A sells her steer

End of August; school starts tomorrow, although interscholastic sports have started already. Last weekend it was time for the fair. Last year A showed a Holstein dairy steer; this year, it was a Brown Swiss, another gift from the farmer she does chores for. Brown Swiss give milk with a slightly higher butterfat content. The farmer wants to sell to the local dairy that won the national and international prizes for its aged cheddar this year, so he’s changing the composition of his herd and hoping (given the milk price slump) to earn a little more. Dad and I were talking about this and he was saying that even back in the 1940s, his father’s herd was about two-thirds Holstein for the volume and one third Guernsey for the butter-fat.

In case you’re not familiar with the look of these various dairy steers (I wiped out the udder on the Holstein so no one gets confused):

Last year’s cow was called Jack-Jack and he was uncooperative; this year’s cow was called JW, and at least to me, he seemed docile in comparison. A informed me that JW’s initials stood for “Jackwad.” I said, “Such a nice young lady as you knows what that means?” and she giggled for ten seconds before explaining that she is not a nice young lady. Good for you, A.

A won grand champion for her breed, which pleased us all, but she didn’t do as well as last year in the dairy steer category, as Brown Swiss don’t pack on the muscle and the steer wasn’t quite finished. Still, it weighed 1438 lbs and the breed tops out around 1600, so she didn’t do too badly and better than with her Holstein last year. Last year I watched the judging; this year, I came for the auction.


I haven’t been to one of these since I was seven or eight, when my paternal grandmother was an occasional exhibitor in the preserved foods division, or my maternal grandparents would come to this fairground for a day, let me ride the rides and my brother play with the ducks and piglets, and end up by buying a hog. But they are not lurking here to meet me.

It’s both sad and a relief. I’m reading a book about the rejection of sentiment in observation and art right now, and I find myself nodding a lot — this country needs a mammoth dose of seeing things as they are, in my opinion — but I fear I blew it on this trip. I don’t know what it is, maybe something about the liminal space created by the drive, or the pragmatism of a lot of people you encounter at the fair, or the sense-rich atmosphere, the colors, the smell and sound of the animals. Or maybe it’s just that this particular scene picks at something atavistic, knowing I am distantly related to a number of people in the crowd. I saw three of my mother’s second cousins, although not their children in my generation, none of whom farm any longer. It could have been me, I still think, given no Vietnam War military draft and a few other minor details.

I keep noticing people’s bodies. Everyone wears work boots and flannel shirts; women have ponytails while men sport baseball caps. Some have come straight from milking in their overalls. The farmer walks slower, with the heft of a heavier body, brooking no obstacles; the farm woman walks more forcefully, like her mate, driving all the nonsense away in front of her. People are thicker, toothier. The demonstrative conversations are all about work: retirement, not enough Social Security, part-time jobs, how hard they’re working, lazy kids, the milk price, the finished haying, whether they got enough for the winter, everything they’re not doing and think they should be.

Or no, I think. It couldn’t have been me. I don’t know. What I would be, if I lived here.

Before the auction, the ladies of the fair association serve a courtesy lunch to prospective buyers who register a paddle. Here’s a concrete detail, anyway, an observation without emotion. My SIL supplied fifteen pounds of carrots from her garden, everything that was left, cleaned, sliced long and thin, and cut with a pinking shears and drowned in ice water, so they curl a bit and look fancy and snap in your mouth.

This is kind of how the carrots look. I guess this look has gone out of style since the provision of industrially cut raw carrot nubs for kids’ lunchboxes. Stole this picture from the web.

The soon-to-be-bidders pass through a line and fill plates, with ham sandwiches — a thick slice of ham on a large, flat, airy buttered potato roll. Cold potato salad with mustard. Warm “German” potato salad. Ambrosia. Creamy coleslaw marked “with horseradish.” Copious slices of beef / pork summer sausage and homemade venison sausage. Thick slices of cheddar and Swiss cheese. Buttered rye bread with whole caraway seeds (what the outside world calls “Jewish rye,” shh, we won’t mention it). Raw vegetables from a relish tray with California dip. Pickled beets and dill pickles and sweet and sour pickles and garlic pickles — these are Jewish, too, I smirk. Monster cookies and brownies with cream cheese frosting.

