In case this title leads you to believe that I am going to write about Wallstreet, or Occupying It, then we should both be pondering the origins of the concept “stock market”. I refer not to abstract shares in abstract companies, but to tangible livestock and the markets at which these exchange hands. In farming communities, stock markets are busy places on sale days, cattle haulers and trucks coming and going with deliveries and pick ups. To instruct youth in how these operate, the county fairs have market sales of FFA (Future Farmer’s of America) and 4-H (County Extension youth horticulture program) raised livestock.
I wrote about the FFA Ham, Bacon, and Egg Sale in March. The county fairs occur in late summer, spreading out the time that students have to bread, raise, and train their livestock for sale. It also give us time to save up money to support them. In the meantime, professional livestock sales occur every week. In our region, there are five stockyards within driving distance: Moorefield, WV, two in Harrisonburg, VA, Winchester, VA, and Haggerstown, MD. The stockyards hold their auctions on different days of the week. Farmers from each region bring their cattle, hogs, goats, sheep, chickens, etc. early in the day, stay for the sale if they plan to purchase something other than what they brought, and haul their purchases back to the farm after the sale. In the meantime, sale day is a gathering.
A coworker filled me in on the sale day tradition in the Shenandoah Valley some years ago. I had made a comment that one of the local restaurents in Lost River area often had lots of vehicles parked outside on Thursday evening, which seemed odd as the population out there has more “weekenders” than locals. Her reply was “That’s market day”. Huh? Going back some decades, possibly a century or so, before plentiful transportation and inexpensive gas, the stock market was on Thursdays. When the farmers culled their herds, sold that year’s calves, etc. they brought them in on Thursday to the stockyard.
Their wives would come to town and do their marketing (referred to as grocery shopping where I grew up). As this was possibly the only day of the month or season that they were in “city” they would stop at a local restaurant for a meal with friends before heading to their rural homes. The trend is less obvious these days as college students outnumber farmers in town, and chain restaurants dominate the dinning options. But, if you want a cultural experience, have dinner at a local restaurant in a farm community on market day. Turn off your cell phone, and eavesdrop, politely, toward a table of folks who look like they live on and work the land.
If you really want a cultural experience, wander into a stock sale, take a seat, and watch the auction. You can anticipate that you will have no idea what is going on, what the auctioneer is calling out, or who is bidding. I need to attend a couple of sales to even “tune” my ear to the cadence of the bidding. The sale pavilions are usually large boxy arenas with wooden benches, walls, and ceilings that reverberate the sounds of the auctioneer, spotters, and the variety of animal sounds coming from the floor as well as the rest of holding pens. Image what Noah herd inside the arch! Bidders, who are usually known by the auctioneer, as well as their preferences for different type and qualities of livestock, appear to gain attention not by obvious hand waving and gestures, but by smaller and smaller movements. It is somewhat like whispering gain more attention than yelling. What is even more amazing is that these farmers can not only tell what they have just bid, but can calculate how much a bid of $1.10 vs $1.15 per pound is on a 956 pound heifer or a 1339 pound steer. I still have not figured out that the bid went from $1.10 to $1.15. To heighten the sensory experience, remember that they pavilions usually lack heat or air conditioning, let alone air filters of the aroma of several hundred animals in the pens.
The market sales at the county fairs have similar qualities, though occurring in the summer the temperature is usually close to triple digits and a thunderstorm should pass during the middle of the event. Also, the youth have been at the fair for the week, tending to their animals and participating in shows where they are judged for their breading and handling skills. You can decide whether the beauty contest is focused on the youth or the animal. As with the Ham, Bacon, and Egg Sale, the bidding can be fierce and is bidders are usually local businesses which receive the PR for their purchases.
If you plan to bid, stop at the sales desk to pick up a number and a sales list. This has the order in which the livestock will be sold. There are usually a few cages of rabbits and chickens, then goats, hogs, sheep and cattle. Rabbits and chickens are sold by the lot, which could be two to four in a pen. The rest are sold by the pound. Looking over the list, you can also identify what chapter (i.e. school) the student belong to, and consult with your friends at the sale to know whom to support (or whom to not bid against because that person plans to buy that student’s livestock). Should you be interested, you can get lots of stories (i.e.g gossip) about each youth and possibly their family. This is primarily a social event.
At the end of the sale, figure out how much of a hole you have made in your checking account. Let the sales desk know whether you will be taking your purchases home, “selling them back” for market value (to someone else who pays an agreed upon price), donating them back to the student, or having them picked up by a local butcher for processing. We chose the last option and fill up our deep freeze to preserve the harvest.
We could buy our meat for a lot less cost at the grocery store. What motivate us to attend the county fair market sales? First, we believe that this supports the students both in learning farming methods and business practices, but also in the traditions of local communities rather than agri-business. Second, we know where our food comes from, who raised it, and how it was treated during its life. Third, we know how it was processed, and the relatively short distance between farm, stockyard, butchering, and our home. Anyway, when was the last time your found rabbit, goat, or lamb at your store?