Landing the grant is turning out to be far from the end of the road in an effort to bring a cattle loading facility to Jackson County.
The first cow ushered into the WNC Regional Livestock Center in Canton weighed 850 well-proportioned pounds. Despite being two-months pregnant, she danced lithely about the livestock arena, easily sidestepping the green, long plastic paddle a handler occasionally dabbed in her direction.
“Get your hands up in the air and let ‘er rip,” the auctioneer said excitedly to a crowd of hundreds, so many that people were lined along the walls two and three deep, and even spilled out into the hallways. This was a ballcaps-and-boots-kind of crowd, mainly men, though there were some women and, despite this being a school day, even a few kids. So many people showed up, the state Highway Patrol turned out, too, directing the long lines of traffic coming off Interstate 40.
The cow, an attractive blonde, fetched $750.
And so went the first sale at the first major cattle market in Western North Carolina since a livestock auction in Asheville closed seven years ago. It required the push of local farmers, and money from willing donors, to make the WNC Regional Livestock Center a reality — more than $3 million from various organizations, businesses and producers financed the building that houses the market.
“We came together three or four years ago to start organizing for a new market,” said Bruce Peterson of WNC Communities, a collaborative regional group that works on quality-of-life projects such as the new regional livestock center. “We didn’t need to take all this money out of state.”
That’s what Alden Childers of Swain County would have done if this regional livestock center hadn’t opened. He and friend Clarence Wiggins, also of Bryson City, would have hauled the cattle they brought to Canton this day — including a bull they picked up along the way in Jackson County — to Tennessee perhaps, or maybe even down into Georgia.
Michael Vanhook wanted to bring a few head over from Macon County to sell, but didn’t get them rounded up in time. Instead, he and Jerry Sutton of Franklin just watched the show, like so many here this day.
Vanhook, who stays busy raising and selling cattle after retiring from Franklin High School, says a new market this close to home helps those in the cattle business.
That’s because hauling cattle costs gas money, time and stresses the animals, said Boyce Deitz, a regional aid for Congressman Heath Shuler (and Shuler’s former Swain County football coach).
His boss was on hand to meet and greet and take in the show, but Deitz was all business — and his business this fine Monday was selling the four heifers and a steer he’d hauled over the Balsams from his pastures in Jackson County. That’s obviously a lot closer than taking the animals all the way to Tennessee, he noted.
“It would’ve taken me about two hours,” Deitz said. “If you unloaded right then and came back, it was a day’s journey and a tank of fuel.”
Lucas Tipton doesn’t expect to save time driving his cattle to Canton, though he’s happy the market opened. He lives in Burnsville, and with about 100 head, he keeps busy driving to buy and sell at a variety of cattle markets. Tipton will frequent Canton on Mondays for this weekly market, and be in Chesnee, S.C. on Tuesdays, and all the way up in Abingdon, Va., on Friday and Saturdays.
That’s what a lot of cattle farmers do, though most in this region on a smaller scale than Tipton. Sell at the market, and then buy some more to grow out. Sell those, and buy some more.
A red calf trots into the show arena. Tipton doesn’t much care for red calves.
“I just like black ones,” he said in explanation. “They seem to do a little better for us, and bring a little more per pound.”
That’s what this market opening is about — farmers being able to make money by raising cattle. Tipton approved the method of sale being used in Canton: “that’s the right way,” he said, apparently thinking of some markets that use other methods. Beef cattle in Canton are being sold by the pound — cows, on the other hand, are given a pregnancy test, “aged” and sold by the head.
It’s a sunny, mid-March Friday, the air is barely warm enough to warrant open windows and loosened collars, and on this particular spring morning, John Queen is a pretty popular guy.
His hip-holstered Blackberry stays quiet just for a few minutes at a stretch, and he has only to take a step or two around the shiny new offices at the WNC Regional Livestock Market before being waylaid by an outstretched invoice needing his signature or logistical question awaiting his advice. Where are the gate keys and who gets a set? How close are the welders to completion?