SIL has gone to shower after chores and smells sweaty – soapy. She ushers us into the line, though we’re not planning to bid. The ladies behind the tables muster us as we select from the bowls of food and urge us to take more. To judge by their remarks, no one is eating enough. Dad is definitely too thin and although I am not thin, I’m not taking enough to keep myself alive for the next hour either. Everyone needs just a dab more potato salad, another sandwich, so they say. Don’t let good food go to waste.

Dad takes a generous pour from a big pitcher of milk into a Solo cup, and we find napkins and forks and a place to sit in the bleachers and eat and wait. The sound test reveals the speakers will be too loud for dad’s hearing aid, and once he’s done eating, he decides to peel off until the cattle action starts. There are easily 300 people seated on bleachers and chairs and standing around, and as soon as he rises, a man I don’t know sits down next to me as more people crowd near the ring.

This is the inside of the “multi purpose building” where the stock is judged and auctioned. Picture from 2014.

We smile at each other. I note he’s from a cooperative. He notes I don’t have a paddle.

“But you can buy my niece’s steer,” I say, hopefully.

He consults the auction list, and looks at me skeptically. “That might break my bank. Why don’t you bid?”

“What would I do with 900 lbs of beef? It would take me years,” I say.

“You could give it away,” he says. “Or resell it.”

“I just want her to get a good price.”

“I know what you mean. Bidding on hogs gets emotional,” he advises. “But bidding on cows is cutthroat.”

I wince a little.

“She’ll get at least market price,” he reassures me. “Most of the bidders are buying to support the 4-H clubs and the fair and the benefit.”

I’m just about to say “What benefit?” when the auction begins; it turns out it’s being broadcast on a farm radio station. The auctioneer begins his peculiar stuttering song and we’re off — here’s a video if you don’t know how a US livestock auction sounds. He towers over everyone, rattling off the numbers, givemetwotwoandaquarter twotwoandaquarter whollgivemeaquarter comeonaquartertwoandaquarter twoandaquarter! whollgivemeahalftwoandahalf. In front of him, at ground level, stand three “ring men” who watch the crowd for paddles, indicate the level of bidding, signing with their fingers and hands, and at auctions like this, walk up to the bidders and get in their face and egg them on. The auctioneer reveals he’s not from here when he doesn’t know the local pronunciation of the name, Hudziak (we say “Hoo-jack”).

Pork is going for $2-$4 a pound around here for the most usual cuts at the moment in the grocery store, so when the bidding on hogs starts at $2 a pound, I realize that the kids are going to get a good deal, even if they are selling their prize animals. Most go at between $3 and $4 a pound — and then a young man shows up with his pig and the bidding goes higher and higher: $8, $9 and a bidding war breaks out. One of the bidders is sitting near me and a ring man comes up and stands right in front of us and the crowd is now clapping in rhythm and cheering them on. I look at the paddle and it’s a local credit union that’s bidding. Huh. The animal is on the small side — 245 pounds. They talk it up and talk it up and the pig eventually goes for $11 a pound, something like three times the going retail price for the best pork tenderloin. This is not organic meat and it is an astounding result. People are screaming.

I guess bidding on hogs gets emotional.

A comes in and sits next to me. I am the recipient of an impulsive side hug and I look at her. She’s clearly been crying.

“You okay?” I ask.

She nods.

A group of kids with a sign, “Team J,” crowd into the ring with one of the smaller pigs at this auction. The crowd has swelled by another fifty or seventy people and goes — mildly put — insane. The bids start at $12 a pound and the auctioneer is screaming. Seems like there are advance bids? All the local companies and meat markets and banks and grocery stores.

