A Video Bull Sale in the Heart of Rural America

A week or two ago I left work a little early and drove out to a ranch north of Wing, North Dakota, to attend a bull sale. When I told a colleague about it the day after my return, she laughed out loud (possibly even snorted) at what she regarded as the absurdity of an urbanized bookworm like me going to an authentic agricultural event. I was a little hurt by that. I tried to tell her that I have hauled my share of bales in my lifetime, and disked and cultivated thousands of acres, but she couldn't listen because she was walking away chuckling to herself.

I stopped in Wing briefly in hope of getting coffee and pie at the celebrated restaurant the Chat and Chew. I love rural nomenclature: Klassy Kuts; Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow; Toes & Tan; Tan-Tiffic (owner named Tiffany). But the Chat and Chew was closed (winter hours). So on I went.

The Vollmer Ranch is located where the rolling plains just begin to meet prairie pothole country. The meadowlarks sounded like they owned the territory, and the yard was filled with 75 pickups and trailers, with license plates from five or six states, including one from Missouri. This was a scene where a Ford F-150 would be regarded as a starter pickup.

I slipped into the sale barn as meekly as I could, because I had "stranger nerd" written all over me. I was one of the few not wearing cowboy boots and a shirt that started its retail life at Runnings, and I was I think certainly the only person in that barn not wearing blue jeans.

How can I describe the scene? It was a large red barn (a Morton building), with tables in the back covered with nice plastic tablecloths. Closer to the front there were risers on both sides, like the kind you would see in a small gymnasium. On the wall a large American flag, and about twenty feet away a bright yellow "Welcome to Bison Nation" flag. Near the doorway a spotlessly clean commercial refrigerator chock full of beverages. A card table with a wide range of cookies, bars, carrot cake, and other desserts, plus an endless box of purchased doughnuts, which one pre-adolescent boy in boots and hat did his best to tuck away.

Up in the booth (called the Block) were Sara and Troy Vollmer, she recording, he taking calls and talking to the auctioneer. Below them three giant screen televisions in front of the 50 or so folding chairs that were set up on the barn floor. This was a video bull sale. No bull ever entered the barn. Professional videographers had come several weeks before the sale to take high-resolution video of each of the featured bulls--walking, standing, drooling, glowering, exhibiting those parts for which they will be purchased. It has some of the feel of a video of a runway fashion show. A graphic on the bottom of the screen tells you the bull's sale number, which you then check against a glossy 24-page sale catalogue, which provides photographs of some (not all) of the bulls, and for each bull a series of data points that make no sense to me, but which explain their genealogy, birth date, birth weight, weaning weight, adjusted rib eye area, intra muscular fat content, and some data about their private parts that seemed a little personal.

The catalogue also has a thoughtful and generous welcome letter from Troy, with one color photo of his parents in front of a Christmas tree and another of Sara and Troy and their three daughters at Disney World. The three daughters look so innocent, hard working, cheerful, cute, and respectful, but with a hint of mischief, that it feels as if they were ordered from a 4H catalogue. Who would not want such children?

The auctioneer was a man named Roger Jacobs from Billings, Montana, but he has roots in southwestern North Dakota. He was absolutely perfect: tall, rail thin, straight as an arrow, in a crisp white shirt and a nondescript tie, with a big tan cowboy hat on his head. There was not an ounce of intra muscular fat on him. He looked like he might have been young Ronald Reagan's cousin twice removed. He was essentially all business, selling a bull on average every 24 seconds, but offering up a bit of commentary now and then ("This, folks, just might be the best bull in the yard," "This bull is ready to go to work"), and teasing some of the cattlemen he knew in the audience, "Ralph, I just know you are going to go ahead and buy something before the day's over!" It was a masterful performance. Among the buyers you could observe every form of bidding gesture known to man: the wink, the one-finger forehead touch, the big nod, the slight nod, the wrist tap, the "I know I'm payin' too much, but I'm going to do it I guess" smile. I was taking photographs from the hip, afraid to raise my camera to my eye lest I go home with "Rockytop 4199" in the trunk of my Honda.

I looked around at the hundred or so people who had gathered for the sale. Mostly men, most of them middle aged, strong, a little weathered and some a little gnarled up, men who have never been to a fitness club but who could lift and throw an elliptical training rig into the back of a pickup. Couples who have been together for a long time in isolated rural farms and ranches, sitting quietly side by side like the best sort of life partners. Some young men, bearded, studying the catalogue with a kind of wistfulness, trying to figure out what they can really afford just now. Half a dozen young women who look like they married a country boy before they quite thought it through and are still making the transition. Two or three young cowboys who have taken some trouble about how they look, with silk one-color neckerchiefs, and flattop cowboy hats, leaning back against the wall like characters out of a Marlboro ad, thumbs in their pockets. A big cattle buyer who exuded confidence in every possible way, whose slightest nod or grimace got the attention of the auctioneer. Weary older ranch women with one hand on their husband's shoulders.

There was such experience and character in their faces, such authenticity and integrity and self-reliance and rootedness that I choked up in the Vollmer sale barn and almost burst into tears. (I'm pretty sure that gets you booted out of the arena). Two weeks previously I had been sitting in the Church of the Gesu in Rome, the mothership of the worldwide Jesuit order, at the same hour of the afternoon, gazing at some of the most splendid Baroque artistry in the world. And now I was in the heart of the heart of America among no-nonsense agrarians who produce food for the rest of us, people who represent some of the very best of the American spirit.

That barn with those unself-conscious farmers and ranchers seemed profoundly removed from Syria and Afghanistan, from lower Manhattan and Washington, D.C., and pretty seriously removed even from Fargo and Bismarck and Grand Forks. I fell in love with North Dakota all over again.

And oh my the meal—brisket, a macaroni coleslaw salad, and a bean-bacon thing that just made you want to swear off health altogether.