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.