Sheep, Steers and An Auction
In September, I went to a 4-H livestock auction to conduct my ethnographic experiments. Compared to other livestock auctions, this one would be peculiar. The prices for the steers and lambs are usually more expensive than is usually the case, and instead of animals being let into a pen for consideration, they are led across a stage by 4-H members. These members have been working with their animals and training them since the beginning of summer, in preparation for the shows and auction at the fair. The 4-H program is a national agricultural organization that is made up of a variety of clubs ranging from cooking to field crops. Members of 4-H range in age from 8-21 and often come from an agricultural background. This is an interesting space for my inquiry because of the meeting of many different worlds: the general public that may wander by, the 4-H members, the buyers, the volunteers, and, of course, the animals. Each group contributes to the unique dynamics of the auction, differentiating it from other such occasions. Another reason for my choice is my familiarity with the event, both in terms of volunteering and in terms of taking part in the auction myself in the past. This familiarity makes this site an interesting choice for ethnographic observation.
For my descriptions, I have decided to use thick description and “composite character” technique to write up my observations. Description no. 1 tries to give a clear picture of the auction using sight and sound. I found myself falling into the trap of hierarchically ordering my senses (something that Clifford warned us about in “Partial Truths”) choosing to focus primarily on sights and sound. In addition to favoring some senses over others, I also favored different perceptions of the events. In writing my ‘thick description,’ I did not explore the perceptions of the animals, people foreign to the auction, or even the perceptions of the plants arranged around the platform. Instead, I focus on my own perceptions of being a spectator. My second description focuses on a singular person, who is a composite of the various 4-H members that I observed. I decided to do a composite based on Ralph’s ethnography, Renegade Dreams, because I could not go individually through each sale. I further decided to give focus to the biographies written by each person because of my realization that they were trying to sell themselves to the bidders, something I did not realize throughout all the years that I took part in the auction as a 4-H member.
Walking into the barn at 7:00 pm, the first thing you notice is the sawdust that covers the floor and the bright yellow gates surrounding a raised platform that is enclosed by bleachers ready to be filled. One man is running around preparing the sound system, so that the auctioneers can be heard, while others are making last-minute changes to the set-up of the platform. The auctioneers are off on the side, talking amongst themselves. Although outside of the barn was starting to get dark, inside is flooded by lights as bright as midday. As the start time approached, many of the seats had been filled, but more people were still expected and so the auction was delayed. Meanwhile, the auction catalogue was being handed out to all prospective buyers already seated. The catalogue listed the order and weight of the animals, their owners, a list of the previous year’s buyers, and a space to keep track of the sale prices. After the seats are filled, two children come up to the platform to play fiddle and step dance for a pre-auction show. By now the auction was a half an hour late, but with the entertainment finished, the actual sale was about to begin.
Before the first 4-H member comes onto the platform, the fair president and the judges (from both the lamb and steer shows earlier that day) give introductions of the animals and the 4-H members. Although the steer judge from New York State had to leave, he left a written address praising the quality of the steers and stating that the 4-H members were the “nicest kids he’s ever met.” The sheep judge gives similar praise to the selection up for auction, claiming they were “strongest market lamb class he has seen,” and describing the 4-H Members as the “future sheep industry.” Right after these introductions, the auctioneers announce that the first animal up is for auction. According to the catalogue, this steer is the champion and weighed 1,200 pounds. This information is immediately repeated by the auctioneers. Adding to this, they also give a short biography of the 4-H member, offered in a dramatic and theatrical way. Coming out in front of the audience, the 4-H member had a broken leg so there are two others helping handle the animal. Then, as the auction began, they show off the animal to the crowd. The auctioneers start the bidding at 10 dollars per pound, but it soon drops to 2 dollars and the buyers begin to bid. The price then grows to the final 6 dollars, increasing by 25 cents, and then, the auctioneer announces “Sold!” The buyer is announced, a local company, and the buyer, animal, and previous owner go behind the platform to take a commemorative photo.
