For this week’s #ShopFranklin Spotlight, I interviewed Melanie Hamblen of Franklin Agway!
The Agway has been around in Franklin for a long time, but it’s about to undergo a major metamorphosis. A biologist by trade, Mel and her husband, Neal White, bought the business less than two months ago, and they’ve been busy turning it into what Mel likes to call “a hardware store for my lifestyle.” At their home, they keep chickens and bees, and Mel has been gardening since childhood, so when they moved to Franklin in 2010, Mel and Neal found themselves spending a lot of their free time at the Agway. Unfortunately, their commutes to downtown Boston every day meant that they didn’t have a lot of free time to spend. Although they were happy with their new home, they found that they didn’t have enough time to get to know their neighbors and the community as well as they would like. “We felt after a while that we were missing some kind of connection,” Mel says. “There was something missing… it was really important to be happy and to live a better life.”
In 2014, Mel and Neal made their first attempt to buy the Franklin Agway, but the purchase didn’t work out at that point. The idea was never far from their minds, though, and earlier this year, the time was finally right to make the move. Mel and Neal became the new owners of the Agway in late March of 2016, and while the former owners stayed on for a couple of weeks to help out, there were hundreds of things for them to do. Despite the stress and long hours involved in the transition, Mel knew instantly that they’d made the right move. “After three days here, Neal said to me, ‘These have to be the best three days of work of my life!’”
The Agway’s new motto is “Feed it. Grow it. Make it,” and Mel’s plan is to turn it into more than just a store. “If we don’t have it, we can try to get it for you,” she says, but she also wants to make the Agway into a resource and education center for the local community. How-to classes are definitely in Mel’s long-term plan for the store; she makes her own beer, cheese, and yogurt, among other things, and she knows others in the community would be interested in learning as well. “There’s a lot of things to learn how to do and a lot of times people don’t have the time to learn on their own, and they want somebody to tell them ‘What’s the best way you’ve found to do things?’” She’s already started compiling advice from her expert employees to post on the store’s new blog, such as Marty the “lawn guy’s” answers to a list of frequently asked questions on lawn and garden care. Mel’s “goal is to get [Ryan] our chicken expert to write some things, Emily’s here and she’s a horse person, I grow all the plants from seed and do all kinds of stuff… so when I start getting more questions from people I’ll post those.” Also featured prominently on the new website are the Agway’s local farmers and suppliers, such as Nick Hoffman of Hoffman Farm in Franklin, and Jim Ward of Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon.
With more and more people turning their back yards into urban farms, the Agway is the place to go for all the supplies you need to keep your flocks and hives happy and healthy. Mel and Neal now stock beekeeping supplies, and they’ll soon be carrying a full range of all-natural, organic feed and other products for chickens. If you’re interested in keeping your own little flock, Mel notes that Franklin does have some regulations to follow, but chickens are “pretty easy to take care of and they’re a lot of fun. If I let them out when I’m digging in the garden, they’ll follow me around and eat all the worms.” As long as they have a sheltered place out of the wind, they’ll get through a Massachusetts winter just fine, according to Mel. Although her chicken expert says they don’t really need a heat lamp in their coop, Mel has one for her six chickens anyway. “I’m kind of soft on my chickens!” she laughs.
While you can still get conventional lawn and garden treatments at the Agway, Mel and Neal are “trying to find alternatives to everything,” and they plan to carry a wide range of organic and all-natural fertilizers, weed controls, pest controls, and more. As beekeepers, they’re especially passionate about finding alternatives to neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been implicated in colony collapse disorder. “I like to believe that people really want to know how to be more thoughtful and become better stewards of the earth, but they don’t know what to do, and I feel like our role is to help them,” Mel says. “I like being that resource for people.”