Co-op remains at Rappahannock’s core

Humble beginnings continue to reflect needs of today’s residents

Talk to just about anybody in Rappahannock and they’ve been to the co-op, whether they’re a farmer or not.

“I don’t think there’s too many people that don’t come in or don’t have an account here,” says manager Mike Cannon, a local whose knowledge of the county has made him an asset to customers.

Manager Mike Cannon sits at his desk at the CFC Farm & Home Center. He grew up around the co-op, becoming manager 10 years ago, at the age of 22. By Sara Schonhardt

That clientele has changed over the 65 years that the co-op has operated here, reflected in everything from the items it sells (more fertilizer and seed) down to a parking lot where Mercedes Benz SUVs park next to Chevy pickup trucks.

While animal feed and agronomy advice continue to underpin its operations, the co-op also stocks a large section of building and garden supplies and does a brisk trade in fencing.

Among the company’s five branches, the Rappahannock store is the biggest seller of live plants, said Ed Dunphy, former director of retail marketing for all five outlets of the CFC Farm & Home Center headquartered in Culpeper.

The store has thrived in large part because it has evolved to suit changing times. Today, it tells the story of a county where a growing proportion of residents work elsewhere or are urban transplants and the average farm is about half as big as it was 50 years ago (see the Foothills Forum/Rappahannock News series, “A Fraught Future?,” July 12, 2018).

Organized in the midst of the Great Depression as the Culpeper Farmers’ Cooperative, the co-op operated off dues from just over 200 members and a $10,000 loan. By its very definition, members jointly own and run the business and share in the benefits of its goods and services, such as grain purchases and feed production.

The Rappahannock branch opened in 1952 in a small facility in Sperryville and later moved to the former Rediviva Cold Storage apple-packing shed off Route 211 — the move highlighting a shift in a county where apples were once the main industry.

The cavernous warehouse at the co-op now holds animal feed where it once held apples. By Sara Schonhardt

In 2017 the company earned total revenues of $34 million, $3 million from direct sales in Rappahannock. The branch here currently employs 13 people, including customer service and sales clerks and warehouse personnel.

Unlike CFC’s other branches, Rappahannock has maintained its general store feel in large part because of the lack of big-box alternatives. The agricultural mix is also different in Rappahannock, a county with cattle operations but also a growing number of vineyards, landscape companies and contractors.

“If you’re a farmer it’s a big deal, but if you’re just a land owner it’s a big deal too,” says Jim Blubaugh, a member of the Lion’s Club, which makes apple butter each fall at the co-op, one of the few places with the space needed to clean and cut 50 bushels of fruit.

Long-time residents say the business has transitioned over the decades.

“They used to keep a lot more plumbing supplies and stuff that you use around the farm,” says Bob Anderson, 87, a retired pilot who once raised thoroughbred Angus cattle. He has been going to the co-op for 50 years and says it has always served an important role in the community, though less so than when farming was at its peak.

At the age of 32, Cannon is decades younger than much of his clientele, but he knows better than perhaps anyone the challenges they’re facing and many of his customers respect his deep ties to the community.

The co-op got its start in Sperryville but now sits in a former cold storage apple-packing shed off Route 211. By Sara Schonhardt

Perhaps no one is remembered better, however, than manager Gordon Thornhill, who guided the co-op for 40 years and died in 2013. His framed photo sits on the information counter by the coffee pot, where regulars have long gathered to exchange advice.

The gossip happens next door at the Quicke Mart, where retirees, contractors and younger men who pull together work of all varieties gather. Even here the co-op’s presence looms in the form of CFC swag. On a recent rainy morning Anderson wore his CFC cap and another man in a CFC T-shirt stopped in for a breakfast sandwich.

Part of what Blubaugh and other customers appreciate about the co-op is its continued support for things like the 4H bake sale and the apple-butter making.

“I think they see it has part of the tradition of Rappahannock County,” Blubaugh says.

The co-op still offers on-farm agronomy advice through a field expert who will come out and work with farmers on their needs. It also offers to fertilize land for people who want to keep their property in agricultural use but don’t run commercial farming operations.

That includes new residents, many of whom are investing in upgrades to old properties or building new ones. And those new movers are important, too, says Dunphy.

“Even if it’s a small farm, those first three years they’re repairing fences, they’re putting new roofs on their barns … and when they get done with that maybe they’re not spending so much but those first few years they’re always investing in the permanent infrastructure of their place.”

Sara Schonhardt
About Sara Schonhardt 20 Articles
Sara Schonhardt is the summer fellow for Foothills Forum. A former staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Indonesia, Sara reported from around Southeast Asia for more than 10 years for the International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Voice of America, among others. Her most recent reporting has focused on rural communities in southern Ohio.