Auction! The Music of Competitive Markets
The song goes on at 1100 livestock auctions in the U.S.. But these bastions of competitive marketing are under siege; a system of 'captive supply' is gaining a monopoly over what we eat.
How do you get people to pay $1000 for a watermelon? With a good auctioneer. Danny Maas of Elgin, TX, inspired the bidders at the 2007 McDade Watermelon Festival as event organizer Melvin Dubie, of McDade, scanned the crowd.
Photo: Bill Bishop
I hate, HATE to shop. With one exception — when there’s theatre seating, a guy scatting into a microphone and the smell of cow patties in the air.
An auction brings out the buyer in everyone, even a tightwad like me. That competitive streak turns hi-ho silver, and the nervous energy that a good auctioneer can channel works like a fuse. Suddenly your hand’s in the air: you’re going home with a crocheted baby blanket or a hog.
The livestock auction is farming and ranching’s opera, though Pavarotti (may he rest in peace) never sang straight through from 11:30 in the morning till past 3 pm, like these cowboy divas do. Keith Bexley, presiding at last Thursday’s auction in Lockhart, Texas, took just a minute’s break for the buyers to crack a few Viagra jokes, and then he was back bubbling numbers. Four hours of non-stop chanting. FOUR HOURS!! Near enough to reach Krishna consciousness.
If you’ve never been to an auction, you’re missing one of the great popular arts of rural America. But thanks to the Livestock Marketing Association, based in Kansas City, you can at least get an earful. The LMA holds a world championship competition for auctioneers each year, and they’ve posted soundclips of past winners all the way the back to 1963.
(Warning: If you are over-caffeinated or prone to heart arrhythmia do NOT touch these links. The Daily Yonder takes no responsibility for accidents.)
If you do dare listen, you’ll hear a range of styles: Canadian tenors and spooky-toned types from the Upper Midwest. (The fellows from South Dakota seem especially good at shuddering vocals: Vincent Price in a Stetson.) Ed Buckner of Mexico, Missouri, the earliest champ, takes a shoutin’ preacher approach, effective, no doubt, with Pentacostal buyers. In contrast, Trent Stewart, the 2006 winner from Redmond, Oregon, clicks and boings like a jew’s harp.
Auctioneer Keith Bexley, top left, serves as ringmaster of the Lockhart Livestock Auction, each Thursday. With plenty of grass, cattle prices are high this summer.
Photo: Julie Ardery
We spoke with 2005 World Champion Ron Kreis about how he began chanting for a living. “My dad’s an auctioneer,ï¿½? says Kreis, of Adamsville, Ohio. “I’ve been around auctions all my life, holding stuff for dad at auction sales and chasing stuff around here.ï¿½? Kreis and his father both hold forth at the Muskingum Livestock Sale in Zanesville, 15 miles from home. The auction there “runs about 1200 head a weekï¿½? — cattle, hogs and sheep— each Wednesday. Kreis says that an auctioneer can make "six figures," by selling not just livestock but real estate, antiques, and cars, too. He also teaches at Missouri Auction School (one of about twenty programs in the US).
Ron’s chant is distinctive. If he ever tires of auctioneering he’d make a terrific racetrack announcer. “Make sure you’re easy to understand, ” he advises. “Then throw some speed to it. Use whatever ever comes off your tongue for your filler words.ï¿½? He calls his style, “an eastern thing. You get your guys from Texas and Oklahoma; they’re a lot faster, more a machine gun type auctioneering. I still have my eastern sound. It’s not quite as twangy.ï¿½?
As gates clank and cattle groan, the bidding itself is silent, subtle. Who's actually participating? That can get tricky for the auctioneer, Kreis says, “especially if you’re at a farm and there are flies out or they’re swatting bees.ï¿½? Whatever the circumstances, his job is “to get every body excited,ï¿½? Kreis says. “That’s how you discover what things are worth.ï¿½?
Behind the auction's theatrics, though, there’s a much bigger drama unfolding in the livestock industry — the move from competitive markets like the Muskingum and Lockhart sales to a system of “captive supplies.ï¿½? Unlike former times, now nearly half of the cattle sold in the U.S. sells directly, under contracts with the packing companies, bypassing the auction barn altogether. So what? you may ask.
Well, according to one source, “captive supplies for cattle alone cost family farmers and ranchers more than $1 billion in 2003.ï¿½? It’s a matter of prices, and more fundamentally it’s a matter of control. While American consumers weren’t looking, a handful of huge companies have come to dominate the nation’s food supply. The beef industry especially has become a near monopoly.
“Things have changed an awful lot from the days in the past when the cattle of all categories were sold under an auctioneers gavel,ï¿½? says Fred Stokes of Porterville, Mississippi. “Now the sale barn deals primarily in calves and feeder cattle,ï¿½? he says, but fat cattle (livestock ready for “harvestingï¿½?) increasingly sell directly to big meat producers like Tyson (IBP). Stokes was raised on a family farm and, after retiring from the military, got into farming himself, "with the intention of getting rich. I didn’t quite surmise that the game was rigged. And I’ve been on a tear to unrig it." To that end, Stokes directs the Organization for Competitive Markets.
When the market is increasingly dominated by only a few meat packers, livestock producers have fewer choices about sales: when, to whom, for how much. The Packers and Stockyard Act (PSA) of 1921 was created to break up monopolies, maintain competition, and prevent price manipulation. But “unfortunately, the PSA is a model case of a good law that is not enforced. Complaints and petitions to the federal Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) are not acted upon, and the agency remains understaffed. A recent GAO report chastised GIPSA for not using its authority to protect farmers.ï¿½?
Nick Voudouris and his blue heeler Queenie check out the merchandise ringside at the Lockhart Livestock Auction, August 23, 2007.
Photo: Julie Ardery
John McBride of the Livestock Marketing Association says, “There’s a phrase in our industry: “˜They never go into the country to give you more for their livestock.'”¦ Selling direct to a packer, you get whatever he decides to pay you that day. He’s eliminated competition. You’re really crippling yourself if you decide to go direct.ï¿½? But when there’s only one cattle buyer left in the region, who else are producers supposed to sell to? (For an overview of the current problems that monopolies are causing U.S. farmers and consumers, see this essay by William Greider.)
McBride estimates that there are currently 1000 to 1100 livestock auctions in operation across the U.S. Some are struggling, but all are strongholds of competitive marketing. And each one is a rural opera house, too.
Keith Bexley chants for four hours straight each Thursday in Lockhart, Texas (listen below)
Photo: Julie Ardery
Speaking of competition, it’s time to register for the LMA 2008 World Championship. If you work in the Southwest or West, actually, you've missed the deadline. But auctioneers from the East and Midwest can still sign up, until October 26. And don’t worry about out-pacing Ron Kreis or out-twanging Trent Stewart. So that no cowboy diva can monopolize the event, past champions can’t compete. For more information, contact the Livestock Marketing Association.
And for more on “captive suppliesï¿½? and related issues in agriculture, meet the un-riggers at the Organization for Competitive Markets.