It’s the Friday prior to the market’s first Monday sale, and Queen, who is, in essence, the ringmaster, emcee and manager of this show, is like the queen bee of this hive of workers, all bustling diligently to finish off the details before the market’s opening.
On a mid-morning walkthrough of the new facility with the site’s project manager, he flits back and forth from problem to problem — giving direction to the Bobcat operators, gamely scaling the side of a dump truck to point its driver in the right direction, strategizing with workers on a last-minute water trough installation — though ‘flit’ really isn’t a word that would describe Queen’s style well.
He’s tall but not ungainly, with a long face, dark grey hair, eyes the mid-blue of a gas flame and a manner that is at once authoritative and friendly. He’s the longtime president and owner of Southeast Livestock Exchange, the Haywood County company in charge of running the new livestock market, and it’s not an overstatement to say that, for Queen, livestock is a lifestyle. In fact, it’s in his blood.
“I’m a fourth-generation cattle producer, from right here in Haywood County,” he says, the first words from his mouth, in fact, when asked to explain just precisely how he got into this business. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him all raised cattle right here, but it’s Queen himself who’s taken the business to a level far surpassing a simple cow-and-calves operation.
Though he may call himself a cattle farmer, livestock marketer probably fits the bill a little better; it’s what has made his career for the last 30-plus years and made his role in the new regional market possible.
Queen has been in the business of marketing cattle since 1979, first at the now-defunct Western Carolina market in Asheville, then briefly with an ill-fated Canton market, and since 2005, an online video marketing outfit that’s made Queen’s company into a regional marketer and national and international seller. Over the years, the birth of online sales coupled with Queen’s natural fervor for the industry has led his operations to open out into a panoply of new venues and ventures.
Essentially, the way the system works, says Queen, is much like a live auction — but larger, quicker and more profitable and efficient for both buyer and seller. His team will trek out to farms in a three-state area, take stock of a farmer’s livestock — weight, height, conformation and various other statistics important to those whose business is the bovine market — then shoot video of the cattle in question. DVDs and catalogs are then sent to potential buyers, often middlemen for end-users like beef companies, and the cattle are hawked on live video auction every Monday. The online operation has 800 virtual seats for would-be buyers, and for many, Queen says it’s far-and-away more efficient than approaching farmers or attending small auctions to put together a load of cattle piecemeal.
“He can buy a tractor-trailer load of cattle in about 15 seconds, where he couldn’t buy a tractor-trailer load of cattle in a sale barn in a matter of two or three hours,” says Queen, which is quicker, more convenient and cost-effective for the buyers and more lucrative for the sellers, who can get a better price per head when they go in with other farmers.
It’s part of what Queen calls added-value sales, and it’s a pitch he’s pretty passionate about, because he sees it as the ideal solution for helping small-time cattlemen to stay afloat. It’s also what he hopes producers can get out of this market as well.
Back in the open air of the market, Queen walks the catwalk that runs above the numbered metal chutes, explaining the complex process that brings cattle from the rear of the arena, snaking through a series of interlacing metal lanes and pens to the stadium-seated auction room at the opposite end. Queen looks the mixture of farmer and businessman that he is — faded Wranglers atop equally careworn Justin boots, both standard uniform for cowboys and cattlemen from San Diego to Syracuse, but with a crisp, pressed blue gingham button-down that is less farmer, more broker and that ever-present Blackberry hugging his right hip.
Shafts of morning light crisscross over the textured concrete and dirt floors, bouncing from the gleaming gray pen bars, giving the whole place the hushed feel of an ancient cathedral, and it’s clear that Queen is in his element, in this cathedral that seems to stir in him both reverence and pride.
But it wasn’t always this way. He’s really not one of those people that grew up wanting to take over the family business. He wasn’t, he says, exactly waiting in the wings as a young man.
“When I left to go to college, I swore I’d never come back to the farm,” says Queen, laughing wryly. “My dad made me work there when I was a kid, and I thought that day when I left, I told myself it was my chance to escape and I’d never come back.”
But it took only a few months at Western Carolina University for Queen to realize that the farm was really his love.