A is still crying. The advance bids are over and a rapid-fire exchange ensues between a credit union and a propane supplier, and it ends at the unlikely sum of $53 a pound. The auctioneer is screaming, the crowd is clapping in rhythm, and now many people around me are sobbing.

“Never say a farm community doesn’t come together, never say we won’t support each other,” the auctioneer yells, brokenly. A gives me another side huge. “Gotta go get JW,” she says, and sniffs and clambers down the bleacher. The radio station announces we will take a break for station identification.

The kids who have goats and rabbits to sell are next. One rabbit goes for $225. “Breeding,” Coop Guy observes. He hasn’t bought an animal, although his coop made one of the advance bids for the extremely expensive pig. He says goodbye and takes off.

4-H ers getting a yearling ready to show. Not A. But she does this kind of thing. Including washing its rear end and blow-drying it afterwards.

After this outburst, things calm down. Dad rejoins me, and the auction resumes. Coop Guy’s prediction proves correct — A gets market price for her steer, from a local meat market, but nothing more, and the energy has gone out of the crowd. It’s slightly amusing that we might be able to go to the store where they will process her cow and buy some of the meat. They will put her picture up in the store, too. We walk out to meet her outside the building, where she pauses for a photo op with the beast. She’s wiped her face a little, but she still cries when JW walks into the truck.

“What was the deal with that hog that got $11? And then the last one?” I ask my brother.

“That was that kid’s hog, you know the one. And the one for $11 a pound, that was his little brother.”

And suddenly it clicks. It was in the papers, and A mentioned it to me once, casually. A boy from the church. One year older than A. Out with a friend in the barn one day and playing with a .22 and not being careful enough. Maybe not careful at all. One boy dead.

“Oh,” I say. I know he wants me to say, “That’s good, then,” but I can’t bring the words over my lips.

“All the advance bidders paid the complete bids,” he says, “even the ones who didn’t win. And then the winner of the auction agreed to double the amount of the sum of all the bids. So we really got together for them.”

“Oh,” I say again. And I still can’t say anything about how this is good or says something nice about the community. This is a sore point between us. He has several rifles in his house, although, I think, no handgun. A and B each own a .22.

And the only thing I can think of to say is that that family would give every cent of that auction back if they could have their son again. So I stay silent.

We’re all standing in a little family huddle — dad and me and A and B and my brother and SIL. A’s 4-H club advisor comes up to congratulate her and recruit her for next year  and the farmer who gave her the cow to raise comes to shake her hand and tell her to come and settle the feed bill when she gets her check from the fair association. His son won grand champion in two categories, so if she sticks with this farm, she should continue to place in the competitions. She might even get to be Fairest of the Fair when she’s in college (which is not a beauty contest, but a formal position marketing the county’s dairy farms for a year). Meanwhile, she’s going to use the profit for a laptop, I think.

“Great job, A,” my father says. We all echo his words. She gives her mom a side hug.

My brother sees the look on my face and on A’s. “You know what can happen now,” my brother says sternly to the girls. “No playing with guns. Don’t load a gun unless you’re going use it. Unload it when  you’re done. Never point the barrel of a gun at another person for any reason. Never look into the barrel of a loaded gun.”

We wander out of the fairgrounds just as the midway is lighting up. Most folks are walking toward the grandstands for the tractor pull. It’s a Friday and my dad suggests getting a beer at the VFW bratwurst fry, this not being a Catholic town, but we’re still full from dinner and we are all too sobered to feel convivial. The parking is completely full and I tell the guard that I’m leaving. A waiting car follows me to my space and slips into it as I maneuver my Taurus among the trucks, over the ruts in the lumpy field and out.

I drive home, east, with the sunset bleeding into the rear-view mirror, and dad reciting his litany of complaints about cows. When I exit the car at home, the crickets insist that earlier than we expected, it is fall.

~ by Servetus on September 5, 2017.

