In September 1933, a collection of local wheat farmers and orchardists in Wenatchee officially formed a farming cooperative known as the Grange Supply to get better access to fuel and supplies. Now, 90 years later, the cooperative still exists as Ag Supply Co., a regional supplier of fuel, farming essentials and home and garden supplies.
Kerry McCauley, 51, has been with Ag Supply Co. off and on for over 15 years, working as an auditor, chief financial officer, operations manager and now general manager. A U.S. Navy Supply Corps officer who grew up in a military family, his background isn’t in agriculture, but he has collected the history of Ag Supply Co. and the agricultural community that formed it.
The Grange Supply was a product of the times, McCauley said.
“This happened across the country, where all kinds of farmer cooperatives started supply cooperatives, because big oil companies wouldn't service the small towns unless it was profitable,” he said. “So the local farmers would create a cooperative mainly for the petroleum or the fuel … the farmers would reach in their pocket, and that's how they capitalized it.”
Other cooperatives were popping up around Washington, including the Brewster Grange Supply, which merged with the Wenatchee Grange in 1984.
Even today, half of Ag Supply’s sales are in fuel – petroleum and, since the '90s, propane. Even after they stopped their own trucking in the 2000s, the Brewster and Wenatchee locations are still home to bulk petroleum plants.
Ag Supply Company of Wenatchee has changed and evolved many more times since the 1984 merger, exploring different industries and new locations, even owning mini-marts in Chelan and Orondo briefly. But the biggest change has been the partnership with Ace Hardware, a hardware retailers' cooperative based in Illinois.
“In the '90s, they decided to buy the Ace Hardware in East Wenatchee, because they already had the gas pumps out front under a sublease,” McCauley said. “So in doing that, that was our first introduction to Ace Hardware.”
Now, of the nine Washington locations, Wenatchee’s Ag Supply Co. is the only non-Ace branded storefront.
“The neat thing about the modern Ag Supply is that it's not just for the farmer, it's community-based and community-focused. It's there to support and sell to the entire community that we live in,” McCauley said. “That's where the hardware stores come in so handy, and the Ace brand is awesome, because it is also a cooperative. So we're member owners in the Ace Hardware brand, just like the farmers are member owners in Ag Supply Company of Wenatchee. That's why that relationship works well for us.”
There are Ag Supply Ace Hardware stores in East Wenatchee, Quincy, Ephrata, Brewster, Moses Lake, Bremerton, Ephrata and most recently, Silver Lake, which was added in 2022.
The Ace Hardware partnership is what has led to an increase in home improvement sales, McCauley said. They specialize not in decor, but in the tools and equipment to maintain farms, business and living spaces.
“When we started expanding, we liked the Ace model, because it's all about being helpful to your neighbor approach,” he said. “it all has to do with your location, your product mix, and your willingness to help.”
Customer service has become more important than ever, McCauley said. Another perk of the Ace Hardware partnership is the training it provides to Ag Supply employees.
“It's one thing if you are really nice, but don't really know anything. Or if you know a lot, but you're not very nice to talk to, you need that combination, you need both product knowledge and customer service,” McCauley said.
As North Central Washington has changed, so have customer demographics. Increasingly, McCauley focuses on hiring bilingual employees who can speak Spanish and English.
“We want to be able to help all the customers, not just the ones that are easy for us to service,” McCauley said. “So what do we do? It's easy, because it's supposed to be neighbors helping neighbors, we're hiring from the same community that we're serving. And so that just really kind of builds naturally.”
With most employees with Ag Supply Co. in the retail side, McCauley also looks for opportunities to promote internally.
“A lot of folks will go into retail feeling like it is a dead-end job, and I don't think it is. So it's important for us here that we always promote from within. So that's been really fun for me to see folks who are coming in like,” he said. “I can tell you that all of our current retail store managers were hired on as hourly employees at some point, so it's been great that we get to build that pipeline.”
Despite recent expansion into western Washington, McCauley said Ag Supply Co. is still a North Central Washington business.
“We are definitely Wenatchee-based,” he said. “All the money that's generated from Ag Supply Co. stays in the valley.”
Oversight is locally based, too. A board of five local farmers serves as a guiding voice on budgets, new locations, hiring, allocations and more. While anyone can become a member of the co-operative, a person must make their living from agriculture in order to vote.
“The voting rights are still agricultural-based, and I think that's a fine place for them,” he said. “That's the group that funded and created the business, and it's still the group that oversees the business.”
McCauley said the company doesn’t plan to expand outside of Washington state, and that western Washington locations can help buffer the company against the economic ups and downs of agricultural areas. Many of the other locations focus more on home and garden supplies than on feed and fuel.
Today, the same farming communities that started the cooperative no longer have to pay to sustain it.
“The farmers started a company that supports the whole community,” McCauley said. “They're the ones who were reaching in their pocket in the early years to fund it. Now the company funds itself through operations, and no one has to reach in their pocket to fund this place. In fact, our working capital comes from past profits.”
McCauley attributes the business’s longevity to its adaptability — and its commitment to the people who built it.
“The town and the community has grown, so we've grown with it,” McCauley said. “We see ourselves as really just part of the community and want to grow with and help the community grow.”