Business

How Farm Supply became a fixture in the Central Coast’s ag community

The Farm Supply Company’s San Luis Obispo store.
The Farm Supply Company’s San Luis Obispo store. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Inside the red, oversized rustic barn off Tank Farm Road in San Luis Obispo, customers are greeted like they’ve just come home to the farm. Flowers in the nursery explode in colorful blooms and baby chicks don downy fluff. There’s horse feed, work boots and pet supplies.

At Farm Supply, that warm, old-fashioned feeling is how business is done, and it’s one reason why the company has been a fixture in the agriculture community for more than 65 years, say loyal patrons and company leaders.

“It’s like a big family, and our job as a family is to serve the needs of other families: our customers,” said Jim Brabeck, president and CEO of Farm Supply Co. “And our customers take ownership. They want us to succeed.”

Founded in 1950, Farm Supply was established as a farmer-owned cooperative to offer low-cost service and supplies to San Luis Obispo County’s agricultural community. Its first retail location occupied 800 square feet on lower Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo, which it rented for $400 a month. Founding members included some of the county’s well-known agricultural families: Mehlschau, Shetler, Chaves, Walden, Gerst and Jesperson.

Farm Supply now has more than 2,600 members — agricultural producers who are each issued a share of common stock in the company, which operates five locations from Paso Robles to Buellton. Based on profits at year’s end, dividends are allocated to each member as a percentage of their purchases made that year. Dividends are declared for members who have annual purchases of more than $1,000.

We believe our secret is our customer service and our people. That’s always been us.

Chris Darway, chairman of the Farm Supply board and a fourth generation Edna Valley farmer

The company is not alone in its farmer-owned cooperative model — there are many, much larger than Farm Supply, scattered throughout the country, Brabeck said. It remains a popular way to do business because it allows members to “pool their resources to get better purchasing power,” he said.

In the midst of a changing agricultural landscape and faced with increasing competition, Chris Darway, chairman of the board and a fourth-generation Edna Valley farmer, believes “the company has remained so strong because they (the members) have that vested interest.” Not only that, but “we believe our secret is our customer service and our people. That’s always been us.”

Turning it around

The solid footing Farm Supply enjoys today is a far cry from where it was when Brabeck took the helm on Jan. 29, 1969. Brabeck had been working at the company since 1965, when Farm Supply bought his father-in-law’s pump business, Walty Pump Co., using the insurance money from a fire at Farm Supply’s former building at the corner of Madonna Road and Higuera Street.

Brabeck learned the pump business from his father-in-law, Harold Walty, and took over that department at Farm Supply. He became general manager of the company’s entire operation four years later after it was discovered that the previous general manager committed fraud. At 27, Brabeck was leading a company in distress.

“The first thing I did was to assess everything going on, and then I got on the phone and called all our creditors to say, ‘This is what happened. We’re on the edge. If you force us into bankruptcy, you might get four cents on the dollar, but if you give us some time, we can get this thing righted,’ ” Brabeck recalled.

It was up to him to repair the damage that had been done. He gave no assurances to the handful of employees at the time, but he said they could turn it around if they all worked hard.

We believe … if it isn’t right, don’t do it. We solve problems, if we make a mistake, we make it right.

Jim Brabeck, Farm Supply president and CEO

That was the start, Brabeck said, of a company culture, predicated on “communication, transparency, unity and trust.”

“We believe … if it isn’t right, don’t do it,” he said. “We solve problems — if we make a mistake, we make it right.”

Caring for customers

This philosophy is what many customers say keeps them coming back to Farm Supply year after year.

Donna Chesebrough, a Templeton rancher and farmer, discovered Farm Supply when her family moved to the county from Los Angeles 30 years ago. The company was an integral part of helping them feel less like outsiders, and she is still impressed with the staff’s level of knowledge and expertise on everything from fencing to fertilizer, vaccines for cattle or vegetable gardening.

“It’s like going back in time,” she said. “But it’s the truth. It’s the way things used to be when a handshake really meant something. There, you are part of the group, and they stand behind their products.”

Javier Martinon, who grows tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, squash, cauliflower and cabbage at Martinon Farms, said he’s fortunate to be Farm Supply’s neighbor. His farm is behind Farm Supply on South Higuera Street — a quick walk to buy supplies, equipment or just talk to someone who has answers.

“Their techniques are really handy,” he said. “Any questions that you might have, they have the right person.”

For Debbie Allen and her family, the San Luis Obispo store has been a constant through all of her children’s 4-H projects. The Allens became customers when the family bought an acre in the Rolling Hills neighborhood, south of San Luis Obispo, and her seven children decided to keep horses and raise other animals on the property. They’ve bought gates, troughs, feed, halters, 4-H uniforms and even fancy Western-style attire. Her youngest child, 14-year-old Jonathan, is raising his third steer.

“Farm Supply is where you go when you have a situation like we do … you have a little bit of land, and you think you can do more on it,” Allen said. “It’s such a good thing and so satisfying when you can grow your own food in the backyard and grow your own animals. There are so many life lessons for kids.”