27 Responses to “A sells her steer”

  1. Thank you for letting us share your day at the fair – and congratulations to your nieces for getting good prices for their hard work. This is such an interesting insight into a world I know nothing of. And apart from the facts you give, you have a way of writing that adds so much more to this descriptive text. It feels like a short story, rather than a mere report. (And I am sure that is intended, too.)


    • They both get up every morning at 4 for 4:30 for chores, so they have definitely put in a lot of work.

      Thanks for the kind words. I want people to know what this world is like — I feel like it’s either or disappearing or often either misunderstood in a negative way or romanticized. Still working on the right way to write.


      • That’s proper dedication – and a sign that community and tradition are still going strong?
        I’m sure that that world is easily misunderstood – with urban living currently de rigeur, rural life has become so far removed from many people’s reality.
        Is there a “right way to write”? I think you have a style of your own, and it is a compelling mix of sharp-eyed realism and poetic subtlety. I like it.


        • Yeah, I think two of the parameters are not negative / condescending (something we get a lot of in the US at the moment) and not overly romantic (hence my reading of the book on the conscious avoidance of sentiment — not that I needed a huge incentive there as Arendt is one of the people discussed and her style is an absolute model for me; love the way she writes). So one characteristic of “right” would be in some sweet spot between those problems.


  2. I loved your cow story. It allowed me to reminisce of my long passed grandparents and being on their dairy farm. I too atttended cattle auctions and 4-H livestock shows at both county and Tennessee state fairs. It has been so nice to remember. Thanks so much for your insightful remembrance.


  3. This read was right up my alley, for several reasons. I am an Iowa farmer by birth, a 4-Her for 8 years. My favorite uncle was a vet who always accepted a state fair gig in the horse barns so my cousins and sibs had easy access to the grounds and a barn loft apartment during the fair. Nothing but good memories of that annual trek. I could really hear and smell that show barn. My brothers showed animals (girls couldn’t back then!) and many years we quietly mourned their sale. The story of the benefit reminded me of Meredith Wilson lyrics from “Iowa Stubborn” in “The Music Man”.* Additionally I loved the recipes and always enjoy a well-crafted story. It made me happy to know this scene is still happening somewhere in the US.

    *Oh, there’s nothing halfway about the Iowa way to treat you,
    When we treat you, which we may not do at all.
    There’s an Iowa kind of special Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude
    We’ve never been without that we recall.
    We can be cold as our falling thermometers in December
    If you ask about our weather in July.
    And we’re so by God stubborn we could stand touchin’ noses
    For a week at a time and never see eye-to-eye.
    But what the heck, you’re welcome, join us at the picnic.
    You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself…

    But we’ll give you our shirt and a back to go with it
    if your crops should happen to die.
    So, what the heck, you’re welcome, Glad to have you with us.
    Even though we may not ever mention it again…
    You really ought to give Iowa a try.

    Thanks M. [Obviously edit this tome as desired.] Hope it’s a good school year for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alive and well, that’s for sure. Too, there’s this discourse about how much people are struggling (and I know that the smaller dairy farms are just hanging on against the big industrial ones) but you would never know it at an event like this.

      Girls weren’t allowed to exhibit livestock? I did NOT know that. My mom was in 4-H but she never said.


  4. I enjoyed this insight into the farming community. I grew up in an area that was split down the middle between farming and coal/steel; my family was part of the latter. we always went to the fair but aside from watching the sheep get sheared, I stayed away from the barns. I love animals and just could not handle raising one and then eating it!
    another aspect of your story that I could relate to is that whole notion of ‘you can’t go home again’. you’re there physically and you have a connection and knowledge of the culture, but you’re still outside of it at the same time. maybe I’m just projecting. the gun talk that your brother gave jarred me though, “don’t load a gun unless you’re going to use it. unload it when you’re done”. my first thought was “why would they be using guns, they’re children!” but then I remember the kids in my class at school being so excited when they turned 12 b/c they could officially get their hunting license. it’s a different world.


    • They got their .22s for Christmas the year before they turned twelve (respectively), and yeah, it is a different world. They hunt.