Even still, though, it wasn’t quite enough. His ambitions were greater, his talents broader than simple farming. And when he got into the business end soon after returning, he never looked back.
“I wanted to see the bigger picture rather than just what we did in Haywood County,” says Queen, and that he did, eventually becoming president of first the North Carolina Cattlemen’s Association and then the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assocation.
The business, he says, has evolved over the years, growing in scope and depth, especially since the advent of online sales has put the world of clamoring cattle buyers at the fingertips of every small seller with an internet connection.
The newly opened regional market will, Queen hopes, do the same thing for local producers that burgeoning online auctions have done — provide small Southern farmers, who average 20 head per farm, the outlet to reach big-time buyers by pulling together and selling together.
Queen says he knows some rail against progress such as this, but he minces no words when he says it is truly the only way forward.
“Tradition is a great thing, but you know, in all reality, tradition is probably the No. 1 enemy of agriculture today,” says Queen. “We all want to do as daddy did or as granddaddy did, and we can’t operate that way any longer. We have to change as time does. We’ve got to learn to adapt to that if we’re going to get the value out of our livestock.”
And really, he is the perfect spokesman for that growth, change and adaptation; with his roots deep in local soil, he understands and appreciates the history that brought regional agriculture to its current resting place, but with his head and heart in the global market, he understands that this can’t be its resting place for long, lest it be left behind by a speedily changing world.
Plus, for all his success in international livestock marketing — and he’s adamant that global exporting must be a part of every cattle farmer’s core principles — to meet John Queen is to meet one of the friendliest, most plainly genuine people you’re likely to come across. His ardent zeal for what he does and what it can become is endearing and contagious, and it’s not a mental stretch to envision him convincing veritably every cattleman that crosses his path of the merits of forward agricultural progress.
Though he doesn’t think he’ll pass his enterprise on to his daughters the way it was passed on to him — the business has changed, he says, grown and tendrilled out into a complex organism that needs someone with his passion behind it — he’d like nothing better than to be doing exactly this until the very day he dies.
“I’ve always been thrilled with the atmosphere and nature of the marketplace. The day I die, I hope I’m either running cattle around on my farm or somewhere marketing cattle. It’s just the ideal thing for me,” says Queen. And with that, and a ring of the Blackberry, he’s off once more, into the next incarnation of a business that he’s built from the ground up, and an industry that he’s helping lead into the future of American farming.
Haywood County Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to pitch in $25,000 toward the regional livestock market under construction in Canton, adding their name to the list of governments and organizations from around the region that have contributed to the project.
The market will offer a venue for cattlemen to sell their livestock — something the region currently lacks to the detriment of small farmers.
“I think it’s appropriate, when surrounding counties have contributed to a project within Haywood County, that we would contribute, as well,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley. Ensley proposed the dollar figure to match what Buncombe County had contributed to the market.
The money will come out of the county’s contingency fund since it was not originally part of this year’s budget.
The regional livestock market will serve 3,000 cattle producers in the entire Western North Carolina region, providing a vital service to cattle farmers left stranded when the major livestock market serving the region in Asheville closed in 2004. Haywood County is the biggest cattle producer in the mountains, accounting for nearly a quarter of all the cattle raised in WNC.
The effort has been led by WNC Communities, while the Southeastern Livestock Exchange has been selected to run the market once it opens.
The $3 million project was funded largely by the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund, Golden Leaf Foundation and N.C. Rural Center. A contribution from the Appalachian Regional Commission of $350,000 was announced this week.
If all goes according to plan, a new regional livestock market will open in Canton by late May to more than 3,000 happy cattle farmers from Western North Carolina.
The venue will again provide a stable market to help livestock from WNC find their way into the global marketplace.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity for our district,” said John Queen, a Haywood County cattleman who will operate the new market. “It’ll once again bring this great agricultural county back to life.”
Cattle farmers have struggled to cope after the primary auction house serving the region shut its doors six years ago in Asheville. Traveling to markets in Tennessee, northern Georgia and eastern North Carolina has taken a big bite out of producers’ profits.
