At the Auction

It’s easy to complain about the homogenization of culture. As much as the internet allows niche communities to thrive, these are divorced from a specific geographical region. The monotony of strip malls and chains restaurants lining congested four lane highways must send an existential shudder down the spine of even the most devout techno triumphalist. I don’t want to dismiss the value of online networks, since they can so obviously offer a place for the exchange of real ideas and emotion, but I nevertheless hold that embodied communities promote a specificity and quality of interaction that cannot be digitally replicated. Then I go to an event that is so distinctly, irreducibly itself that I am forced to reconsider not just my opinions on this, but basically everything about my life. In other words, sometimes I go to a livestock auction.

The purpose was a fact finding mission. After several years of trying to reduce the goldenrod and burdock in my pastures, I’ve decided that mowing them to death is boring, a waste of diesel and machinery, and not particularly effective. Unfortunately, my cows have made it clear that they do not care for goldenrod at all and that they’ll only eat burdock for about two weeks a year just as it flowers, which isn’t enough to set it back. I’ve heard, however, that sheep have a taste for both of these, a premise I am keen to test. Unfortunately, I didn’t budget for the purchase of the twenty sheep I think would be necessary to make a dent, and so I found myself at the auction with a vague idea that, if the price wasn’t too onerous, I could purchase them this spring and sell them back in the fall without risking a catastrophic financial loss.

I arrived five minutes before the start. The auction house had the haphazard jumble of walls and rooflines that can happen when a building has had several barn-sized additions over the years, and before I’d even got out of the car I could smell the manure. There was no signage, but after wandering past a pen of cows and then backtracking through a dire snack bar, I climbed some stairs and found myself in an amphitheatre of sorts. At the front of it was a small but extremely robust paddock with the auctioneer's gallery behind, rising a good ten feet off the ground. When he finally arrived this put him at my exactly my level, heightening the awkward feeling I sometimes get at these things that simply making eye contact will be mistaken for a bid.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It quickly became clear that the start time was a very rough estimate. There were a few people in ahead of me, but most wandered in over the next twenty-five minutes. Meanwhile, down front there was a scrum of activity as an assortment of boxes were carried in and shuffled around. There were diaper and lawnmower and food service-sized ketchup boxes, each tied closed with baling twine. As is the case with most events in these parts the audience was older, though there were a few guys about my age in muddy overalls, as well as a family with four young children.

About half an hour after the scheduled start time the auctioneer finally ambled up, slapped his gavel a few times, and got things underway. The first item out of the gait was a women’s jacket, which went for seven dollars, followed by a “fancy ladies’ sweater,” which, despite being fancy, fetched only one.

The boxes tied up with twine turned out to contain roosters ($3-4.50), rabbits ($7-10), ducks ($5-7), and a goose ($10). Even as someone who’s generally unfazed by roosters and geese and such, I found myself a bit disconcerted. “Got a nice big bunny here,” the auctioneer would say, whacking his gavel a couple times to start the bidding. “Who’ll give me five for a nice big bunny?” Meanwhile, one of his assistants would be pulling a confused rabbit from a motor oil box and displaying it, as proudly as a magician before an astonished audience.

The food items followed, with fourteen dozen eggs ($2.30/doz), about twenty loaves of bread ($2.75), homemade butter ($3.50/pt.), a dubious looking dairy product described as “farmer cheese” ($3/qt.), potatoes ($2.50-4/ten lbs., $16/fifty lbs.), and most of all pies ($6-9/apple, $7.50/cherry). The customers all had identifying numbers, and apparently many of them were regulars who maintained theirs from week to week. The auctioneer took pride in having memorized a shocking number of their names.

It was only when these items had all gone and he announced he would start in on cows in half an hour that I had my first inkling there would be no sheep sold, a fact I confirmed with a woman in the office. Looking over the auction listing now, I can see how a more careful reading on my part would have avoided the confusion, but it was nevertheless a disappointment. I won’t go into the boring details, but the upshot was that the closest thing would get was a couple goats and two groups of pigs that were set to go sometime in the middle of the afternoon.

I wandered around pens for a while, looking at the giant, bony cows and the somewhat less emaciated heifers. I’d been uncomfortable with the methods of transportation and display used for the small animals, so I was happy to see all of the larger stock kept clean and with access to feed and water. The atmosphere was casually social, as farmers and non-farmers alike looked at the bull being held in his own small stall or discussed the relative merits of the Duroc and Yorkshire piglets in neighboring pens.

At the outset of this post I held that physical events can have a quality and specificity of interaction that cannot be digitally replicated, and this auction certainly checked those boxes. It will likely keep checking them so long as farming continues in this area, at least until someone figures out how to send a bred heifer via e-mail. It’s not what I imagine when I envision an agricultural community - I want shared knowledge, resources, and friendship - but I guess the ability to buy a neighbor's sweater or nice, big bunny any Monday I want is better than nothing.

-Garth

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