On a warm August morning, retired teacher Janice Carrier stopped by the Garrard County Farmers Market to pick up some fresh produce.
She didn’t have much choice if she didn’t want to drive out of the county. Garrard County — an agricultural county that raises food for others — has had no supermarket that sells fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh meats since 2008, when a store called Lynco Foods closed its doors.
Years before then, Carrier said, “I used to shop here. I used to shop at IGA and Food Town. Those were the only places I got my groceries when they were here.”
As with many small, rural towns across the country, Lancaster saw those and other chains and locally owned stores close.
“It’s a symptom of a larger issue that should be of significance to all of us, and that is the ongoing decay of rural communities,” said John-Mark Hack, former director of the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy and a partner in Marksbury Farm Market, a slaughter operation north of Lancaster that supplies meat for upscale restaurants in Lexington, Louisville and elsewhere.
Garrard County — also known for its production of burley tobacco — has more cattle and calves than Fayette and Woodford counties combined, according to estimates reported in May by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
But Garrard County appears to be the only county in Kentucky that does not have a full-scale grocery that sells fresh produce and fresh meat, according to a 2014 database of all the stores in the state that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Even Nicholas County north of Lexington, with less than half Garrard’s population of 16,900, has a Save-A-Lot grocery in Carlisle.
Geography and economics are two primary reasons why Garrard County doesn’t have a full-scale grocery.
It’s only a four-mile drive from Lancaster’s southern city limits to a Walmart Supercenter in Stanford, the Lincoln County seat. (For this reason, Lancaster doesn’t fit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of a rural “food desert,” which is defined as an area more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store.) There’s another Walmart in Danville, 12 miles to the west.
Those two stores have a nearly 72 percent share of the Garrard County retail market, according to a 2014 study conducted by Associated Wholesale Grocers, a retailer-owned cooperative.
“We’ve had several groceries that started here and they went out because they couldn’t compete with Walmart,” said farmers market vendor Willa Pitzer.
Meanwhile, people in northern Garrard are more oriented to Nicholasville. Residents in Paint Lick and southeastern Garrard drive to Berea or Richmond in Madison County to get their groceries.
Farmers market vendor Katie Farthing said she buys her groceries in Richmond, where she works in an insurance office. She orders online through Kroger ClickList, then picks up the items before returning home to Paint Lick. She also noted that Lynco Foods, the store that closed, tended to have higher prices.
“So when Walmart’s just down the road, that’s where people go so they could get the lower prices,” Farthing said. “When you’ve got a community like ours that’s lower-income, you’ve got to keep that in mind, too.”
As for economics, grocers look at the concentration of population, commuter patterns and access to competitors in determining where to locate a store. Some grocers want an existing space but couldn’t find a building that met their minimum square footage. Others said Lancaster was just outside the supply radius of their existing stores. One company made a commitment to locate in Lancaster in 2012 but the deal eventually fell apart.
Jimmy Higdon, former owner of a Foodtown IGA in Lebanon and now a Republican state senator, said he looked at putting a grocery in Lancaster shortly after Lynco closed in 2008.
“I didn’t think I could make it work,” he said.
Higdon said the grocery business “is a big investment with fairly high overhead and razor thin (profit) margins. Lancaster is so close to Danville and Stanford that it just really makes it difficult for an independent grocer to make that major investment.
“That’s not to say that a grocery store wouldn’t make it in Lancaster,” Higdon added. “But the thing is finding the person who is willing to take the risk, who’s willing to build a new building and get all new equipment.”
The situation is frustrating for people like former state Rep. Lonnie Napier, who didn’t seek re-election in 2012 after 27 years in the Kentucky House. Napier, who owns a clothing store on Lancaster’s courthouse square, said a local grocery store has been a priority for constituents.
“Listen, when I was a state representative, I’ve even had people tell me, ‘If you can’t get me a grocery store, I can’t vote for you,’” Napier said. “I said, ‘I’ve done the best I can. I’d be willing to go into business with you if you want to put one in.’”
Even though he’s no longer in elected office, Napier still works with Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson in a ongoing effort to recruit a grocery. They believe Lancaster could support a store, and point to the Associated Wholesale Grocers study that says there are two potential sites in Lancaster.
One is existing space at Pleasant Retreat Plaza, the shopping center on Lancaster’s southern edge where Lynco was located. A store there would have “first-year, year-end, weekly sales” of $94,000, the study estimated.
The other possibility would involve building a store on a tract north of downtown and near McDonald’s at Bethany Trace and U.S. 27. A store at that site would have estimated weekly sales of $110,000 at the end of its first year, the study projected.
The estimates for a “conventional,” 20,000-square-foot store in Lancaster did not include a possible pharmacy or fuel pumps.
Wilson, the Garrard judge-executive, said in late July that there were three separate companies looking at Lancaster as a store site.
“That’s the first time we’ve had that level of interest in some time,” he said. The county offers an incentive package that includes rebates on the net profits tax and occupational tax.
Lancaster has a Dollar General store south of the courthouse square and Family Dollar store north of the square. Both offer many items found in a grocery, including milk, eggs and processed meats.
And while there isn’t a butcher shop in town, The Meat Shop on the Garrard-Lincoln line south of Lancaster sells fresh meats and plans to expand, said owner Jason Lowery.
“My goal is to be open before the end of the year,” Lowery said. “We won’t have all the selections but we’re going to have enough product that a person could come in and feed their family. We’re going to have a fresh produce section, a dairy section.”
Marksbury Farm Market has a retail store that sells fresh meats about seven miles north of Lancaster. That store and a nearby restaurant draw as many customers from outside Garrard as inside.
“That’s a mix of Danville people, people coming from Lexington and what I call the Ohio Armada, the Lake Cumberland folks who are coming down U.S. 27,” Hack said.
One person who isn’t clamoring for a new grocery is Eddie Sutton, owner of a small neighborhood store in Lancaster called Local Market. He assumed ownership of the store earlier this year as the former owner, E.J. Hasty, was in ill health. (Hasty died in August.)
If a supermarket came to Lancaster, could Sutton’s store survive?
“It would be much harder but I probably could,” Sutton said. “The previous owner had been here 43 years, and this little store survived when they had three grocery stores in town.”