Buying farm seed is only one of the benefits for homesteaders at the Winchester Feed Store.
As a visitor approaches downtown Winchester, Virginia, east of the congressional hubub of Washington, D.C., the landscape changes from the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley to cookie-cutter homes. Then, as if by magic, the scene transforms to a quaint and bustling town of magnificent architecture, antique shops and the delicious sights of farm markets full of apples. Winchester is home to one of the largest apple export markets in the United States; but depending on whom you ask, you may hear that Winchester is better known either for their hometown sweetheart, Patsy Cline, or the town's famous feed store.
Built in the early 1920s, Winchester Feed and Seed has always been a feed store, despite changes in ownership. "This is the main grocer for many critters in the valley and the Tri-state area," says Paul Baumgardner, owner of the famous feed store. "The Virginia State Reserve Grand Champion Market lamb owned by Kyley Clevenger gets his lunch here." The lamb is only the latest of the many champions whose weekly groceries have been supplied by Baumgardner and his staff. Paul supports the FFA and the local 4-H clubs and regularly attends livestock fair sales.
On a humid summer morning, the air is sweet, and the smell of molasses and hay brings back memories of being young and feeding horses with family back in Maryland. The feed store is redolent with the sweet smell of nostalgia, and permission is given to slow down and take it all in. The mood is that of your Pop's old shed, on a grander scale with more stuff to get into.
The feed store is still the spot to come and get the news. The previous owner, Jim Adams, held court every day since the 1960s. He had a huge bench that he sat behind and discussed the town gossip over a cup of coffee with local farmers, or whoever wanted to sit a spell — a task he performed faithfully until March of last year, when health reasons made it necessary to sell the store to Paul and his wife, Susan.
On this afternoon, a local livestock hauler leans on the counter with a jaw full of chew as big as a softball, chatting with Tommy Polk, sales representative.
"Tommy is one of those guys who knows a lot about a lot of stuff," says Paul. "Shoot, they don't need me around here; I just get in the way." Tommy grew up in Winchester and says he has always been in the agriculture industry. He currently raises cattle and goats and says as a young boy he used to deliver Grit for a quarter per paper.
Tommy, tall and lanky, with a boyish charm and Southern politeness, smiles. One gets the sense that he only says what he means, no pushy salespeople here.
Following faint meows to the back office, a visitor soon discovers a nestled group of fluff, a mama cat and five adorable kittens of every speckle, stripe and stain taking up residency in an old cardboard seed box. Brenda Hopkins, the manager for the past six years and a petite, natural beauty, says they're the store cats. Brenda's specialty is the gardening side, but today she is painting, tidying up for the big open house in a few weeks.
The way back to the main showroom passes the bathrooms, carefully marked for direction, "Roosters" and "Hens." Once in the "courtroom," one can find any kind of animal food that you might need — including rat chow. Even rats need their total daily nutrition.
Clear jars on white wooden shelves hold samples of the food brands the store sells. This way, Tommy says, "you see what your animal is eating, especially being able to smell and feel the texture, which is important for palatability." The folks here have gone a bit high- tech recently (you still won't see any air conditioners, scanners, or BlackBerries) by adding a Pennfield horse technology computer to assist the horse enthusiast in feed selection. Paul says they sell more horse feed than anything.
Upstairs the store houses a branch of Fort Valley Saddlery (independently owned by Tom Gossard) that offers "everything for the horse and rider."
In the warehouse off the main entrance are mountainous bags of food, and hanging from the rafters are bags of peanuts, grown locally in the valley – in so many huge, yellow, netted bags you wonder where they keep the elephants. The warehouse also has old equipment hanging from the walls everywhere there's a little space or a hook. The store has maintained the feeling of the farm, with old signs, tools and stuff you must have but didn't know it.
What makes this store a little bit different from most other feed stores is the unique set of bins as you walk in the front door. They lie just behind the sturdy oak counter where you can pick up fliers about bingo at the church or a lost parakeet. With the sun reflecting off their glass, numerous individual bins house a satisfying variety of seeds. Purchases can be made when buying farm seed for any amount from 1 to 1,000. Wetsel's seeds are a favorite, and the store carries more than 50 varieties, from Chinese Celestial Radishes and Salsify-"Oyster Stew" to something called "Mammoth Sandwich Island" (also a salsify) — to name just a few of the seeds available.
Paul's commitment to service is apparent in his conversation about his customers. One in particular has stayed with him, he says. He was working behind the counter some time ago when an elderly woman, around 80 or so, came in, dressed in a long dress and apron with her hair tied neatly in a bun. She stepped up, exchanged pleasantries and put one shiny nickel on the counter and asked for 5 cents worth of lettuce seed. He realized at that moment how important this store is, and he hopes it will always be just like this.
Pride in his business and his love of the land keep Paul extremely busy. He offers a wide variety of hay and straw he bales himself. He insists there is not a better bale around. "Come on over here and take a look at this," he says. "You won't see nicer hay!" Be sure to grab a handful (from the middle of the bale, of course) of the luscious, aromatic, sage-green alfalfa and the straw that's so golden, you might need sunglasses.
As you leave with your purchases (hog feed for your son's 4-H pig? fly strips for the barn? brochures on sheep feed?), Tommy may hand you some boxes of crackers and say, "Here you go, give these to the pig, too." Just smile and shake your head: Only at the feed store.
Lois Aylestock is a freelance writer for the farming community. She and her husband, Doug, live in Berryville, Virginia, with their two sons, four dogs, three llamas, four cats, and lots of Romney sheep.