Jim Lee, manager of the Southern States Cooperative store in Manassas, leafed through a morning's worth of sales receipts. Customers had purchased flea dip, a rabbit water bottle, vegetable seed, garden dust and dog toys.
"Oh, here's one," Lee said. "Look, somebody actually bought hog feed."
In the rolling green countryside of Northern Virginia, a quiet transformation is taking place. The agricultural cooperatives that once did a big business in hog feed and cattle liniments are, one by one, adapting to a suburban market for outdoor furniture, hanging flower baskets and back yard barbecue grills.
The shelves and bookkeeping records of the Manassas store tell the story of what has happened in Prince William County and other places as development has spread. In the past six years, Prince William's population has surged 23 percent; 85 percent or more of the Manassas store's sales now are to suburbanites. There are only about four serious farm customers left.
"It's my opinion that in five years this will be an urban store, completely," Lee said.
In one corner of the store is a gleaming new outdoor furniture set and a grill. These items were introduced for the first time this spring. There also is a row of shiny lime-green tractors, all of them sized for wheeling around subdivision yards.
Lee's store has five shelves devoted to suburban lawn and garden treatments, such as Weed-B-Gon. Several years ago, it had one. Fertilizer sales have shifted from 80-pound bags of "10-10-10" for crops, to smaller bags of new compounds aimed at promoting green grass and lush back yard vegetable gardens.
"Five years ago, we sold very few bird feeders," Lee said. "Last year, we sold 1,200. This year, we expect to sell 1,800. And bird feed -- in the last five years, we've gone from five tons to 65 tons."
Strangely, sales of a thick yellow ointment known as Bag Balm are booming.
"We're selling Bag Balm by the boxes," he said, "but not more than 2 percent for what it was intended for, to keep down irritation on cow udders."
Nonfarmers have discovered that Bag Balm, despite its veterinary odor, helps heal dishwasher-rough hands, chapped lips and dry skin.
Lee can keep quoting statistics:
Sales of hog and cattle feed have declined 40 percent in the past five years. But the store now stocks cat food, and this year it expects to sell 3,000 rawhide chew bones for dogs.
Five years ago, his store sold 150 cases a year of a commercial herbicide for corn, called Attrex; now Lee sells about five cases a year, and it has to be specially ordered.
On one store wall is a refrigerator, formerly used to stock 250-milliliter bottles of penicillin and vaccinations for large animals. Now the largest bottles are 100-milliliters, and the medication is mostly for dogs and cats.
Sales of wheat and barley seeds have dropped from 800 bushels five years ago to only 50 this year. But lawn seed sales have risen from about 50,000 pounds five years ago to a projected 220,000 this year.
Change is felt in other ways, too. Lee, for instance, has had to adapt the store's hours to commuter work schedules. The Manassas store never used to be open on Sundays; now Sunday is a busy day.
Southern States prides itself on its farm business, but about 65 of its 600 stores, scattered from Delaware to North Carolina, cater to an urban-suburban clientele, said spokesman Jerry Gass.
In Northern Virginia, as elsewhere, the change followed the spread of development and the path of new highways.
It happened first at Southern States' Vienna store. Now it is happening in Manassas. Eight miles away, in dairy and livestock country, the Nokesville store is feeling the first rumblings.
"I expect that in the next couple of years there will be a pretty drastic change here, too," Nokesville manager James Croushorn said. Five years ago, 91 percent of his sales were agricultural; today it is down to 80 percent. The farmers, he added, are "thinning down."
In an effort to keep up with what it views as inevitable change, Southern States last year introduced vegetable seeds developed specifically for the back yard garden: Golden Delite sweet corn, Dasher cucumbers and Statesman tomatoes.
It also has introduced special turf grasses for lawns. The company still recruits employes from agricultural colleges, but it is, for the first time, hiring business and marketing majors and placing them in stores that do not require agronomic expertise, Gass said.
Urbanization also means that stores with shrinking numbers of farm customers, such as in Leesburg and Purcellville, Va., are being merged into one managerial district to facilitate the sharing of expensive equipment such as bulk feed trucks, he added.
Some stores, unable to keep a high percentage of farm customers, have lost their local cooperative status and autonomy. Like the Manassas store, they now are owned outright by Southern States.
One of the last farm customers to patronize the Manassas store is Harley Klines, who has a dairy herd of 120 Holsteins. He still needs a ton of grain a day, plus other supplies.
If Klines needs something special, he either stocks up on it or has to place a special order. There is, for example, only one box of ToDay One-Day Mastitis Treatment on the Manassas store shelves for cows.
Klines realizes that suburbanites have needs, too, and he has taken the changes in stride.
"I now have a housing subdivision across the street from me," he said. "I used to rent that land. I took the last crops off of it. In fact, most of the land around me, I took the last crops off of."
Another loyal customer is Kite Roseberry, who this year will buy 1,000 pounds of hay seed, 60 bags of seed corn and as much as four tons of hog feed from the cooperative.
"It gets to the point where it's very few farmers who are left to patronize the store in Manassas anymore," Roseberry said, "and you're all the time getting offers on your place. I'm just waiting for the right one."
The questions posed by customers, too, have changed. They are not asking about poultry disease or hog maintenance anymore.
"They focus almost entirely on how to take care of shrubs, how do you use a particular pesticide in your garden, do you have any weedkiller?" Lee said.
Horses seem to be the one exception, in part because many people moving into Prince William County can afford to own a horse and can maintain it on a small lot. Sales of curry combs, hoof dressings and horse feed are increasing, Lee added.
As he spoke, his telephone rang. A caller asked if Lee had any hay that could be used for back yard mulch.
"Hay will seed your yard," Lee answered. "You want straw."
Could the Manassas co-op provide a small quantity of straw? "I live in a town house," the caller said. "I don't need a whole bale."
Lee nodded sympathetically. He grew up on a farm in Virginia's Northern Neck. Now he, too, lives in a town house.