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The Milk House: A day at the Irish mart

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 19 October 2017

ByIt was a busy road to Headford, and like all Irish country roads, it didn’t have a shoulder. I was going to the Saturday mart – the weekly livestock auction – the only way available to me: by bicycle, with my work shoes strapped on back.

Cars and sometimes trailers whirred by, nearly brushing my elbows. Sometimes they honked. Charolais and Herefords stared at me from the back of their trailers as they passed. They might have been on their way to meet their end, but they were getting a ride there. One of them shook its head at me.

I pulled into the grounds and locked my bike to a fencepost. The bike was a little more than conspicuous among the tractors and large trailers.

I slipped on a pair of jeans and jammed on my work shoes, appearing from behind the fence suddenly a rural man again, much like (in my mind) Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth as a superhero. I wanted to get a look at Irish agriculture, both for a current writing project and for my own curiosity. I strode across the driveway with the somber, reserved look of someone who belonged there.

Ireland was a somewhat destitute and antiquated country before joining the EU in 2002. Some places still didn’t have electricity in the ’90s, and social mores remained old-fashioned. Since then, they have quickly modernized, hosting many trans-national companies and participating in the global marketplace, having both one of the best and then worst economies in the world within a span of a decade.

The transition from old Ireland to new Ireland was abrupt, arguably leaving a different country in its stead. The Irish mart is one of the last holdouts of the old times.

Inside, old Irish men crowded along the ring, squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, their hands hanging over the gate. Some wore peaked caps, others baseball caps with ag company logos on them.

They didn’t talk to each other much and, when they did, they grabbed the other person’s shoulder and leaned into their ear, then turned back to the ring, huddled together like co-conspirators. Other farmers sat quietly in the stands, watching the cattle come into the ring. Above them were placard ads by banks and other financial institutions, advertising loan and mortgage opportunities, many of them covered in dust.

There was no time wasted as the animals went from the weighing bridge, pushed past the crowd and were through the exit gate. The auctioneer’s loud voice boomed through the building, often incomprehensible between the bad acoustics and his accent, and barely hesitated before calling out the next animal.

The buyers and dealers bid with the subtlest motions, often by gently lifting a finger. I didn’t dare look at the auctioneer for too long for fear of having to drag a yearling back home with the bicycle.

Although selling livestock by auction is an old and universal convention in many countries, the Irish mart is still steeped in unique tradition.

Many still take up the old practice of the luck penny. When livestock is sold, it is considered proper for the seller to give a token of it back to the buyer in order to induce good fortune. From a steer or a bred heifer, the buyer can expect to receive about 20 euros back from an honest and decent farmer.

Although it is discouraged at some marts, many dealers will yell “On the bridge” or start rotating their finger clockwise to indicate they want to bid on the animal still being weighed before it steps into the ring. It’s a form of claiming the animal, announcing it to the auctioneer and potentially scaring off other buyers.

A buyer can also yell “Stan on,” which means he’s willing to start the bidding for the current animal at the price received for the previous one. None of the farmers and dealers crowded around the ring have numbers. If you’ve won the bid and the auctioneer doesn’t know you, he’ll just ask your name.

I resolved to talk to a few of the farmers, but only having experience approaching Irish women, wasn’t sure of how to start. “Will they do the dairy as well?” I asked a farmer next to me, trying to sound casual. It turns out, much like any pickup line I’ve used here, the accent matters more than the question.

They asked what part of the States I’m from and, like the old generation of Irish, tell of the brother or uncle who left for there when they were young, seemingly making their fortune. They’d lean in close to me until our shoulders were touching and mourn the loss of the quota system for dairy farmers or the disappointment the Chinese market had turned out to be. I’d ask them if they had any cattle in the sale, but they were never buying or selling, simply there to look.

Among the farmers, I suspect the mart was a social occasion and, from the outside looking in, probably a cultural event. Nonetheless, seeing the age of the farmers, one had to wonder how much longer this bastion against the changing times was going to last.

It was impossible to know how many of them might have sons at home at that moment working and those who were the last of their generation. In addition, the Irish Independent reported many of the younger generation are now buying cattle online instead through the same classifieds one buys guitars and bicycles.

The luck penny may not survive the internet, and the art and instinct of bidding may soon become obsolete. Irish farming may lose one of the ties to its past.

Before the mart was over, I returned to the bike, slipped off the jeans and switched the work shoes for the sneakers. A few of the farmers who saw me before now stopped and stared with curiosity. The end of the auction was playing itself out behind me as I passed all the tractors and trailers.

Some of the dealers were taking their stock home. Many of the farmers still lingered around the gates. I turned on the road that headed back to the city, a place that’s like all the others, and left old Ireland behind.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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