      I wrestle with the “you can’t go home again” thing because it’s true, but there was a bigger thing at the root of it, in that I was never that at home here and I’ve never understood exactly why. My brother always has been. And it’s also true that if people are ignoring you from afar they have no problem doing exactly the same when you’re around. A weird thing.


  5. i love your life snapshots. It really gave me a window into what a farming community is like.


  6. Well, I’m crying. (You know why). Beautifully written, thank you for this. Congrats to A, she sounds like a great girl and I laughed out loud when she informed you that she is not a nice young lady. I love that!


    • trust me, you were in good company. Lots of people crying. At a livestock auction!

      I hope she’s not going to put up with crap, like my generation did.


  7. Fair time & showing cattle. I remember it well. 😊
    Certain things about farm life have changed so much, but the people at their core don’t seem to. And that’s a good (and less than good) thing. Sometimes both at once. Been out of farming longer that I was in it, and I’m still conflicted about that life. Thanks for sharing, Serv. Helluva piece of writing. Finest kind.


    • Thanks for the kind words.

      There is something about this kind of enclave that seems to lead inevitably to conflictedness for a lot of people.


  8. You’re like an antidote to Garrison Keillor 🙂

    I thought this part was excellent: “And suddenly it clicks. It was in the papers, and A mentioned it to me once, casually. A boy from the church. One year older than A. Out with a friend in the barn one day and playing with a .22 and not being careful enough. Maybe not careful at all. One boy dead.”

    Was that why A was being so affectionate with you during the bidding?

    I also liked the description of the food. I like details like that. It juxtaposes the heaviness of the actual subject matter. Otherwise it would just be a morality tale; instead you’ve turned it into a snapshot.

    Thanks for sharing.


    • Without knowing it (I assume), you gave me a huge compliment. I’m trying to write about Keillor’s material but in a way that rejects his aesthetic. Thanks for the kind words.

      yeah, I think she was upset about the boy’s death and it came up in the context of that auction and probably she couldn’t find her mom. We’re not a physically affectionate family and she’s fourteen, so she’s at the nadir of her willingness to be that way, probably.

      I’d been thinking about something you said a while back about the ‘Lottery’ aesthetic of something else I wrote. I felt that subconsciously here, too. Blood money? But as you say — preaching.


    • and thanks for the comment re: food — I feel like that’s such an essential piece of all of this.


  9. Your writing had me right there with you. I could visualize it all in my mind. I’ve always been a city girl, but I’ve certainly visited the cows and pigs at the National Exhibitions (the fair). I missed it this year, but you made me feel like I’d been there.

    My family hunts too, with my dad’s family having grown up in the bush. My brother wanted to get my son out shooting, but we were not okay with that. But it is a way of life for some.


    • I think it’s okay as a way of life. When it turns into something else, that’s an issue for me. I also don’t think my brother is pressuring them to hunt — it’s just something everyone else around them does.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I agree. If we were living in the part of Quebec where my relatives are, the kids would likely be hunting and fishing along with everyone else.


  10. Beautifully written. I almost felt my heart racing as you described the auction and yet I couldn’t understand those prices. Then, clarity. Both uplifting and tragic.


  11. Reading this, I almost felt like I was there! Such a very different world from mine, something I have only ever caught glimpses of in movies. It would be fascinating to me to see/experience something like this one day. Cingrats to A!
    And the gun thing… so very very different from life here as well, I’m always caught off guard with how normal it is in the US! Then I remember I grew up in Israel, where soldiers at checkpoints is a normal sight and where off-duty soldiers carried their service-guns with them so as not to lose them, and I try to remember that I too grew up seeing guns around a lot and it felt normal then (although I don’t think I’ve ever actually touched one).


    • I worry that we’re headed toward a situation like Israel — esp in places like Texas. There are certainly people who want that.

      Thanks for the good wishes. I guess her beef is going into sausage — dairy steers not being considered optimal for steaks.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. […] wrote about the atmosphere last year. Here are a few of my (lame) pictures of the judging and livestock […]


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