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Columbia Business Monthly

Old-Fashioned Feed & Seed Draws Customers Far And Wide

May 31, 2018 03:45PM ● By Kathleen Maris
By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley

While farming has been in Sallie Sharpe’s family for seven generations now, she says the decision to buy her feed store, Sal’s Ol’ Timey Feed & Seed Store, happened on a whim. She’d been running a sign shop out of a rented building that didn’t even have a store front, and one day she came by the Winnsboro Road property in Columbia and saw that the business was for sale.

“This was a store that I always came to with my grandad as a little kid, just like most of our customers around here,” Sharpe said. “They were closing down and auctioning everything off, and I have mules and was into gardening, and I just said, ‘Well hey, how much would you take?’...Within three days I owned a feed store.”

Since she bought the store in 2007, the store has attracted customers from up and down the East Coast who are interested in the seeds, feed, animals and plants that Sal’s sells. From Charleston to New York and down to Florida, Sharpe says that there’s a wide variety of people coming through each year.

“The atmosphere is just fun,” Sharpe said.

Outfitted to intentionally look like an old-fashioned feed store, with pallet board along the inside and a seed scale at the counter so that customers can see their seeds weighed in front of them, the store is almost equal parts functional store as it is a walk down memory lane. Sharpe added, chuckling, “This building’s old, so we didn’t have to stretch too far.”

Sharpe says that these features help keep the incarnation of the old feed stores alive. “All the old-timey seed stores are closing down; we’ve lost a bunch. They’re either retiring, they’re passing away, or they’re trying to sell them and no one wants to buy them.”

Part of the reason that the stores are unpopular to sellers is that it’s a difficult market to position yourself in when your competition are the big chains.

“It’s hard to compete with the big box stores,” Sharpe admitted. “You’ve got to have something totally different.”

For Sharpe, that means staying on top of the latest trends and newest advances in the industry, which Sharpe says is always evolving.

“What was most surprising was how much you need to keep on top of new chemicals and new things that come out, like new, improved seeds, plants, and chickens,” she said.

When it comes to seeds, non-genetically modified organism (non-GMO) seeds are part of the latest trend, and it’s one that Sharpe fully supports. Her shop only carries local, non-GMO seeds, which she says are not only picked out for specific growing conditions, but are a much more chemically responsible option, too, with Sal’s selling a variety of organic varieties. 

“People are so scared of GMOs and they should be, but they need to be educated on it,” Sharpe said. She says there is a lot of confusion between GMO and hybrid seeds, which are very different. GMO seeds are created in laboratories, while hybrid seeds (like some varieties offered at Sal’s) are the product of a natural cross breeding between two organisms in the same family.

This can be confusing for many, but Sharpe herself is more than happy to clarify. Along with keeping its crops all-natural, Sal’s sets itself a part with its focus on customer education. 

“More and more, people want to come out and they want to learn,” Sharpe said.

To educate her customers and to show them how accessible gardening is, Sharpe writes blog posts on how to grow certain seeds, hosts gardening classes, and even has a subscription gardening box aimed towards beginning gardeners.

“I think people don’t realize that they can, in their small backyard, plant stuff in just a small garden box—you don’t have to have acres and acres of land,” Sharpe said. “So getting people to understand that is the challenge. Our subscription boxes are especially geared towards the mall backyard gardener, for people who have never planted and who really just want to know how to do it right.”

Sharpe said she learned everything she knows about farming and agriculture from her family, passed down over the years, and believes it’s an important skillset to preserve for future generations. While her store is one of just a few of its kind still in operation, Sharpe remains optimistic for the future of growing in South Carolina.

“When my great-great-great-great-grandparents settled, they did fruit tree farming, and then every year, every generation had farms. I grew up helping my grandad and my dad, and that’s what we grew up eating. So many people missed that. All of the sudden, that’s gone, and people don’t do it anymore,” Sharpe said. “We’ve got to get back to that.”