BELKNAP – On any given Wednesday night throughout the year, the Belknap Livestock Auction in Wayne Township in northern Armstrong County, is the place to find everything from a box of fresh tomatoes to livestock of all kinds.
Now past its heyday, the facility is still the first link in the consumer’s food chain.
“That is how I always think of it,” said owner Tom Huff. “Most people do not think of what it takes to put meat on a supermarket shelf.”
Huff has had ample time to muse on the subject. Starting out as a 12-year-old wrangling calves from auction stalls and onto livestock trucks, he learned the business from beginning to end. In 1984, he bought it.
Huff said that he got his first job at the auction at a time when his mother was the bookkeeper.
“Everybody kids me about how far I have come in life,” he said. “I went from the back of the barn to the front.”
Huff said that the first building on the site was erected sometime in the 1950s by Deb Rupp. The original structure grew into today’s maze of cattle pens and auction floors.
Business was being conducted a recent Wednesday night as usual, but the volume is nowhere near what it was even 30 years ago.
“There were nights when we would start the auction at 6:30 p.m. and keep going until the wee hours of the morning. We still start at the same time, but we are done by 10:30 or 11:30,” he said.
The “we” he spoke of is comprised of his family, mainly his wife, Tawnya, who also owns and operates the Country Junction restaurant in Smicksburg, and their three daughters.
“It has always been a family-owned and -run business,” he said, “but even more so now. Like everywhere else, it is hard to find workers.”
Huff said that the changing face of agriculture in the U.S. has contributed in a big way to the waning of the auction business.
“There are very few small family producers left,” he said. “Once Big Ag started expanding, the little guys did not have a chance.”
The most noticeable change came in the 1990s as huge industrial-type swine farms became the norm. Everything from raising piglets to be ready for market to processing them often takes place in a single enormous facility.
“Now, there are fewer pig farmers and less need for smaller independent meat packing houses,” he said.
But the decline is evident among all segments of the livestock trade. Former family-owned dairy farms now run a few head of beef cattle or were sold long ago to Amish families.
“The difference is, the Amish tend to raise goats rather than dairy cows,” Huff said. “There is not much demand for dairy cows at the auction like there used to be.”
Still, there is a market for smaller animals. Wednesday’s auction activity began at 6:30 p.m. with the sale of rabbits, ducks, chickens and other small livestock. Even those numbers have dropped in recent years.
“We used to go through 300 or 400 calves in one night,” Huff said. “Along with that, we had hundreds of chickens and turkeys and anything you could think of.”
Along with beef, pork and fluffy bunnies, Belknap auction visitors can find a wealth of agricultural products, depending on the season and the weather. Wednesday night’s auction included a substantial haul of sliced meats and cheeses.
It was easy to spot the vehicles of veteran auction attendees. They were the ones towing trailers with small refrigerated coolers strapped to the beds. Their auction finds would end up in small mom-and-pop stores in the area.
Farmers’ market vendors often obtain produce at the auction early in the season before their own crops are ready to harvest. For example, Southern-grown cantaloupes make their way through the auction process, changing hands a few times before they show up at an early-June market.
Huff, along with a livestock dealer taking a break outside the main building, shook their heads over drought conditions in the American West and Midwest.
“There is no water for crops, so that means no cattle feed,” the dealer said. “Producers are trying to sell off their stock because they cannot feed them. They are trying to hang onto their ‘seed’ calves for next year, but that is all.”
In the short term, beef prices will probably be lower for consumers as all the extra meat hits the market.
“After that, it is going to take some time to build the herds back up,” the dealer said. “Bad weather has consequences that are passed along to the consumer.”