Country Store opens number three in Santee despite pandemic

Heather and Terry Thelen are on a mission to keep homesteading arts alive and thriving, so much so that they opened up a third branch of their family-run Hawthorne Country Store in Santee right as a pandemic was hitting San Diego county.

“We had two good reasons to open up here, regardless of the pandemic. First, we wanted to have a location to service South San Diego properties with highway access, hay storage and proper zoning. When East County feed chose to close, this property was already set up close to what we needed. Second, the location matches our core principles to support, maintain and foster homesteading,” Heather Thelen said.

The COVID pandemic hit right after deadly Newcastle Disease spread through regional flocks of chickens “so we already understood the concept of biosecurity,” Heather Thelen said, and many of their regular customers grasped how deadly one virus can be and how quickly it can spread. That advance knowledge didn’t ensure business success but it lent itself well to holding steady with a consistent customer base while waiting for the pandemic to pass.

“Expanding a business during COVID was such a moment where you sort of give a big sigh and figure it out. What should have taken one year to establish is probably going to take more like two,” Heather Thelen said.

On a larger scale, she said the pandemic made people question ‘how do I make do’?

“Homesteading is all about using what you have and learning how to get things done with what you have available; this past year, people really learned how to appreciate the things that take time,” Heather Thelen said.

In the normal world, she said, they’d be on track right now to expand classes and workshops.

“We usually have so many classes in fiber arts, beekeeping, organic planting, vintner classes, but of course none of that is happening right now, Heather Thelen said.

On the other hand, they did just manage to hold a Chicktopia event where hundreds of families were gifted a chicken goodie bag and five chicks to start their chicken flock. Yearly, the Thelan family holds the spring event to help families expand chicken flocks and poultry knowledge.

“More and more families are finding that chickens are pets that come with great benefits, such as producing protein, creating fertilizer, and recycling waste,” Heather Thelen said.

Although this year was more constrained than past events at their other locations in Escondido and Fallbrook, with families required to register in advance and follow stringent COVID-19 distancing guidelines, Heather said she anticipates things will be a little looser by the time they get to their annual fall Flocktober event in the fall.

“That is a great event for kids with snacks and crafts, really it is so important to teach kids what it takes to put food on the table,” Heather Thelen said.

Normally, they hold a regular class called ‘Two Chickens and a Tomato’ to encourage the idea that even young children, or someone new to the concepts or short on space can learn the processes involved with homesteading.

“Those skills transfer over from a small patio to a large space, they’re skills built on necessity, grown into an art form… That’s why we call it homesteading arts,” Heather Thelen said

“We do a lot of things online but there really is nothing like being in person, hearing the sounds and smelling the scent of an art form”.

Terry Thelen said he just had carpal tunnel surgery that likely arose from constantly using hay bale hooks but believes “it’s important to be out there, be physically present,” daily.

“We’re constantly combating big-box versions and beyond the concern about putting the little guys out of business, I’m concerned we’re losing people with knowledge, those know-how people where you can go into a store and say something like ‘my cow’s losing hair’ and someone replies with ‘Well, let’s talk about ringworm’,” Heather Thelen said.

“Common sense things aren’t as common as they used to be and I’m really passionate about educating our customers on things I enjoy. You can never stop learning, never stop growing and trying,” Terry Thelen said.