with his other hand.
Someone opens the door to the poultry room and Cortez yells as he walks by, "Shut the door! It stinks!"
Just then, the town’s police chief, Richard Guillen, walks in after an apparently long hiatus. "Chief, I’ve missed you!" someone hollers.
Welcome to the small-town feed store — retail the way it used to be, when the place you bought your hay and hen feed was the same place you poured a cup of coffee and lingered awhile to shoot the breeze with the townsfolk. (Maxwell House, mind you, no double skinny soy no-foam lattes here.)
The nation’s feed stores are perhaps one of the retail areas largely untouched by America’s increasing dependence on same-same box stores — most rural areas, even suburban rural areas bordering large cities, still have a locally owned feed store or two. They are mom-and-pop places where you can buy anything from horse feed, hay, saddles, boots, cast-iron pots and pans, to seed for your pasture and garden.
Time in a Bottle
In Española, the Country Farm Supply on the town’s main thoroughfare has been a feed store of some sort since at least the 1930s, says Richard Lucero, the store owner who also happens to be Española’s former long-time mayor. Lucero remembers going to the store as a young child on his birthday for a 5-cent triple-decker ice cream cone, when the store was both a feed store and grocery.
"That’s my first memory of this place," Lucero says.
Much of the original building remains — the wood floors are ancient and came with the building when Lucero bought it in the 1970s to open Country Farm Supply. The swinging, banging double doors with chipped red paint at the back entrance have been here since then, too. They look as though they haven’t seen a new coat of paint in at least 30 years.
"My customers would kill me if I remodeled," Lucero says with a laugh. "We get tourists in here sometimes, people who come up from Santa Fe, and some Europeans asked me once why we don’t charge admission."
Many of his customers have been coming into the store for 30 years, since the store opened in its current incarnation, he says.
"The best thing about this store is the people," Lucero says. "They’re earth people. They make their living from the earth. They plant, they have animals."
If that’s the case, these earth people have gone to heaven. Country Farm Supply carries just about anything a country person could want — cast-iron pots, kerosene lanterns, antibiotics for livestock, horse ligament liniment, corn and watermelon seed, oats, dog food, raw hides, cowboy hats, manual meat grinders, gloves, milk replacement for puppies and kittens, Carhartt, muck boots, leather chaps, bag balm, wildflower seed, and insecticides.
And his earthy customers appreciate his prices — like six bucks for a rabbit in springtime.
"They’re good people," he says. "We take many, many personal checks in here, and we never lose a nickel."
L’eau de duck
Some people walk into their favorite Main Street store — say a nice bath boutique — sniff the air and say, "Mmm, peaches and lavender."
Walk into the Country Farm Supply and it hits you in the face (rather, the nose): "Mmm, poultry poop and leather."
(No, really, it’s a nice smell, if you’re into this kind of thing.)
Lest you think we’re joking, the smell is one of the first things Omar Almeida mentions to new visitors to the store.
"Smell that?" asks Omar Almeida, a shy 19-year-old who works the counter at Country Farm Supply and looks after customers. He sniffs the air. “Duck poop. They poop a lot. We’re always cleaning up after them. Every day.”
Almeida thinks the ducks smell worse than the other birds, although scientifically speaking that is probably open to debate.
The smell is coming from the Country Farm Supply’s poultry room, where hundreds of baby chicks, geese, turkeys, ducks and guineas are housed in a sweltering hot and, frankly, repulsively stinky room. The door remains closed, with a hook-and-eye latch up high so youngsters can’t get in — owner Lucero says he worries about little children catching salmonella. ("Sometimes they do sneak in," he admits, "but we try to catch them first.")
In 2005, Country Farm Supply sold an estimated 25,000 baby chicks to the 42,000 residents of Rio Arriba County, along with 3,000 ducks, geese and turkeys. On the wooden posts in the middle of the store, customers are allowed to advertise their animals for sale — goats, peacocks, stallion stud services, Navajo-Churro sheep, a llama and a Jersey milk cow.
Almeida mentions the goat he has for sale — a billy goat (speaking of stinky).
Someone asks, "What kind of goat is it?" and Cortez butts in, "The kind with four legs."
Cortez is something of a flirt and gives away candy bars to a good percentage of his customers, especially the women. And he’s fast with the funny quips. Next to the cash register sit several jars of local, raw honey and when someone asks, "Who made this honey?" he instantly replies, "The bees."
Later, Isabel Oesterreicher wanders in for a thermometer to keep track of the temperature in the incubator where she’s hatching some peacocks — and nearly wanders off without her checkbook.
"Should I just keep your checkbook?" Cortez hollers after her.
Oesterreicher grins at him, bats her eyelashes a bit, snatches the checkbook out of his hand, and promises to come back next week for . . . "I know, three bags of hen scratch," Cortez interrupts, handing her a Milky Way.
It’s a friendly place and the locals know it is one of the town’s social focal points – along with the Saints and Sinners bar just a half-block away.
Lucero tries to insist that his previous job as mayor — he was mayor of Española on and off for nearly 30 years — isn’t relevant to his job as feed-store owner. But Española Police Chief Guillen admits he doesn’t have any animals to feed — he just stops by to hear the gossip and talk to the once-mayor.
Lucero is thin, wiry and high strung, a survivor of 30 years of brutal small-town politics. He’s not always nice. Lord help the person affiliated with the local newspaper, for instance, which has given the mayor a hard time over the years.
Lucero fairly spits, "If they call me, I hang up on them."
But the feed store reflects the town — which is the way it has been here for generations. Here, most of the workers speak Spanish as well as English, and the store sells a lot of chili seed to gardeners.
Although feed stores throughout the country are taking on a different and frequently more corporate flavor, Cortez isn’t worried about carrying anything very exotic in Española, New Mexico. No alpaca feed, no emu chow.
"We get a few people in here asking for stuff like that," he says. "But around here, it’s mostly cows, horses, chickens, sheep and goats."
And don’t forget the donkeys.
Freelance writer Kristen Davenport farms and raises children and critters with her husband in Llano, New Mexico.