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Store, Southern States keep up with the times

Chip Ellis
Fred Whitt has operated Whitt's Farm Supply in Hurricane since 1958 and has always offered Southern States merchandise -- a brand that's trusted, Whitt says.

HURRICANE, W.Va. -- Fred Whitt has watched Putnam County change over the years from acres of sprawling farmland to the mostly residential area it is today.

The owner of Whitt's Farm Supply in Hurricane, which started selling Southern States brand merchandise in 1958, said for the past few decades his business has been forced to transition from a farm supply store to more of a lawn and garden center.

"We used to have a whole lot more," Whitt, 56, of Hurricane, said, referring to the farm supplies his store stocks. "But clientele died off from generations just not farming."

Approaching its 90-year anniversary, Southern States Cooperative, the Richmond, Va.- based agricultural retail supplier, has been operating stores and cooperatives and supplying private dealerships with merchandise in West Virginia since 1941.

And despite a drop in the number of farms throughout the state over the years, and last year's warm winter, which impacted the agricultural supplier's sales, "we're just as strong in West Virginia as we've ever been," said Turner Gravitt Jr., director of corporate events, member relations and government affairs for Southern States.

On Tuesday, Whitt's will hold his annual meeting at 8 p.m. at the John Henson Senior Center in Hurricane to update customers about the future of his store. A representative from Southern States Cooperative Inc. will be on hand to describe the condition of that company.

Whitt's Farm Supply is a private dealer of Southern States products that uses the company as a manufacturing and wholesale resource.

"Most of our [business] now is from small farmers with anywhere from 10 to 25 head of cattle," Whitt said. "But we're more urban, so it's mainly lawn and garden now."

Farming has declined statewide during the past 50 years.

In 1950, Putnam County had nearly 1,900 operating farms, but that number had tumbled to 625 in 2007, when the most recent data was collected. Similarly, West Virginia reported a loss of farms from 81,434 in 1950 compared to around 24,000 in 2007.

Still, West Virginia leads the nation in the number of family farms, according to Scott Lemmons, deputy director with the West Virginia Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

"Farmers have to go somewhere to get their feed and seed," Lemmons said about Southern States' success in the state.

In the 1990s, West Virginia had more than 40 Southern States stores, and a good many remain. The merchandise, which focuses on a variety of things such as fertilizers, seeds, pet supplies and lawn care can be purchased in Summersville, Point Pleasant, Iaeger, Huntington, Parkersburg, Martinsburg and Morgantown, among many other places.

"We're like any other company ... we've combined, closed and relocated some operations," Gravitt said. "When you do that, some people think something may be wrong, but we're just trying to be more efficient and successful for members and the cooperative."

Just like Whitt's store has adapted and started selling more lawn and garden products, Southern States has developed a new marketing plan focused around their customers to help rebound from a tough year of unusual weather.

"Fiscal 2012 was an extremely challenging year for Southern States Cooperative," said President and CEO Thomas Scribner in a news release. "The winter of 2012 was the mildest since 1932 and the second warmest since 1895. The warm temperatures significantly impacted our earnings, as agricultural producers needed less feed related products and rural homeowners burned fewer gallons of home heating fuel."

Gravitt said Southern States plans to start looking at customers' needs in different ways.

"We're going to start taking a real strong look at our customer groups. We're not going to sell every customer the same way," he said. "We have rural America customers with more of a farm lifestyle and smaller farmers, but they still need some of the same products."

Whitt has already adapted to meet the needs of customers. He takes the time to educate his younger customers who might not know as much about the quality of Southern States merchandise because they didn't grow up farming.

"[Southern States] is a name people know and trust," he said.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.

 


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