Moving It Forward: Young entrepreneur shapes family feed-store business


Issue Date: October 23, 2019
By Ching Lee
Kayla Wheeler-Dunlap says the addition of a boutique inside the family feed store in Butte County has helped the business evolve.
Photo/Portraits by Ricki

(Editor's note: This is the final installment of a three-part Ag Alert® series about different paths young farmers and ranchers take as they build their agricultural careers.)

In an era when mom-and-pop operations are being cannibalized by big-box stores, fifth-generation cattle rancher Kayla Wheeler-Dunlap has different plans for her family's business.

Having just celebrated its 20th anniversary last month, Wheeler Ranch and Feed in Butte County is not exactly your grandfather's feed store. In fact, it's not even like it was when Wheeler-Dunlap's parents, Doug and Kari Wheeler, first opened it on their home ranch in Biggs.

"They opened it when I was 7," Wheeler-Dunlap said. "I've grown up here. I always knew this was going to be my home."

As the new owner of the store after managing it for more than two years, Wheeler-Dunlap emphasized what hasn't changed about the business—its focus on feed, ranching supplies and customer service—and how she'd like to evolve the business so that it's more than a feed store. Customers still can see the nearby fields that produce the hay sold at the store. The ranch also features a horse-riding arena with stables and a variety of farm animals, "almost like a petting zoo."

"We're trying to engage the public to say, 'Hey, you don't have to come here to buy something. Just come and look at the animals and enjoy this beautiful sunshine,'" she said. "My mom and dad definitely designed (the store) with the idea that we're going to have a place where kids can come to learn about horses, cattle, chickens, animals that they wouldn't necessarily have at home—to give light to agriculture."

With the addition of Wheeler Ranch Boutique, the only boutique in Biggs, the feed store has also become a destination for the latest styles in women's Western wear. The store has been "dabbling" in clothing since she was in high school, when it started selling a few shirts and jeans.

"There was nowhere else that was selling anything around us," she said. "You'd have to go to Chico or Yuba City, so my mom started slowly bringing in things."

Though that part of the business started more as a hobby, she said, it's turned into "something that helped the store evolve." These days, the boutique is stocked with new arrivals every week and ships items all over the country. To keep up on the latest trends, Wheeler-Dunlap said she goes to different market shows and pre-buys upcoming fashion, "bringing in new things that haven't been around our area."

With a "heavy customer base" on Instagram, she said the boutique has been expanding and she's constantly adding to it because "people are recognizing us."

"I joke, because seriously, what other place can you come and buy chicken feed and a really cute top?" Wheeler-Dunlap said.

First and foremost, Wheeler Ranch and Feed still supplies plenty of feed—for general livestock, show animals and pets. With two fairs in Butte County, the store keeps busy from January through August, when show feed is in high demand.

On the ranching side, the Wheeler family runs a cow-calf operation in the foothills of Oroville. Doug Wheeler contracts with Snake River Farms in Idaho, which markets American Wagyu beef, the result of cross-breeding Japanese Wagyu with American breeds of cattle. The family will sell their first American Wagyu calves to Snake River in December. Wheeler-Dunlap and her husband, Jacob Dunlap, who runs his own cattle herd in Gridley, also have started building a small herd.

The Wheeler family has been longtime hay farmers, a business Doug Wheeler started as another income source when cattle prices weren't doing so well. Now, the hay is sought after, Wheeler-Dunlap said, and is used to feed all the animals the family keeps at the feed store.

Wheeler-Dunlap credits her mother as a major influence—from the way she deals with customers and the public to her community involvement.

"I always looked up to that," she said. "When I was little, I knew what I was going to do, and it was to become my mom, essentially. A lot of people laugh because I'm like her little mini-me."

But it was her time working for Butte County Farm Bureau that got her involved in agricultural advocacy and eventually the Young Farmers and Ranchers program. As a staff member, she started going to YF&R meetings to give members updates on what Farm Bureau was doing on a county level. That led her to become a YF&R member herself.

The feed store also began giving 10% discounts to customers who are Farm Bureau members. This year alone, the store so far has provided discounts of more than $20,000, Wheeler-Dunlap said.

"I think that's why I got so involved in YF&R—it's because I fell in love with Farm Bureau," she said.

She said YF&R has allowed her to connect with others who are of "the same mindset"—people who may be taking over a family operation or starting out in their career.

With her mother passing the baton to her this year on the feed store, Wheeler-Dunlap said her "No. 1 goal in life" is to keep the family business going for the next generation, so she can pass it on too.

"That's why it is important for me to stay involved in issues and organizations like Farm Bureau," she said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.