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The "Call" of the Auction

by Kate Rader + photos by Chris Jackson

Auction House

Jim and Barb Starliper carry on a family tradition at the Four States Livestock B&J Auction.

At first glance, it seems like not much has changed at the Four States Livestock B&J Auction since its barn doors opened almost 80 years ago. Farmers arrive every Monday and Wednesday evening to buy or sell a very precious commodity — livestock.

Located off of Wilson Blvd. in Hagerstown — and now owned by Barb and Jim Starliper (who added the B&J to the name) — the auction house is still a hub for local farmers, and a few new faces. Old photos depict crowds. “People would line up clear around the cemetery up to Startzman’s Hardware waiting for their turn to unload here. In those days everybody was a farmer and everybody had animals. There was a very big need to have a place like this,” Jim says.

Buyers now come from a 50-mile radius and beyond. “They don’t have a choice anymore. There’s only three sales in Maryland when there used to be fourteen.” Urban development has decreased the amount of land available, as farmers sell their land to developers or age out of the business.

Auctioneer Floyd Davis has noticed the change too. “There’s a lot less cattle around here than there used to be. The people that’d buy 4 or 5 every spring for their kids or sell a half a beef to a neighbor or two, those people are all gone.”

Farmers have also seen profit margins narrowing. Now there are fewer farmers, but the average herd size is much larger, averaging 100 cows rather than the traditional 10–20. For some, farming has become more of a hobby they enjoy in the hours between a 9–5 job.

Homegrown Beginnings

As I’m talking with Jim in his office, I can feel the hustle and bustle around me. It’s auction night and sellers are unloading cows into the barn. I hear the heavy footsteps of men and lots and lots of chatter — talk about the day’s work, where they hauled from, and what’s on tonight’s docket — “That red sow, she get sold?”

The 4,000 sq. ft. building houses livestock yards connected to a fenced auction ring by a large scale where animals are weighed just before entering the show ring. The show ring comfortably sits 150 people — but can fill up to standing-room only status on busy nights.

Jim was first introduced to the auction house by his father, Jack Starliper. “My dad Jack started there when he was 16 back in the 40’s,” Jim recalls. “Dad always said he loved coming in here working, it was a like a day off from the farm.” Jack and his brother Dave — both farm boys — eventually became the yard’s manager and yard foreman, respectively. “My dad brought me when I was 12 yrs old,” says Jim, “and I got the bug for it right away. He brought me in the summer and I had to come to every sale until school started again.” Jim continued to frequent the sale with his dad until he turned 16 and became old enough to drive himself. “I like working with the animals, and I like the action of the sale,” he says. “It’s also a social gathering for farmers. This is the one place where they can bring the animals, and the auction determines what their value is.”

Jim, a 1969 South High graduate, met Barb while working for the Garrett family — who opened the current location and three other auction houses in Harrisonburg, Va., Charles Town WVa., and Carlisle, Pa. from 1935–’39. The couple bought the business and Hagerstown property from the Garretts in 1985.

Floyd Davis, the resident auctioneer, has been involved with Four States for 50 years. “I started working in the yard with Jimmy when I was about 12 yrs old,” he remembers. “I moved calves and sheep, worked my way up into the ring when I was 17 and started to sell when I was 20.”

Floyd’s Grandfather was an auctioneer, and he says he actually started auctioneering on a dare. “A man asked me to do it, and I did do it. And it just kind of snowballed from there,” He says. Many auctioneers go to school to learn the trade, but not Floyd. “I never went to school, just the school of hard knocks.” He learned his auctioneer chatter, or “chant” from watching the elder auctioneers, and employing the help of an old tape recorder. “When I was practicing selling I’d listen to it and try to improve on it.”

An auctioneer’s chant can consist of information about the animal, its weight, the current amount of money being offered by the bidder, followed by the higher bid the auctioneer would like to accept. This is repeated rapidly, generally with filler sounds in between to entertain the crowd. Floyd has a similar chant, but leaves out the fluff. “A lot of auctioneers like to use a filler in-between the numbers, which I don’t like to do… it’s just all numbers. It’s a waste of time to me, a lot of breath that you don’t need to waste,” he notes, adding that on some nights, he can call for up to 8 hours. “Wherever you can save a little air, it’s good on me.”

The Circle of Life

In spite of dwindling farm acreage, it’s clear how important the auction is to the local farming community. Cows can have a calf as often as once a year. Female dairy calves are often kept and raised for milking, while male, or “bull” calves are generally sold to be raised elsewhere. Beef cattle stay with their mothers, who nurse the calf for 5-6 months — until they weigh about 500 lbs. Once a calf is weened, it is brought to the stockyard to be sold and raised in a grass pasture for about a year. It’s then transferred to a feed lot and fed grain for 6 months before becoming dinner.

