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Cultures clash at animal auctions

August 07, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

We hit a couple of animal-related auctions in Virginia over the weekend, which were quite different, yet eerily similar in the sense that if you scratched your head in the wrong way you could find yourself with one feed bucket too few.

The first was at the Frederick County (Va.) Fair, where all the old farmers walked with limps and grinning little tikes entered the ring carrying roosters too big for them to fully wrap their arms around.

The second was the "2008 National Elite Alpaca Auction" near Leesburg on an elegant, manicured farm where waiters wandered through the crowd with silver trays of hors d'oeuvres, and the excellent hosts left no detail unattended to.

Frankly, owing to my inherent trashiness, I was more comfortable at the county fair. My idea of "elite" is packing a leaf of mint into my Skoal. Yet for all the pomp, the alpaca people are pretty much down to earth and the folks at both auctions share a love of animal husbandry.

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Aside from that, here were the contrasts I noticed:

Both offered free meals. The county fair provided pit beef, slaw and beans. The alpaca auction -- where does one start -- featured banquet tables of crab-stuffed shrimp, London broil and so on.

The fair had a couple of big ole barn fans. The alpaca auction brought in a mobile air-conditioning unit on a tractor trailer and piped cool air in through massive ducts.

Winning bidders at the fair got a batch of complementary home-baked cookies from the kid who raised the animal. Winning bidders at the alpaca auction got a complementary bottle of Dom Perignon.

The fair animals were paid for with a paper check; the alpacas were bought on terms.

At the county fair, steers, hogs and lambs were sold for -- as real farmers call it, "slaughter." Me, I haven't quite worked up to that word yet, so Beth and I bid on animals for the purposes of "putting them in the freezer."

The prices are maybe double of what you would pay at a standard livestock auction, with the understanding that for a lot of these kids, this is their college fund. Still, it's a good deal compared to what you might pay at the supermarket, we felt.

The real expense -- after buying a hog and a lamb -- came from having to frantically run out and buy a new freezer to hold it all.

Of course you could have bought 40 market hogs for the price you would pay for one of these alpacas. Their owners, some of the best breeders in the country, are "invited" to provide an animal or two for auction and bids started at $10,000.

Just guessing, I'd say that the average animal sold for better than $15,000 and some went for $30,000 or more. I found myself staring hard at the stage and thinking to myself, "Would I rather have this animal, or a new Honda Accord?"

And everyone remarked that these prices were real bargains. Especially the auctioneer, who would periodically interrupt his banter to shake his head ruefully and lecture the crowd on what a bargain we were missing out on.

And miss we did, but not by much. Our alpacas are all boys, so a female would have required separate quarters -- quarters we don't have, since our barns, outbuildings and I think even our mailbox are already occupied with some critter or another.

So the breeding program will have to wait for another day. Fortunately, supper will not.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on www.antpod.com.

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