by Japhet Weeks
From his rustic lectern, Lee Mora, auctioneer and owner of the Humboldt Auction Yard, presides over his cowboy-hat-and-cowboy-boot-clad flock of local ranchers. Ascending prices cascade off his tongue. Cows low and spin in the central corral. The cool air in the windowless interior of the auction yard is a fragrant mix of cow shit and mulch, with sweet undertones of grain feed.
This past Wednesday afternoon, cow and calf pairs were selling for about $1000. Mora was too busy to talk on auction day (there's one auction a week, every Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.), but I managed to reach him by phone this morning at 7:30 -- the only time (I was told when I called the auction yard yesterday) he had a moment to spare.
"There is a dramatic change going on in the market that I’ve never seen before," Mora told me. People in the business are asking themselves whether cows are a viable option anymore due to the rising cost of corn -- caused largely by a misguided ethanol boom in the United States -- and diesel fuel, which is hovering around $5 per galon. The traditional market for the past 25 years, Mora said, has been for California calves going to Midwest feedlots. With the feed and fuel prices so high, cattle prices are being pushed down and the producers -- local cattlemen -- are being hit hard.
Mora's is the only livestock auction on the North Coast, and it's been in operation since 1948. His family purchased it 1968, and Mora started working there in the late '70s. Perhaps that explains Mora's convivial style and the rapport he obviously has with the buyers in the stands.
"Thank you guys," he said, when a group of cows and calves left the small corral. "We know the feed's tough." Mora understands that without buyers he'd be out of a job, but more importantly, it's about a way of life that's being threatened. "We were very appreciative of the buyers that sat in and participated in our sale," he told me Friday. Let's hope they keep coming back.
Listen to Mora in action and see more pictures from Wednesday's auction here.