Open to change

In the beginning, Farm Supply was deeply rooted in dryland farming and the dairy industry, servicing the county’s roughly 500 dairy operations. (The only one left now is at Cal Poly.) Farm Supply’s focus has shifted to meet the needs of a diverse agricultural community that encompasses cattle ranching; vegetable row crops; urban, hobby farming; and a booming wine industry.

Over time, the company has also had to compete with larger retailers like Home Depot, Orchard Supply Hardware, Lowe’s and Tractor Supply Co., which is opening a second location in San Luis Obispo just down the road.

Miner’s Ace Hardware is one of those competitors. The 60-year-old family-owned operation, with seven locations on the Central Coast, has a hardware and paint department, nursery, plumbing and electrical department. It’s the kind of place where customers go if their water heater breaks or they want to add a fresh coat of paint to their house, marketing director Laurel Cadena said.

But competition, she noted, is not always negative. While there are “so many dollars to go around and so many customers to share,” she said, competition “makes you better at what you do.”

“You put that focus on your expertise, and ours is being helpful to the customer,” Cadena said.

Brabeck said it’s his job to look at “risk through the windshield, not the rearview mirror.”

“I wake up every morning trying to figure out how to put our company out of business,” he said. “If we don’t think of it first, then someone else will.”

Farm Supply, which was located at 675 Tank Farm Road for nearly 40 years in a facility built by the Farm Bureau, built its current headquarters in 2004.

Through the years, the company has acquired other businesses, with the goal of expanding its market share on the Central Coast.

Brabeck said it’s difficult to define that market share, given its diverse product lines. However, he believes that Farm Supply has a “respectable market share in all the areas we serve” and that it has grown despite increased competition.

▪ In 1977, it bought Cal Tech Chemical, a fertilizer and chemical company in Paso Robles.

▪ In 1988, it acquired Rausch Drilling, a pump business in Templeton, and consolidated it into its own pump department.

▪ In 1989, it bought Hanson Hardware in Santa Maria, and in 2004 it purchased E.C. Loomis and Son Feed Store and moved to its Arroyo Grande location off El Camino Real. Three years later, it bought Roemer Hardware in Santa Maria.

▪ In 2011, the company bought the Gracian Agricultural Co. in Buellton and opened a store there.

▪ It opened its new and improved store in Paso Robles in 2012.

Brabeck, who successfully negotiated the acquisitions on behalf of the company, said every one of the employees at each of the businesses were offered positions with Farm Supply.

Farm Supply has no plans to acquire other businesses or expand in the near future, but the company is always open to “going into markets where we can serve the community,” said Danielle Burk, vice president of business development.

Whether it’s raising chickens or beekeeping, the company promotes what people can do in “their own backyards,” she said. Farm Supply offers a host of classes and workshops to educate the public on agriculture. It also keeps its customers and members up to date on the latest products and services through its website and Facebook page.

“If people understand how to grow things, they may have more empathy for people who are doing bigger agriculture,” Burk said. “From backyard ag to big ag, we want to be supportive of our members.”

The company declined to provide financial information, but Burk said that sales are steady.

“We’re not one of those companies that has huge growth year after year; we want steady sustainable growth,” she noted. “We move through the world at a steady pace, and that’s where we want to be.”

Bill Coy, a local avocado farmer and retired San Luis Obispo branch manager, remembers being concerned about the entry of Home Depot and Miner’s. He helped to make some changes that benefited Farm Supply’s bottom line. In 1994, he started putting in a nursery at the San Luis Obispo store. He also helped to beef up the clothing section, expanding jeans beyond Wranglers, and brought in other new merchandise, such as pet supplies.

However, a key reason behind Farm Supply’s success, Coy said, is simply Jim Brabeck.

“He always supported me, and gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do,” he said. “He’s the kind of man I like working with and for. If you’re loyal to him, he’s loyal to you.”

‘Just do it’

In ways large and small, Brabeck is the public face of Farm Supply. However, there are many personal stories about him stepping in behind the scenes to help those in need of financial assistance or guidance in difficult circumstances.

But there was nothing that could prepare Brabeck for what he considers the “darkest day” the company ever had.

In 2005, Kyle Hubbard and Jeff Silva, two Farm Supply employees in the Paso Robles store, were killed in a traffic accident.

He remembers talking to the employees in Paso Robles and thinking, “I don’t think we’re ever going to get through this.”

He also recalled the incredible outpouring of love and support to the families from Farm Supply employees and the greater community.

Brabeck keeps a photograph behind his desk of the young men — “bright, shining stars in the ag community, and the kind of boys you would want as sons” — as a reminder to work harder, he said.

“There were countless times that they did things for people below the radar, things that no one ever knew about,” Brabeck said. “Those two exemplified the best of ag youth and what we like to project as a company. Their motto was ‘Just do it.’ I think of that every day.”

Farm Supply Co.

Business: A member-owned agricultural supply cooperative with five locations throughout the Central Coast: Arroyo Grande, Buellton, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria

Key leadership: Jim Brabeck, president and CEO

Year founded: 1950

Employees: 110

Members: About 2,600

Financials: Declined to disclose

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