A Tractor Supply Company store in Watsonville, CA
It’s easy for Tractor Supply Co. to make it onto anyone’s weekly or monthly errands list. Just ask many of the retailer’s customers, as the $12.7 billion company has continued to grow spectacularly in recent years (almost 20 percent from 2020 to 2021) at a time when other retailers have struggled. What started as a mail-order tractor parts business 84 years ago is now a chain with more than 2,000 stores across 49 U.S. states. The company bills itself as a “rural lifestyle retailer,” and that’s no stretch: A quick glance across one of its locations, often on the outskirts of towns and cities, shows its appeal to small farmers.
Another way to describe Tractor Supply is as a kinder and gentler Home Depot or Lowe’s, only with an apparel and footwear department along with pet and animal supplies — and without the massive space and endless aisles for building materials and home decor found at the larger home improvement retailers. For shoppers, perusing around one of these stores is also quite manageable; the average size of a Tractor Supply Store is about 15,500 square feet versus a Home Depot location, which typically has well over 100,000 square feet.
Any organization with the level of reach of Tractor Supply certainly has its environmental and social impacts — ones that the company’s leadership says it isn’t shying away from. Under the leadership of the company’s CEO, Hal Lawton, Tractor Supply has embarked on a plan to reduce its carbon footprint by 50 percent by the end of this decade, while slashing its water footprint by 25 percent by 2025.
“We believe we have a responsibility to live up to and maintain sustainability in all areas–from the way we treat our 46,000 team members to the way we tread lightly on the land,” Lawton wrote in Tractor Supply’s most recent sustainability report.
The company is also undertaking efforts to show that it’s a responsible employer. This year, Tractor Supply kicked off a five-year plan to boost the ranks of people of color at the manager level above by 50 percent; pledged a 35 percent increase in spend on diverse suppliers; and promised to ramp up its current spending on various programs, including those focused on education, by 30 percent.
Given that Tractor Supply has long had a focus on smaller, rural communities, it only makes sense that the company would launch a foundation with a mission to assist such communities in need. Hence the founding of the Tractor Supply Company Foundation in 2020. “There was an immediate need to support family farms. For instance, as local truck farmers sales to restaurants evaporated at the beginning of the pandemic, small family operations were significantly impacted,” said Mary Winn Pilkington, the president of the Tractor Supply Foundation and the company’s senior vice president of investor relations and public relations. “We wanted to get involved and provide some stability for these family farmers, because they bring so much to our community and are great neighbors to us.”
Part of the foundation’s mission is its work with the American Farmland Trust (AFT), a nonprofit that strives to improve the viability of small farms, protect endangered farmland and supports farmers who seek a transition for their land to regenerative agriculture. “We loved that American Farmland Trust’s mission speaks for the land — and for the people who grow our food,” Pilkington added, “so we knew this was the perfect kind of investment partner for the Tractor Supply Company Foundation.”
To that end, the Tractor Supply Foundation has given $1.8 million during the past two years to AFT and other organizations it supports.
One of the AFT’s programs in which the company’s foundation has shown much interest in advancing is the Brighter Future Fund. This AFT program, which originally started with seed money from Tillamook, offers direct support in the form of grants to small farmers. As with the AFT’s wider mission, the Fund’s grants seek to improve farms’ viability, protect farmland and encourage the adoption of more regenerative agricultural practices. But for the most recent phase of grant applications, AFT sought out women farmers, as well as those tilling the land who identify as Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ.
Earlier this month, AFT announced that more than 200 of these farmers received individual grants of up to $5,000. Among the recipients were Dani Fegan, an Ojibwe-Anishinaabe woman and the owner-operator of Three Dogs Seed Farm in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Fegan’s award provided her the funds she needed to install a groundwater well, along with a solar-powered pump to aid in her farm’s irrigation. “This is incredible and will provide our farm with security that we currently don’t have, increased resilience in the face of climate change and opportunities that just were not reasonably available to us before,” Fegan said in an emailed statement to 3p.
Sharon Autry, a vegetable farmer who runs Herdsman House Farm in Kansas, said she would use her grant money for projects including irrigation, wash stations, raised beds and a greenhouse. “It really will go a long way in pushing my farm forward and increasing my ability to grow and distribute more local food,” Autry said.
Partnerships such as those linking Tractor Supply and AFT are crucial as small farmers across the board struggle to keep working on their land. From a peak of 6.8 million farms in 1935, the number of farms in the U.S. plunged sharply through the early 1970s, and today is on a slower yet steady decline. In 2007, the number of U.S. farms totaled 2.2 million; as of 2020 the number was just over above 2 million. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest that although 89 percent of U.S. farms are considered “small,” their gross cash farm income averages only about $350,000. That may sound like a lofty number, but again, that’s revenue, not profit. A 2015 USDA study found the average profit margin for a farm was only 4.7 percent, and the smaller the farm, the lower the profit margin. Most small farmers in the U.S., in fact, rely on other sources for their household income.
For Black farmers, many of whom witness the outright robbing of their land over the past 100 years while the USDA often looked the other direction — or even participated in such unfair practices — the situation is even more dire when compared to all farmers, whether you look at the numbers that crunch the average size of their farms, net income or amount of government payments. “Taken together, the inability of Black Americans to fully participate in the land market has resulted in a lost opportunity for generational wealth creation,” concluded the consultancy McKinsey in a November 2021 report.
Women farmers also face their own set of challenges. The number of women farmers in the U.S. has surged in recent years, to the point that female-led farms outnumbered those run by men by 2017. The USDA also found that at least 56 percent of the farms across the country has at least one woman who is a decision-maker. But the macro numbers don’t tell the whole story, as women in general operate smaller farms that make less money. “In a highly consolidated industry — in which large corporate firms dominate more than half of the country's production — women tend to own smaller farms, thus yielding smaller profits,” wrote Emily Moon for Pacific Standard in 2019. Moon cited USDA data that found that a third of women-run farms made less that $1,000 a year, with the majority making less than $10,000; only 16 percent of such farms generated more than $50,000 in profits. The passion more women hold to work on land is undeniable, but whether they can continue to farm in the long run is an open question for many female farmers.
It’s farmers like these mentioned above make up an important part of Tractor Supply’s consumer base, so it’s only natural that the company and its foundation are determined to see that such small farmers survive, especially given the bevy of challenges they faced since COVID-19 started to wreak havoc two years ago.
“While they’re not known as the kind of people to complain, one could say small farmers and ranchers were among some of the hardest hit by the challenges brought on by the pandemic given that the nature of their business is very volatile, even in the best of times,” Pilkington explained. “It’s hard work, and that’s something our customers take pride in. They are resilient with very inspiring stories.”
This commitment from Tractor Supply will be ongoing, inferred Pilkington. “Most farms are small family farms, and they operate almost half of U.S. farmland, while generating just over 20 percent of production. We all need to do what we can to protect this critical part of our agricultural landscape,” she said.
Image credits via Leon Kaye
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.