“That’s where you get your nice steaks and roasts,” Jim says. Dairy farmers commit to milking their cows twice a day, every day. When the cows are too old to produce milk anymore, they are sold at auction, generally for hamburger. “That’s part of the food chain, too,” Jim says, and Barb agrees, “Their final purpose is to feed someone. Nothing is wasted.”

The livestock auction’s job is twofold: attract sellers so there are lots of animals for buyers to bid on, and bring in good quality buyers who will pay a fair price. To sell, Jim says, “It’s very easy. You just bring your animals in. We identify them with a paper tag and you can stay and watch the sale or go home and we’ll send you a check within 24 hours.” The process is USDA governed, but Jim says they can choose who they sell their animals to.

As animals arrive, they are separated by age, health and mobility prior to sale. Employees look after the animals, guiding them onto the scales and into the show ring. Tonight, a young man named Taylor works the ring alongside Jim, opening the gate for the calves, corralling them gently into place. You can see he has a sensitivity to the animals’ nature.

Floyd and two other men occupy the auctioneer’s booth. The Weigh Master sits closest to the scale to record the official weight of each animal, along with its ID number on a scale ticket. Floyd’s job is to sell the animal, getting the best price possible. To do this, he says, “You have to know livestock. You have to know what the animals are worth, what the quality of them is. The second thing is to know your buyers. Know who to look to and who's looking for what. The faster I can keep things moving, the more we can get through in an hour, the less wages Jimmy has to pay. It’s just as important to know your animals as it is to know your buyers.”

“Floyd knows the value of animals,” Jim says. The auctioneer doesn’t set the price, but he has to know where to start the bidding. “If an animal’s worth 80 cents a pound, he’ll start the bidding at 70. You don’t learn that overnight.” Dairy cows , pigs less than 100 lbs. and calves less than 60 lbs. are sold by the head, while beef cattle are sold by the lb. The largest bull Jim’s seen weighed more than 3,000 lbs. And sometimes, Four States plays host to unusual animals — having sold emu, ostrich, llamas and even a buffalo.

After the final buyer is determined, the Clerk writes the price and buyer’s name on the corresponding scale ticket, which is then sent via a pulley system to Barb up in the office for finalization. Each buyer’s animals are escorted to a separate pen. “It just makes it easier and less stressful for the animals,” Jim says. Other safety precautions include good bedding to prevent falls, highly visible, well-lit areas, and extensive employee training on how to treat and handle the animals. Worker safety is also very important. “Some of ‘em can get rambunctious pretty quick. So you have to be able to read them and know if they’re on the verge of charging you,” he warns. Floyd agrees, “Once, a 500 lb. feeder calf jumped into the auctioneers booth. You can look at an animal’s eyes or the position of it’s ears. You can tell by its posture whether the animal’s cranked or whether its docile.”

Far and Wide

While buyers come to Four States from all over the country, traveling to buy and sell livestock is not a new concept. Often, sellers command higher prices in places where livestock is less available. This tradition began after the Civil War, when Texan farmers set up ranches as beef became more popular. Cattle were shipped by train to the North where buyers would pay 10–20 times more. For example, one cattleman in 1867 bought 600 cows for $5,400 and sold them states away for $16,800.

Farmer Steven Baugher has been coming to Four States every week for almost three years. It’s about a 2.5 hr. drive to Hagerstown from his family’s farm in Ruckersville, Va., but he thinks it’s worth the drive. “They pretty much have got anything you want here — goats and sheep, cows and hogs.” He resells them for a higher price in Virginia. “Some go to individual people, some go back to sale,” he says.

Steven is a fourth generation farmer, and likes the camaraderie at Four States. “We go to other sales, but to be honest with you, I just kinda like the atmosphere up here. Jim and Barb, they are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Down home, you don’t much get that.” He has his own way of outbidding the other farmers. “Bidders don’t always want others to know they’re bidding so you can raise your hand or wink, something like that,” he says. “(Floyd’s) pretty good.”

Keeping the Herd Moving

Annually, Four States hosts a 4-H Spring Hog Show. Local children show and then sell pigs they’ve raised. Jim believes it teaches them about the economics of raising animals and the responsibility of caring for them. “They’re learning where our meat comes from — that they’re part of the food chain. Some of them turn out to be the farmers of the future.”

Jim recalls the long history of his business and the changes its seen, “My dad’s been gone 22 years. It’s just amazing… a cow that used to bring $300 now brings $1,000. He would be amazed at that.” He and Barb hope to soon retire. He’s looking to sell the business to someone who is loyal to the business and its customers. “It’s been a good business to us. It’s been the only thing we’ve ever done. It’s been good to us and I think it’s got potential in the future.”

As I leave the building I walk beneath a sign that says: “We appreciate your business. We hope you have been well treated. ” And I feel as if I have.