Not every store that farmers shop in is the "big box" kind with scores of employees, a dozen checkouts, 55-foot-long shelves of motor oil and 10 acres of parking lot.
It was not a long time ago when each rural town had several farm equipment dealerships, a grocery store, a couple of gas stations and a hardware store where one could buy farm boots, work gloves, a monkey wrench and the owner behind the counter knew just about everything and if he or she didn't have it, would order it.
People like the big stores but sometimes yearn for the days when they could go into the local farm store, get the thing they needed (but didn't know what it was) and have a conversation with the proprietor and maybe some fellow customers and catch up on farm news and even solve a few world problems.
Phil's Farm Store is just such a place and, would you believe, it's in Madison, on a street that's very difficult to find and even harder to actually get to. (Go south on Fish Hatchery, just over the Beltline and turn left onto the frontage road to 925 Appleby Rd., 1-800-503-7927, philstractor.com). We visited Phil's a bit over six years ago. How is he doing?
Phil Connors is the actual "Phil" of Phil's Farm Store, the long, low-lying building surrounded by odds and ends of farm machinery, an enclosure full of farm gates and an assortment of storage buildings. And, of course, the big sign in front (on the frontage road) just a few feet away from the always busy South Beltline.
Connors managed (for 32 years) the former Central Tractor Supply store that sat about a mile west on that same Beltline frontage road for so long - until it closed in late 1993.
After working for so long in one job, in one place, Phil Connors didn't really want to start a new life in another profession, so he bought the shelves from his former store, stored them in a barn a few miles away, bought an empty building down the road and on Feb. 28, 1994, opened Phil's Farm Store.
As is often said, "the rest is history."
Some of his former customers found their way to the new store and kept coming over the years. Others joined them after word spread that here indeed was a store "where you could get what you needed even if you weren't sure what you wanted."
Maybe it's a handle for a shovel, a wrench to loosen a big, rusty nut on an odd piece of machinery, a maul to drive a stake in the ground for a garden fence, a battery for an old lawn mower or even a fender for a John Deere 3020 tractor or a front grill for a Massey-Harris model 44.
At Phil's Farm Store visitors can find an assortment of wooden handles for farm tools, a rack of huge shiny wrenches, a barrel of mauls, wood splitters and crowbars, shelves of batteries and can even provide the fender and grill.
"I picked up the John Deere fender at a sale in Minnesota," Phil says. "Someday, someone will want it."
Actually , Phil's Farm Store is pretty big: Long rows of packed shelving; open areas for such things as wheel barrows, cement mixers and pedal tractors; clothing racks and things hanging from the ceiling.
At the far end is the machine shop where Westly Briggs, a Portage boy, and Jacob Loehrer, from Medford, take things apart and put them back together.
Like the snow blower a young women brought in just before closing time that would get fixed the next morning or the used part for an ancient 8 N Ford tractor that the twosome removed from another bigger part stored in a back building.
Briggs and Loehrer admit they love working for Phil. "He gives us responsibility and lets us do our job," they said. They both agreed that they love to "mechanic" things.
The senior employee is Michael Kant who hails from South Wayne and has been with Phil for five years. He stays near the front counter, answering the phone, greeting customers and running the computer.
"We do a good bit of business over the internet," Kant says. "We're well known as a source of Ford tractor parts and we get calls from all over. Phil knows everything about most any tractor and we can usually find an answer to a parts question."
Jacob also runs the computer when needed.
Strangely enough, neither Phil or his wife Pat, who also works at the store as the book keeper, are very computer proficient.
"We just never got into computers ourselves," Phil says. "But, Mike does a good job and we use them in our business all the time."
Lloyd Vroman, a longtime Fitchburg resident and part time farmer, brought in a non-working starter for his 2007 McCormick Tractor. He had been to a local McCormick dealer and called around without finding a proper replacement part, so of course, he came to Phil's for help.
While Mike got on the computer and searched for the part under (maybe) a different name or number, Phil called suppliers he knew. It wasn't a fast process, but finally, they located a possible used replacement that Vroman said sounded good. They'd know for sure the next day after the piece was delivered.
It took an hour or so to make the search, but Phil and Lloyd used the time to get updated on the happenings in the Fitchburg community.
Isn't that the way business should be done? We used to think so.
How do people find their way to Phil's Farm Store?
"It's all word of mouth," Phil says.
"You can get things here you can't get anywhere else," Vroman adds.
"We have most everything that is useful," employee Jacob says with pride.
"The people whizzing by on the Beltline surely don't see us," Michael says. "They are all too busy texting."
"One of our biggest customers is in Australia," Phil says. "Would you believe that."
He tells how he got a call from the Australian who was visiting in Iowa some years ago, in regards to wanting four Ford 9N tractors. "I had one on the lot," Phil says. "He drove up and bought it, and asked me to get three more ."
"I got them, fixed them up, power washed each one and shipped them in containers to Australia," he describes.
Phil says he has shipped "lots more things since" to his friend in Australia and showed me a stack of boxes containing hydraulics and fittings for trucks that would go out shortly. "He's in the trucking business," Phil says.
What do people think when they enter Phil's Farm Store for the first time?
"They often comment that the store is a lot bigger than they thought it was from the outside," Kant says.
"They see things they didn't know even existed," Westly adds.
What about the future of this store that is off the beaten track but known by so many?
"Who knows? I love to come to work." Phil says. "What else would I do? I still own a 200-acre farm at Hillsboro but am not going to run it myself. I don't need to be here every minute and this is what I enjoy and I meet so many great people."
I'd guess those people - many of whom are small time farmers - who find what they need and get what they want at Phil's would agree.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.