On our farm, Quite Contrary, one of the most exciting plans we have for this season, is to to add a few goats to our homestead for milk, free fertilizer, and also because they are so adorable. I spent months over the winter researching breeds, proper conformation, dietary needs, space requirements and everything else I could think of to prepare for a caprine invasion this spring. One thing I found out along the way is that goats, particularly the small dairy breeds I decided on, are really quite expensive in relation to our meager budget. Even a very small herd of five goats would have run us into the thousands of dollars, and that’s before the fences were built and the goat barn out up. For a brief time, it looked like Operation Goat might fall through, but a conversation with a farmer friend turned all that around. “Why don’t you go up to the livestock auction?” he asked. Well, why not, indeed, except that I had no idea it existed? The resulting conversation opened up a whole new world for our farming venture.
The auction in question is Dill’s Livestock Auction near Wyoming, Delaware, a little less than an hour north of here. Although auctions often have a negative image—dirty conditions or old, sick and problem animals that can’t be sold any other way– my family has had great luck in the past finding really good horses on the block, so I decided that it was worth at least driving up and checking them out. And, boy, was I impressed!
The auction is owned and operated by a local family and they have been in business for nearly twenty years. The atmosphere on the grounds was one of ease and camaraderie, more like a county fair or gathering of locals down at the general store than an auction. It seemed that many people in the crowd were well-known regulars who greeted one another as old friends. I was surprised by the diversity of the crowd. In the parking lot, Amish horses & buggies were parked alongside muddy 4×4 pickups, which in turn were parked beside little compact sedans. Urbanites, farmers, Mennonite and Amish, elderly gentlemen and teenage girls all mingled together.
The main auction is housed in a giant red barn. On one side, the auction block is set up. Actually, “block” may not be quite the right term. It’s more like a corral with bleachers set up along two sides. Behind the block are the livestock pens where the sheep, cattle and goats are housed before bidding. The pens are accessible through the back of the auction block and the public is welcome to go back and interact with and inspect the animals to pick out likely candidates to bid on.
The other side of the barn looks more like a bazaar than an auction. The very first area you step into is filled with shelves of farm fresh eggs and pies baked by the local Amish communities. In the next section, the walls on either side are lined with cages for an amazing array of poultry and rabbits. On the evening I attended, there were dwarf Holland rabbits, heritage breed turkeys, pheasants, geese and rare heritage chickens. There were hatching eggs, boxes of tiny, fluffy chicks and one little bantam hen with 18 peeping babies under her wings. Though there were none that night, our farmer friend, Duke, told us that sometimes there would be tiny, two-pound baby pot bellied pigs ready for sale. For a poultry and small livestock aficionado like me, walking through was akin to window-shopping on Fifth Avenue!
Past the animals, the barn opened up into a large, open room set up with rows of tables laid out with an amazing array of goods. Local farmers were selling their produce, farmers’ market-style. Local craftspeople had their wares on display and other vendors had tables set up with used and vintage goods. It was like a huge, amazing combination of a weekend flea market and farmers’ market.
Livestock bidding began at six o’clock, or rather, sometime thereabouts—strict punctuality was at odds with the easy and relaxed atmosphere. The bleachers surrounding the corral filled up fast with a crowd that ranged from farming old-timers, like the gentleman who sat next to me saying, “I’ve been sitting here every Wednesday for the past fifteen years,” to the obviously urban family bringing their small children to the country to see real farms and real farm animals up close. The auction itself went fast and it took me nearly a half an hour just to get to the point where I could understand the auctioneer, an older gentleman in Mennonite dress—another example of the diversity of folks represented.
My experience at the auction was truly inspiring. Thanks to our friend, Duke, I was introduced to a unique and truly local aspect of agriculture. The livestock sales that take place at Dill’s are as divorced as can be from the industrialized, vertically integrated, corporate-controlled system that has come to dominate the agricultural landscape. This is a place where the corporate middleman simply does not exist, where a local business run by a local family facilitates the exchange of farmers’ goods directly to consumers and other farmers. It is a ready-made market for local farmers to sell their products that doesn’t rely on the seasonality, fees, scarcity and “elitist” stereotypes of local farmers’ markets or the nearly full-time job of direct marketing. It is a single place where small farmers without access to hundreds of acres and tons of resources, like our friend Duke, can buy an unwanted bull calf from a local dairy, raise it to slaughtering weight, then sell it directly to a customer ready to fill their freezer with locally-raised beef. This is a system that benefits farmers—who can rely on an accessible market; their customers—who have a ready and convenient place to purchase local food; and their communities—which thrive on local dollars kept in local circulation.
In the end, I won two goats at the auction: a red pygmy buck and a delicate mixed-breed doe. Though I had intended on coming home with two pygmies, I chose to bid on the mixed breed does because their size and conformation suggested that they had some dairy in their lineage; more specifically, they appeared to be a cross between a Nigerian Dwarf dairy goat and a Boer. Time will tell what kind of milker she really is, but at a fraction of the price of a registered goat, she was worth a little bit of risk and uncertainty. As I walked out of the auction that night and loaded up my goats while families with their arms full of Amish pies, fresh eggs, vegetables and chickens for their backyards, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d be back to furnish my own agricultural operation and stock my freezer and pantry by relying on the hard work of my local farmers.
Joya Parsons is the owner and principal operator of Quite Contrary Gardens & Homestead in Sussex County, Delaware. A former IT professional and US Navy veteran, she has spent the last ten years learning the art of organic growing and sustainable living. She is working within her own community to make a local, sustainable food system a reality through education, outreach and example. If she’s not outside getting her hands in the dirt or tending her chickens, she can normally be found with her nose in the latest issue of Mother Earth News.