Queen recalled the days when there were not one, but five cattle markets in Western North Carolina.
“We’ve lost all that,” said Queen. “All of our farmers have to travel out of state.”
Some small cattlemen, already stretching to make ends meet, decided to leave the business.
Western North Carolina Communities, which is leading the effort, has landed $2.1 million of its $3 million target.
The $2.1 million already secured is enough to build an operable market, but nonessential components, like a compost area for manure, landscaping and a portion of parking, will be delayed until more money can be raised.
WNC Communities hopes to break ground on the project some time in February.
According to L.T. Ward, vice-president of WNC Communities, the recession is actually working in the livestock market’s favor.
“We are on a low budget,” said Ward. “We’ve been asking for the contractors to provide more than they normally would for the dollars.”
As part of the project, cattle farmers will not only secure a local livestock market, but they will also receive training from the state Beef Quality Assurance program to create a higher-quality product — which will help them fetch better prices.
With the state quality assurance program and lower freight costs, WNC cattle farmers would score $25 to $45 more per head by fall, which is peak selling season.
The proposed auction house will be located near exit 33 off Interstate 40 near Canton. It will eventually accommodate 1,100 head. Initially, it will accommodate around 700.
Producers will have a 44,500-square-foot covered area, where they can parade their cattle in an 8,000-square-foot heated sales arena, office and meeting room and queue them up in a 36,500-square-feet open space “barn” equipped with holding pens. While cattle will be the primary commodity, pigs, goats and sheep will be auctioned as well.
WNC Communities is fairly confident it’ll receive more grant money to complete the last phase. They hope to start construction in July and present a complete livestock market by this September.
Jerry Roberts, a cattle farmer leading the project, said the geographic location off I-40 in Haywood, yet close to the Buncombe county line, will have a positive regional impact.
Haywood County leads the region in the number of cattle farmers, with 500 farmers that raise nearly a quarter of the region’s cattle.
“I appreciate the fact that we’ve got it here,” said Gavin Brown, chair of the Haywood Economic Development Commission and mayor of Waynesville.
The Southeast Livestock Exchange, which owns a large cattle lot in Waynesville, will operate the new market. After being in the cattle marketing business for 30 years, Queen has gained plenty of experience. He said there’s always been good demand for cattle from Western North Carolina.
“We hope to rebuild the demand that we had at one point in time,” said Queen. “And we know that can happen.”
Ed Johnson, who runs a small-scale livestock market in Canton, was invited to apply to become the new market’s operator. Johnson chose not to bid due to the proposed market’s large size.
“He felt the expectations were greater,” said Ward, adding that WNC Communities maintains an open dialogue with Johnson and considers his market “friendly competition.”
Johnson has criticized efforts to create a new market instead of building on his small-scale operation. Johnson started up his auction house in 2008 to fill the void faced by cattle farmers. But according to Ward, the feasibility study for the larger market was already underway when Johnson made his move.
WNC Communities is waiting on a re-use permit from N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources for the site, a former landfill owned by International Paper.
The landfill will also be used by the Town of Canton for a youth athletic field.
While Ward maintains the entire project is farmer-driven, WNC Communities have had their work cut out for them, applying for funding from five different organizations, each with their own guidelines.
The lawsuit against Big Tobacco in the 1990s resulted in a financial settlement with states. North Carolina dedicated 25 percent of its $4.6 billion piece of the pie to the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund to help former tobacco farmers find another economically viable way to make a living. Another 50 percent of the settlement money goes to the Golden Leaf Foundation, which funds economic development initiatives in tobacco-dependent regions.
Both entities supported a new regional livestock market for the mountains, with a $875,000 grant from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund and $500,000 from the Golden LEAF Foundation. Other funding included a $400,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Center and $75,000 from various county governments, local businesses and individual farmers.
How far would you drive for $100?
