'All of the customers are needed'
Farm-related businesses diversify to thrive in new landscape
Part 3 of 5
Growing into the future: The modern farm

By Josh Perttunen - Enterprise Staff

August 28, 2014

Greg Serres says the customers at his feed store range from generational farmers to those who just have a few chickens in their backyard. Both sets of customers, he adds, are vital to his business.   
Josh Perttunen/Enterprise Staff

TOWN OF MERTON - Whether it is a big animal veterinarian tending to a sick or injured animal, a feed mill keeping farmers stocked with feed throughout the year or an implement store offering the tools it requires to keep a farm in ship shape, farmers’ influence continues to spread beyond the confines of their field.

“It used to be just farm seed when the mill started out, for corn and soybeans,” Serres recalled. “We still have farmers that are making a living (on their generational farms), but we also have people who are doing niche markets.”

In Waukesha County, however, some of these endeavors look different from what might be encountered in the heart of big farm country. Diversification has happened so that feed and implement stores still rely on the small farms, but also cater to those who are raising animals or tending crops on an even smaller scale. Both customer bases, local business owners said, are now necessary to keep their businesses in good shape.

A feed for all

Greg Serres, owner of Merton Feed Company in Merton, said his feed mill has been one of the farming-related businesses that has had to diversify in recent years. They must account for customers who are pursuing smaller ventures, such as raising chickens in a backyard or keeping just one cow or one potbelly pig.

The need for flexibility started from the mill’s onset, Serres said, when his father and grandfather were turned down for local bank loans in 1956 because the bankers said most of the county’s farms would be gone in five or six years.

  Josh Perttunen/Enterprise Staff

They eventually found a loan for the mill, but knew it would a different venture from mills “up north.”

Today, the mill’s offerings are many. Birdseed is produced in-house on a weekly basis, staff works with veterinarians to prepare feed for horses with metabolic problems and seed is offered for deer hunters’ food plots, horse pastures and even subdivision lawns.

“It used to be just farm seed when the mill started out, for corn and soybeans,” Serres recalled. “We still have farmers that are making a living (on their generational farms), but we also have people who are doing niche markets.”

This has caused feed bags to get smaller and the scale of equipment to change. It is not uncommon for multi-generational farmers to be in line with the customers who are tending to only a handful of animals.

“All of the customers are needed to keep this business going,” Serres said. “Whether it’s a big or small operation doesn’t matter. It can be two chickens or 2,000; we will service all of the owners’ feed needs.”

Implementing a plan

Danny Strupp, who owns Strupp Implements in Slinger, has customers who travel from as far away as Kenosha and Racine counties, and sees his fair share of customers from Waukesha County.

“There is not one farm implement dealer left in Waukesha County,” he said, estimating that the last one moved out of the county in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

 Josh Perttunen/Enterprise Staff

His business has also had to adapt to the times, he said. It started in the early 1970s, when the store would sell the more fuel-efficient German tractors and continues to present day.

“We found that we couldn’t afford to stock the $200,000 to $300,000 tractors any more; prices have gotten out of hand as horsepower and computerization increased,” he said. “We have to make it on smaller tractors, hay machinery, servicing machinery and selling other implements. We do all right with that stuff, we just have to sell more of it.”

And the possibility to do so is there, Strupp said. Like the Merton Feed Store, the customer base at Strupp Implements has grown to include orchards, gardeners and part-time farmers.

Strupp has also decided to offer products such as zero-turn riding lawnmowers, and predicts items like chainsaws might not be far behind.

“The customers will let me know,” he said. 

The advantage is service, Strupp said.

“A lot of people don’t want to go to a big box store for their chainsaw or their farming implements,” he added. “It is important to have that personal contact when buying, asking questions or having something repaired.”

Strupp said the repair component of his store has grown from when his grandfather first opened the business in 1946.

“It’s nearly five times bigger now,” he said. “That and the parts department are an integral part of the business.

Email: jperttunen@conleynet.com