Wright County might not be Missouri’s dairy cow capital if it wasn’t for Richards Brothers, a local feed supply that’s been in business since 1937. And despite its name, the business wouldn’t have existed but for one brother — a man named Wells.
The youngest of four brothers, Wells grew up in the business of selling. His father owned a general store in Pomona, Mo., and two of his brothers were shopkeepers as well.
After graduating from high school, Wells decided it was his turn: He asked older brother Claude for a $1,000 loan to set up his own business. “He’d already researched this area and thought this’d be a good place to start a store,” says David Skyles of Mountain Grove, one of Wells’ grandsons who co-owns the feed store today.
Claude initially declined the request. But after some further thought — and Wells’ threat of moving elsewhere to set up shop — he loaned the money. “(Wells) paid his brother back in the first year, so that tells you the different climate for business back in those days,” says David. But its success wasn’t only because of the times. “(Wells) wasn’t college educated or anything, but he always seemed to have a knack in the trends,” David notes.
In its early days, the store was your old-fashioned, pickle-barrel type establishment. “People came in and they’d give you their order on a piece of paper,” says David. “Then you’d fill the order, wrap it in brown paper, tie it and they’d go do their other business out on the square. Then they’d come back in and pick up their order.”
Orders consisted of a wide variety of items, including dry goods, groceries, hardware, ammunition and even cloth. “(Wells) said they’d get called a lot of times in the middle of the night by somebody needing cloth for a casket,” recalls David.
Those items weren’t always paid for with cash. “A lot of it was barter,” says Steve Skyles, another of Wells’ grandsons who also is part owner of the store. He mentions things like furs, eggs and milk that were brought to the store to trade. “Once a week, they’d come round to pick (the furs) up and send them to St. Louis.”
The store is self-service today, a change that everyone wasn’t completely thrilled about. “I remember him saying one of the biggest changes was when they came out with shopping carts,” says Steve. “Customers didn’t like that.”
But customers weren’t the only skeptical ones. Wells mentioned years ago that he was afraid that he’d have to fire his employees because, with customers fetching their own items from the shelves, there wouldn’t be enough work for them to do. He quickly realized that while employees might not have to take down the items, they were needed to put them back.
In those days, the store’s wares came in on the train in large quantities. And until those carloads of peaches, green beans and the like could be sold, they were stored in a warehouse that Wells owned next to the tracks. The same was true of feed, which was especially convenient when Wells opened a separate feed store in 1940.
Just like in the old days, supplies still come in on the train.
Thirty-five years later, he applied the bulk-ordering concept to feed. “It was handy,” says David. “We already had the location here, we were bringing it on the rail. (It was) train to bay to truck. There wasn’t a lot of overhead to it.” Besides that bulk dairy feed — which is still one of the store’s main focuses today — some of the store’s other wares include feed for chickens, beef cattle, horses and goats.
David Skyles (left) and Steve Skyles, grandsons of Wells Richards, co-own the feed store today.
Wells owned the feed and grocery stores until he passed away in 2009 at age 96. “Wells pretty much had his hand in it all the way up ’til his death,” says Steve. David agrees, noting that “it was (Wells’) business. We just worked for him.”
The brothers’ presence as employees, dating back to their graduations from college in the ‘80s, gave them excellent training for their future as owners. Besides the feed store, they also help manage the Richards Brothers Supermarket, which is co-owned with brother Bob Skyles.
It should be noted that these Richards Brothers stores aren’t connected with the Richards Brothers stores open today in West Plains and Mountain View — or the stores formerly open in Ava, Mansfield and Houston. Well, other than the fact that the owners were brothers.
“They were all independent,” says Steve, noting that the brothers liked competing with each other for business. “They’d yell at each other on the phone, and the next day they’re just fine as can be. I think they had a competitive edge, but they were always brothers. (They) considered family really important.”
While feeding cattle might seem simple, it can actually be a complex decision. Should one use grain or forage? Alfalfa hay, dry fescue or a little of both? “It’s just nutrition,” says David, who notes that what type of feed to use is based on things protein and vitamins. “You want your cows to give the most milk they can. Or the highest butterfat, if you’re looking for butterfat. You can tweak fat, protein, forage and get the maximum amount of milk production.”
Figuring out those formulas is where David McCroskey, the store’s beef and dairy nutrition consultant, comes in. He’s spent the last 30 years helping local farmers make the best choices for what type of feed to use, as well as serving as the go-to man when issues with dairy cattle arise.
The trio has seen a lot of changes in the industry from that vantage point. Some of the changes, of course, have to do with people. “The real change is in customer loyalty,” says David Skyles. “Used to, if someone owed you money, they paid it back.” He recounts Wells’ memories on the subject. “(He) always told me ‘I never worried about it. I knew they were all good people and they would pay me back.’” While the people may still be good, things have changed. Today, operating on credit has become a risk.
Not everyone is untrustworthy, of course. The brothers recall customers who would be offended to receive a bill in the mail, taking it as a sign that they couldn’t be trusted to pay without a reminder. “There are still a few that are that way,” says Steve. And according to him, they tend to be the best payers in the bunch.
The state of dairy
According to David McCroskey, there are between 150 and 200 dairy farms currently operating in the five-county area surrounding the store. The numbers, however, are shrinking. “We’ve got about 40 percent of what we used to have,” he says. “(You) lose three, and put one in.”
The industry is different than it used to be. For one, not nearly as many farmers’ kids go into the family business. “It’s a lot of work,” says David Skyles. “It’s a lifestyle. You either like the lifestyle or you don’t.”
Besides that, government regulations — and trends such of shipping milk to other locations instead of keeping it local — complicate life. “It doesn’t make much of a mathematician to figure out what the price of freight is (and how much to) ship the milk hundreds of miles back to here,” says David McCroskey. “It costs more to bring milk from California to here than to produce it here.”
Another trend that most famers are faced with are labels on milk advertising that it’s free from hormones and antibiotics. “Guess what — the regular milk is (the same),” says David McCroskey. “But the consumer is so convinced that if it says organic, we’re willing to pay more for it.” And even in regular milk, checking for antibiotics is the norm. “Nothing is checked more for antibiotics than cows’ milk,” he continues. “You can contaminate a whole load of milk if one producer puts one cow (on antibiotics) in the tank.”
When faced with such challenges, one might wonder why a dairy farmer wouldn’t just sell out. “Well, these people have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested,” says David McCroskey. “They just can’t get out when they want to.”
While no one knows what the future holds for sure, not all is doom and gloom at this point. “There’s always a worry that (dairy) will end up being factory farms like the hogs are now,” says Steve. “But we don’t know that, and it’s a perfect area. I mean, you can’t do much with these hills other than grow grass. It’s a great place for dairy.”
Want to shop?
Richards Brothers Feeds (102 E. North St., Mountain Grove; 417-926-4168) is located in the heart of Mountain Grove. While you’re in the neighborhood, stop in at Richards Brothers Supermarket (417-926-5800), which can be found on the town square.