That’s the dilemma Haywood County cattle farmer Neal Stamey faces each time he hooks his trailer up to his pickup truck, loads up the cow or cows he’ll sell that day, and makes the 100-mile round-trip trek across the state line to a cattle auction in Newport, Tenn. There, a bidder will snap up Stamey’s animals, hopefully for a fair price. If Stamey’s brought only one cow, he’ll be lucky to make $100.
“There’s not enough money in the cattle business to have to haul cattle 100 miles to sell them,” Stamey says. “You can’t afford $150 bucks of gas for one cow.”
Since the closure of the only regional livestock market five years ago, these far-reaching auction houses are the only viable option Western North Carolina cattle farmers have if they hope to make a sale. The financial burden of the journey has forced an increasing number of cattle farmers out of business.
But now, the local farmers have asked for the state’s help to stop that decline with the construction of a state-of-the-art livestock market in Haywood County — a move that could prove crucial to preserving the region’s rural heritage and landscape.
In recent years, North Carolina lost more farms than almost any other state.
“Our concern is to keep producers in business, and keep all this land in farming,” said George Ivey, a Haywood County farming advocate. “In many cases, if you sell off the cattle, the only thing you’re growing there are houses.”
Livestock is a surprisingly big industry in this region. More than 3,000 farmers in 19 western counties keep cattle, selling off 80,000 each year. Haywood County leads the region in the number of cattle farmers, with 500 farmers that raise nearly a quarter of the region’s cattle.
But the total number of cattle in this part of the state has been on a decline since the region’s primary auction house, located in Asheville, shut down five years ago. Most farmers now trek to markets in Tennessee South Carolina, and Georgia.
“Historically, we’ve had markets here in WNC, and it’s been tough without them the last several years,” said Bill Teague, director of the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville.
The lack of a market, coupled with a severe drought that has gripped the region and led to skyrocketing hay prices, has led many cattle farmers to get out of the business altogether.
“A lot of people just quit and sold,” both their cattle and farms, said Lyman Bradley, a Jackson County cattle farmer.
“You’ve had the loss of a reliable and local market, and that’s enough to drive some people out of business,” agreed Ivey.
The situation has been helped a bit with the re-opening of a 1960s-era livestock auction in Canton, today run by Ed Johnson, a Madison County farmer. The auction was re-opened a year ago, and it’s seen some success.
“Before Johnson opened the auction, most everyone had to go out of state,” Bradley said.
But the facility is outdated and small, lacking the capacity that the former Asheville market had. A recent auction there featured 18 cows for sale — an impressive number given the icy, chilly conditions that day, but still far below the 800 to 900 cattle that were auctioned off each week at the Asheville market.
A large livestock market, “is something we need drastically,” Stamey said.
Market advocates estimate it would cost $2.5 million to $3.5 million to construct the type of livestock market that will bring buyers — and in turn, competitive prices — to the region’s cattle farmers.
Initially, they wanted to build a slaughterhouse, but then realized they needed to lay the groundwork by providing a place where farmers could sell their cows.
The proposed market will be located in the heart of Western North Carolina cattle farming country along I-40 at the Haywood-Buncombe County line.
The first round of funding for the market — $500,000 for construction planning — will come out of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund. The trust fund was created following the lawsuit against Big Tobacco and used to help tobacco-dependent regions find another economically viable way to make a living. Essentially, one industry that has all but vanished in WNC could help another embattled industry survive.
“Our primary purpose is to improve the quality of life by increasing the income for the family farmer, and hopefully be able to replace the loss of income that occurred with the loss of tobacco,” said L.T. Ward, chairman of WNC Communities, the organization through which the Tobacco Trust Fund grant has been funneled.
Stamey, a cattle farmer, said that’s exactly how the trust fund money should be used.
“This is not taxpayer money — this is money the tobacco industry made before it was put out of business,” Stamey said. “In surrounding states, they’ve put that money back in agriculture, and we deserve some of that money.”
The parallels between tobacco and livestock are many, and both played a vitally important role in sustaining families in WNC. Just as families kept a small tobacco crop to supplement their income, many also kept a few cows — and that number has increased since the tobacco buyout.