As the other 4-H members come onto the platform, a similar order emerges: information about the animal, 4-H member’s bio, and any additional information that the auctioneer can add to really ‘sell’ the 4-H member to the buyers. Occasionally, an animal would break loose from the 4-H member, but was met by a large group of people ready to catch hold of it again. As the auction continues, the homogenous nature of the buyers fades away. Within the larger group, there are small sections present for seemingly different reasons. One faction is there out of curiosity, coming in to see what is going on, and then leaving soon after. The second group appears to be present for the entertainment value of the auction, they would leave as well, but stay longer than the curiosity seekers. A third group has a vested interest in the auction, not as buyers, but as the sellers, or friends of the sellers, readying themselves to go onto the platform themselves. And finally, there is the group of buyers, who are bidding and keeping track of the bids throughout the night.
As the evening continues, the audience begins to wane. The various groups dwindle until the auctioneers announced they were selling the “last lamb in the world.” By this point it was 9:30 in the evening, and the bleachers were nearly empty. After the exit of the remaining audience members, the sounds of tractors and volunteers dismantling the platform became the only competition against the sounds of the midway and fairgrounds.
Arriving at the fair earlier in the day, I met one of the 4-H members, Sam, preparing for the coming auction. Sam was looking for his nice clothes to change into and asking his mom whether she had written his biography to hand to the auctioneers. His mom, who was busy doing her own preparations for the auction, told him where to find his clothes and that he needed to write his own biography. I offered him some from my notebook paper, after which he went off to write his own biography.
The auction was supposed to start at 7:30, but it soon became apparent that it would start later than promised. Sam was going around helping with any last-minute chores. While I was sitting in the stands amongst other audience members, I too was given an auction catalogue. Sam was listed on the second page, after a group of steers. Sam showed a lamb earlier in the day in the 4-H regional championship show and now gets to see the culmination of his hard work at the auction. By 8:00, the auction was officially started with a fiddle and step-dancing show from two children. After this, the president of the fair board gave opening remarks, and the two livestock judges gave their perspectives on the quality of the animals and the 4-H members who showed that day. While this was going on, and as the auction began, Sam was in amongst the crowd talking with friends, only paying attention when someone from the same club was up on the auction platform, or to check how close he was to going up himself.
As the last steer was auctioned off, Sam prepared to lead his sheep onto the platform. While walking up the ramp, the auctioneers began to read off his biography, just as they had for every previous 4-H member: “‘Sam lives on a 3rd generation sheep farm and is currently going to the local high school. Sam plans on spending the money from tonight on post-secondary education and building his own flock. Sam would also like to add that a portion will go to the charity of the buyer’s choice.’ Now isn’t that a great kid!” In his biography, Sam explained to the potential bidders his intentions as well as underlined his agricultural background so to sell himself rather than the animal. The auctioneers seemed to take the same approach, pausing to remind the audience that we were “here to make money for the kids.”
Sam was wearing a pair of cowboy boots and a plaid shirt tucked into dark jeans, like the majority of those before him, and lead his lamb around on the platform as the bidding began. Starting at 6 dollars per pound, it eventually raised up to 8 dollars per pound. The auctioneers yelled out: “Eight dollars, eight dollars bid, go nine, go nine now!” As the bidding continued, the lamb broke loose from Sam’s lead. Just as quickly as it came loose, it was caught again. Finally, the bidding ended at $8.50 per pound for Sam’s 96 lb. lamb. The buyer was a local business, as many others had been as well.
Sam, his lamb, and the buyers made their way back behind the platform to take a picture to memorialize the purchase, and so that Sam could thank them in person (and learn their charity of choice). After this, the lamb was returned to its pen and Sam returns to his friends in the crowd. After the last lamb was sold, Sam helped to tear down the platform and then left to go home with his family.
Through this assignment, I was able to explore both my own writing, and experiment with new ways to write an ethnography. Drawing on our readings and assigned ethnographies for the class, I had a large variety of styles and genres to choose from. These different approaches worked differently with my field work and culminated in the two descriptions above. Although there was no wrong style to choose from, some suited the environment and topic better than others. I believe that the composite character of Sam in the second ethnography was an effective way to portray aspects of the auction without continually repeating the same information or just listing the contents of everyone’s biographies. The thick description in the first ethnography gives the reader an idea of the environment and, hopefully, a clear image of the auction. None of these descriptions fully capture every part of the auction, and other styles of writing would reveal new perspectives. Nonetheless, these two descriptions allow for the communication of what I experienced in two new and different ways.