In my travels over fall break, I ate some turkey, saw some relatives and spent time in the good old South. Exploring the foothills of north Georgia reminded me of the reality that all small farms face: in order to stay in business, they need to sell what they grow.
Fortunately, in the South, a genre of quaint stores, known as ‘country stores,’ exists to help this process. I visited two such stores in Georgia, and each sold local products made by Georgians. Thanks to country stores, local artisans and farmers have a place to sell their goods, whether to tourists or to other locals.
Like farmers markets, country stores offer personal interaction, and the warm fuzzy feeling of buying goods from another human being. But the eclectic selection of products at country stores far exceeds the primarily green merchandise at a market. This contributes to the best part of all: you usually leave a country store with something you didn’t need, but you enjoy your visit so much it doesn’t matter.
The country store experience is typical: you’re driving along a mountainous road ‘- whether it’s in Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia ‘- and you round the bend to find a rickety old building, maybe resembling an old house, or maybe a trailer, that sits a bit back from the road, and probably has several old pickup trucks and a pile of firewood out front. Sometimes, there will be a giant vat with steam billowing out from under the lid, with a sign reading ‘Boiled P-Nuts.’
Inside lies a menagerie of things you never knew you needed. Cornmeal, yellow and white grits, oats, spices and dried beans and peas. Jars of molasses and moonshine jelly, peanut brittle, soda in glass bottles, Rubik’s cubes and switchblade knives. There are knit gloves and steel-toed boots, and things I never pay attention to, like fishing bait, WD-40 and wrenches. The floors are usually rickety, and the signs almost always hand-written.
Of interest to me was the selection of fresh vegetables and fruits and cheeses from the local farms. I also found honey, butter and eggs. While organic is good, supporting local agriculture, and local economy, is always better. And without country stores, small farms couldn’t survive in rural areas. Every $2 pound of green beans counts toward the livelihood of the farmer.
While we loaded the car with firewood, we talked with the man at the register, who was clad in woods camouflage. He convinced us we needed some local cheddar, peanuts and a fried apple pie. He could tell by our minivan we weren’t from nearby; perhaps he wanted to milk the tourists for all they were worth. Either way, I didn’t mind. Country stores equal the livelihood of small farms and local people trying to make a living. They exist wherever people buy from them, so it’s up to people like me to do a U-turn in the middle of the two-lane switchback highway to turn around and support them.