“Tobacco used to be a good cash crop for a lot of farmers,” said Ivey. “With that gone, more people have turned to cattle to recover some of that income they used to get from tobacco.”
Stamey says beef cattle, like tobacco, has long played an important role in Haywood County. “In the past, tobacco and cattle have been big industries here,” he said.
Stamey’s parents kept a few cattle, and Stamey himself continued that tradition, though his full-time job was at the the paper mill in Canton.
The cows “sort of help supplement your income,” Stamey said. And there are several advantages to raising cattle. Cows can graze on hillslides unsuitable for crops, and they’re easy enough to tend to, requiring a feeding every three days in the winter and none in the summer, when they can be left on open pasture.
Stamey says he, like others, continues to keep cattle not just for some extra income, but also because it’s in his blood.
“I reckon it’s sort of like fishing. If you ever get hooked on it, you just keep doing it,” Stamey laughed.
By building a new livestock market where farmers can sell their cows easily, those involved hope to preserve a way of life in Western NC and possibly attract a new generation of farmers.
“You’re not going to get as many young people in the cattle business if they don’t have somewhere to sell them,” Stamey said.
Besides preserving mountain heritage, market supporters predict that a new livestock auction will have more tangible economic benefits.
First and foremost, the new facility will benefit farmers — not only by saving them the cost of transporting livestock long distances, but also by earning them more money on each sale.
“A viable market will attract buyers that are willing to pay higher prices,” said Ward. At a recent presentation of the livestock market plans, Ward promised a group of cattle farmers: “You will have more money in your pockets when you complete those transactions.”
Officials hope the new market will also generate jobs, and in turn, that employees will put their money back in the local economy. Ward predicted an increase in the number of livestock produced. That could bring more industry that centers around livestock, such as veterinarians.
Additionally, a portion of $1 from the sale of each cattle will go to fund the state’s Beef Checkoff program, which goes to market and promote N.C. beef products. The state misses out on that money when its cattle are sold out of state.
Some in the cattle industry don’t support the proposed market, particularly operators of existing markets who feel like the state is pushing them aside and out of business.
“That’s not what the (tobacco trust fund) money is for, to build a facility to compete with private industry,” said Al Eatmon, who runs a cattle auction in Shelby.
However, a state report that analyzed the need for a livestock market in WNC found that the Shelby market attracted less cattle than the closest out of state markets, though it’s one of only two in WNC.
Ed Johnson, owner of the cattle market in Canton, says advocates of the new market have ignored the effort he has made to help farmers by opening up his operation last year.
“They told me, if you don’t get this open, some of us will lose our farms,” he said.
Johnson has sacrificed to keep his operation open for the farmers who rely on him — he hasn’t pulled a paycheck in three months. He says just $10,000 would go a long way toward making needed repairs to his facility, and help it become a viable market.
“This works. We can make it work,” he said.
Johnson questions why the state is choosing to spend millions on a new facility rather than helping out an existing operator like himself.
“They’re looking to help out the local guy, yet they’re wanting to spend $3.5 million on a new market,” he said.
Randy McCoy, a Macon County cattle farmer and frequent patron at Johnson’s auction, said the money the state wants to spend is excessive.
“I don’t know if they have enough cattle in the area to spend that kind of money on a stockyard,” he said.
The state’s report did find that there aren’t enough cattle in WNC to sustain two competing markets. Ward said the plan to build a market was already in motion by the time Johnson opened his, and that the new market is targeting the 40,000 cattle currently being sold at auctions out of state, not the ones Johnson is selling.
“I’ve spoken to Johnson to clarify that we are not creating a market to try to take his market,” said Ward. “On the other hand, we will not be able to direct the producer, and if they emigrate from him to our market,” there’s nothing the state can do, he said.
Ward said Johnson is welcome to throw his name in the hat along with other operators interested in running the market. WNC Communities, the recipient of the grant that will help build the market, plans to lease the facility to a private operator at a low cost.
Ward said the state’s study showed that most cattle farmers support the new livestock market, and that benefiting the farmers is the ultimate goal of the market project.