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The College Kid Runs the Livestock Auction

After a summer’s absence, I am back in The Valley, adjusting to drought- and-fires life here at the vineyard, and going through my list of Boont fables possibly worth telling. This one has been wandering around my memory warehouse for a year now, and I am still wondering how it actually came to pass without catastrophe.

As I’ve recounted before, I began sheep raising on my place and elsewhere around The Valley early in my career here. Even though I’d previously raised nothing more complicated than pet dogs and turtles, my mentor for the commercial sheep adventure was the renowned Columbia Ram breeder and close friend, Sam Prather. Sammy had counseled me through my first years of breeding, lambing, doctoring and shearing a small band of ewes, and as a form of both business and recreation he and I faithfully attended the Ukiah Livestock Auction every Saturday, never mind the time of year.

Those Saturdays were both social and business-related because the County’s diminishing population of small sheep and cattle ranchers all knew one another and the auction managers and auctioneers intimately and were in attendance as frequently as Sam and I, ample in-town weekend reward for the long days of farm life. I had learned from Sam how to stock my band cheaply and efficiently by buying early in the year old ewes with twins, which I quickly made money on by selling the male lamb next spring, sometimes the ewe too if she were near the end of her life, thereby recovering all my winter purchases investment. I profited even more if both twins were males by selling them both in early June. Sammy taught me this marketing strategy and also monitored my potential purchase recons through the livestock pens where the sheep were housed according to the kind of sale lot they represented. Three grades of lambs each in their individual pens with the seller identified on a card on its gate, also separately old and young rams and ewes, and ancients for the pet food slaughter house.

The Ukiah auction site was a clapboard barn-red two story building on Old Highway 101 on the way to Burke Hill south of Ukiah. The Sale’s front area was a parking lot for dozens of trucks, on either side of the building were outdoor penning areas for cows on the north, sheep on the south. Here sellers dropped their stock for sale, and with the assistance of the hired auction crews, broke their lots down into sellable units and escorted them into their individual pens, all under jerry-built tin roofing in the back of the auction arena. Another crew from the front office, all women, recorded the number of head in each sale lot, the total weight if sold by the pound, all of which had to be recorded in billing and payment documents during the sale, as most purchases were paid for and hauled away at the end of the day’s auction. 

That front office job was in my estimation far more complicated than sorting the stock into saleable lots, and was run by a serene and efficient manager, Mrs. Neal Nelson, whose family’s ranch on the Hopland side of Burke Hill, near McNab Ranch, included both sheep, cattle and grapes. Her son, Jim, was a snotty-nosed urchin in tee shirt and shorts who ran around under our feet during the penning operation without ever really getting in our way, a kind of relaxing entertainment for employees, buyers and sellers in the heat and the dust of a June morning.

The actual sale occurred in the two story arena behind the office area in a comfortable elevated indoor semi-circle of benches. This semi-stadium seated maybe a hundred and fifty people and overlooked the sale area where livestock entered, sheep from the left, cattle from the right, into a dirt-floored oval ring about fifty feet across. Against the wall behind the ring in an elevated comfortable seat with arm rest, sat the most important person at the sale, the auctioneer. 

Colonel Steve Dorfman, from a prominent Petaluma livestock family was usually this person. For each sale he would quickly visually appraise the sellable unit entering the ring, pick a realistic minimum bid, and begin the sale with his flowing and barely translatable lyric chant…”C’mon, c’mon, who’ll give me sixty five, sixty five, sixty five cents a pound f’r this….” Steve was about our age, stocky, dark, dressed in cowboy black with a large silver belt buckle and a perfect handlebar mustache, also black, and of course was a close friend of Sammy Prather’s. His family had been part of the Petaluma Jewish immigrant back-to-the land movement sponsored by Levi Strauss before World War I.

The auction property and sale were owned and managed by another Petaluma Jewish family, the Busman brothers, Fred, Pete and Ernie. At thirty Ernie was the youngest of the brothers, and effectively the family entrepreneur and business manager. Fred was the oldest and a home builder contractor who also hated the smell of sheep and cow shit, so he avoided working at the sale. Once Ernie got the newly purchased auction business running smoothly, Fred decamped and moved to Nowhere, Oregon. Pete lived over in the Sacramento Valley, did odd jobs associated with the livestock and fruit orchard industries over there, and still faithfully drove two hours over to Ukiah each Saturday to put in a full day of dusty labor around the auction yards. Sammy said these Nordic looking blond Busmans were Jewish, as so many Petaluma settlers were, but they all looked like Dutchmen or Danes to me.

Anyway, one Saturday in the spring of 1980, more or less, the sixth year of my running sheep here at the ranch, Ernie Busman approached Sammy about taking over managing the organization of the sheep auction activity. Sammy immediately declined the offer and without pausing proposed me as an alternative candidate for the job. My first impulse was fear as I immediately understood the consequences for the whole transaction in the wake of sale lot sorting screw-ups like misorganizing or miscounting the heads in a seller’s band, or simply not managing the stock herders moving those lots from the pens to the sale room and back again in an efficient way. Auctions were a high speed ballet of stock, herders, sellers and buyers, and dust. In all my years of auction attendance I never had witnessed more than a fifteen second wait between one sale and another.

But then I also thought, “Boy, what a great learning experience for improving the value of my own band of ewes and lambs,” now about 90 head. At the sale I would have a weekly chance to appraise and purchase the best ewes in the County, so I said to Ernie I wanted a day or two to think it over and would phone him with an answer next week. On our way back over the hill to Boonville after the sale closed, I asked Sammy if he thought I could handle the job. As usual we had stopped at the convenience store on South State Street and bought a six pack of Bud, drunk our first beer around Milepost 14 on 253, I had crumpled up my can and put it back in the paper sack, he had thrown his out his pick-up window, didn’t want to mess up his truck cab. Sam, with firm assurance, asserted sure, I could do it, and besides he would be there to help me. That was important to have his advice at my side on sale day and I knew he was the kind of friend I could count on to do it faithfully.

My other concern, not shared with Sammy, was my ability to manage the labor force I would be working with organizing the stock into the right saleable lots, moving them into the arena and back, then reorganizing them for delivery to the purchaser after the sale. These sale employees were a motley crew of wise-assed farm-kid teenagers not very well educated, except in the management of livestock in close quarters, I could tell. Their ring-leader was a skinny, freckle-faced fifteen year old in Levis, work shirt and aged work boots who also had a smart-mouth available to bosses at the drop of a hat. I liked her smart-mouth so long as it wasn’t aimed my direction. But what I worried about the next day or so before phoning Ernie was what would these kids think about being bossed by some College Kid who had just moved to The Country and spoke in complete, carefully pronounced sentences (I didn’t go so far as to call them “mister” and “miss”), potentially a recipe for trouble beyond my ability to manage.

Well, after a day or two of anxious consideration I decided what the hell, there’s only one way to find out if I can handle the job and that was to take it, $15.00 an hour, a lot more than I had made working at the Philo Mill eight years earlier, or in the vineyard doing pruning, a little over $3.00 at each, for that matter. So I sucked in my breath, called Ernie Busman the next Tuesday and took the job.

Next Week: Saturdays managing the Ukiah Livestock Auction Sheep Sale.

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