Johnsen’s Farm & Country Store owner surprised 25 years have gone by
ELBURN – Johnsen’s Farm & Country Store owner Phyllis Johnsen didn’t realize her store had been in business for 25 years until she received an offer from a marketing company for pens with the name of her store and a 25-year gold insignia on them.
“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years!” she said. “I just enjoy pretty much every day.”
Johnsen had worked in retail stores for most of her life, so when her second child was born and she decided she wanted to work closer to home, she thought why not open her own store.
She had met her husband, KC, at college in Wisconsin. His father was a dairy farmer, and after college, KC went into the business of raising heifers to sell to dairy farmers.
A friend built the building for the store on her in-laws’ farm property on Route 38, and she framed the inside of the store with wood from the old barn that had been there.
Her inventory includes all sorts of horse products, such as horse supplements, fly sprays and hoof conditioners; feed for horses, chickens and other animals; and more recently, wild bird feed and birdhouses. She said that bird-watching has become the second most popular hobby in the United States, next to gardening.
“I try to develop relationships with my customers,” she said. “I always say hello right away when someone comes in, but I’m not a high-pressure sales person. I try to help people out with all their needs.”
Her customers are a mix of demographics – everyone from high school girls with horses, adult women with children, and recent immigrants, some of whom don’t speak English.
“We’ve always been able to figure out what they need,” she said.
She said a lot of elderly customers are really into birds. So she has built her knowledge of bird feeders, as well as what species of birds the various feeds will attract. She said she tries to carry unique bird feeders, higher-end designs and those that people won’t find in the big-box stores.
Despite being a country girl now, Johnsen grew up in the city, and was 30 years old before she got her first horse. She and her family made up for lost time, raising horses, mini-horses, donkeys, goats, chickens, turkeys, a peacock, African geese and pot-bellied pigs on the 12 acres of farmland that surrounds the store. Her children participated in 4-H. She builds the stalls herself, as well as the fencing, learning by trial and error.
“I’ve always been kind of tomboyish, with an interest in animals and tools,” she said. “Plus, I’ve always got to be doing something.”
Her favorite presents from her husband have included box cutters and a new circular saw. Since she sells Christmas trees in the winter, she had to learn how to use a chain saw to cut them.
“You do what you’ve got to do,” she said.
Horse trainer and boarder Pat Bunge has been a customer of the feed store ever since it opened. Bunge said that with a business such as hers, it’s important to have a good, reliable source for feed and other horse-related products.
“If she doesn’t have it (a particular product), she gets it,” Bunge said of Johnsen. “She’s hardworking and she knows her products. They’re just honest, good people.”
Bunge said sometimes they just sit and “gab.”
“She’s a great gal,” Bunge said.
Johnsen experienced a ruptured appendix in 2000, which led to a terrible infection that left her sick for months. Two of her friends, Pat Anderson and Joan Bassler, took over running the store for her during that time.
“It was exhausting and I had help,” Bassler said. “I don’t know how she does it. It’s really physically demanding.”
Bassler said that Johnsen really knows her customers – who they are, what they want, and then she carries it to their car.
“She’s in perpetual motion,” Bassler said.
Chuck Bauer, another longtime friend, helped Bassler take over the store more recently, when Johnsen had both her hips replaced in 2006.
Bauer said the store is really a neat place.
“There are lots of other places to buy things,” he said. “People like to do business there. Phyllis is a special person.”