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For Bill Moffett, current owner of the Thompson & Nash Feed Store at the intersection of 6th and Henry Clay streets in Selbyville, the news that Southern States cut its retail sales operation leaves him with mixed emotions.
On the one hand, Moffett said he hopes that one fewer competitor would bring more business to his own store. But on the other, he has a personal link to the Shelbyville Southern States store.
“I worked there five years,” Moffett said. “That was back in the eighties. I was back in the fertilizer part, so I kind of hate to see it go myself. It started up out on U.S. 60, where the veterinary businesses are. Farmers started it. It was a co-op for the small guys.”
Moffett said he doesn’t know the details of the reasons behind Southern States’ decision to close some retail stores, but he notes there is a lot of competition for what has become a smaller market. He remembers that in its heyday, his store (Thompson & Nash) enjoyed a million-dollar turnover.
“We’re a long ways from that now,” he said. “We’re trying to hold on as a small business. It used to be, back in the old days, this was the fifth-largest business in town. Our population wasn’t great, and we were all agriculture.
“[Now] agriculture is kind of a small thing here. Prices are not determined from here. We’re going to have good crops this year. We’re going to have good corn crops and soy beans. Tobacco is looking good. There is a lot of good quality hay, but our cow numbers aren’t up. If you don’t have cattle, you don’t use grain.”
Thompson & Nash has been a part of Shelbyville industry since 1911 and has served the community through good times and not so good.
“Then [In 1911] it was the Walkers and Thompson, who got in here with the farm part of it, and Shelbyville Laundry in this part here,” he said, pointing to one area of his facility. “It went on to Thompson & Nash. I had a partner, Steve Miller, and myself, and we ran it for twenty to twenty-five years. He got out ten years ago, and I bought him out. And I’m still going now.”
Moffett also notes that as the agricultural market has become less dominant, there is more competition in town, and the economy is still not as buoyant as it could be.
“When you’ve got just one or two businesses selling the same thing; they’re making out pretty good. But when you have four or five, they’re all just getting a piece of the pie and just existing,” he said. “They’re paying the bills, but they’re not making a lot of money. And the economy is still not real good. My paint business up there is slow because there’s no building, not much house building going on.”
400 dairy farms
Moffett recalls when he was young the county was home to many more dairy farms than it currently has.
“When you go back to when I was younger, there was probably four hundred dairies,” he said. “Everybody had a tobacco crop, you put up hay, and that’s how much of the income was made here in the county. The stores would have grinders that would go down each road grinding the corn for their feed. They would raise their tobacco to make their farm payments. (They had) cows to pay the bills.
“I’d talk to some of the people up town here who owned furniture stores, and nothing would be going on, but as soon as the farmers sold their tobacco, things would start booming here in Shelby County. Farmers had money.”
Different business model
Agriculture in general in Shelby County is quite different to what it used to be also. Moffett notes that over the years, rising costs have had a big effect on the farming industry in general.
“Back [in the old days] the price of all a farmer’s equipment would have been less than one tractor today,” he said. “There were a lot of people put through school, and raised on a little amount of money back then. But it seemed that it went further than it does right now,” he said.
“My folks provided a college education for me. A lot of the farmers thought it would probably be better for the kids to go elsewhere to get jobs. That’s why we don’t have a whole lot of kids taking the farmer’s place – because of the income. The farmers these days have had to get real big. It takes a lot of money to do what the big farmers are doing.”
He recalls that when he was young, farmers typically worked a maximum of 10 acres of land, and everybody shared in the work. As the younger members of families have gone elsewhere for work, farmers have had to look elsewhere for their labor pools.
“The farmers now are raising seventy, eighty, ninety acres [of tobacco],” he said. “But now there’s no families around. Most who work in it also have other jobs. Working in tobacco is hard work.
“It [the tobacco industry] is healthy to the ones who have barns and are young enough to ‘manage’ it. They’re not raising it themselves. They’ve got help to work in it. The managers are becoming managers; they’re not working in it. If you farm big, then you’ve got to have thirty or forty people that you’re paying every day, and that’s kind of expensive. And you’ve got to make money on the tail end to pay for that all year.”
The costs of setting up and running a farm in today’s market are a major barrier for anyone trying to establish themselves in agriculture. Few have the capital available to fund the operation themselves. Lending organizations are less willing to provide funds for a new operator, and the risks of being a farmer are high.
“As our tobacco barns go down, we don’t have any way to cure it [tobacco],” Moffett said. “If you build a barn, you’ve got to commit yourself for ten years top raising tobacco to pay for the barns, with these new stripping machines that they’ve got. They’re probably anywhere from fifty to ninety thousand dollars. So it’s only the big people who are going to be able to afford those.”
Moffett noted that a farmer can work all year getting his crop ready for sale, only to have a storm come along and wipe out the year’s work in a matter of a few hours.
Developing the future
He takes some heart from the efforts of people involved in 4-H and FFA clubs, as they try to encourage young people to develop their interests in raising animals and crops. But the financial obstacles pose a real challenge to the local farming community as a whole.
A thriving seed business is helping to keep his own store going, and although the current market conditions certainly present several challenges, there is still a need within the community.
“We’re trying to hold on as a small business,” he said. “We’re here six days a week, still serving the ones who are still needing it.”