Livestock auctioneers compete for world championshipby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Fergus Falls, Minn. — A new world champion will be crowned this weekend at the 46th annual World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in Fergus Falls, Minn. It's the first time since 1981 the contest is being held in Minnesota.
Contestants from across North America hope to win the title of best livestock auctioneer.
On a recent day, a handful of men in seed caps and blue jeans bid on cows as they pass through an auction ring separated from the crowd by a fence of heavy steel bars.
Fergus Falls Livestock Market owner Joe Varner, expects hundreds of cattle buyers from across the country to fill the seats for the auction championship. He anticipates more than 3,000 cattle will be sold during the competition.
"So it's a good honor not only for Fergus Falls Livestock, but for the whole upper Midwest," said Varner. "Because people come to see the quality of cattle we have here and it will help our cattle market down the road."
Two Minnesotans are among the 33 auctioneers competing for this year's top prize. Al Wessel from Long Prairie and Mitch Barthel from Perham.
Four finalists were selected from each of eight regional competitions. The Canadian national champion is also invited.
"This is like the Super Bowl and the Triple Crown and the Kentucky Derby. This is it. This is the big deal," said Wessel who was runner up world champion in 2000, but is still after the top prize. "If you've gotten to be the world champion you've not only competed against the best in the industry, but you've risen to the top."
Wessel grew up on a farm in central Minnesota and fell in love with the auctioneer's chant and made his career choice when he was four.
"This will be my 38th year. I began auctioneering right out of high school professionally," he said. "It's the only job I've ever wanted and the only one I've ever had. And I've never really had to go to work a day in my life I've enjoyed it so much. If we have a family gathering, [my brothers,] they're always bemoaning the fact they have to go to work on Monday morning. Secretly, I can't wait to get there."
But what does it take to be a world champion?
Reigning champ Matt Lowery from Nebraska has a rapid, staccato delivery that leaves a casual listener in the dust.
According to Al Wessel, that rapid fire delivery is critical to reaching the top of the auction world.
Livestock auctioneers can sell much faster because the most of the buyers are auction veterans.
"You're judged on your chant, your vocal clarity, product knowledge, expedition of the sale and one of the most important things, would this judge hire this auctioneer to represent him at his livestock market," Wessel explained.
He knows many people are intimidated by auctioneers, so Wessel slows down for a crowd of casual buyers at a household auction.
An auctioneer needs to make the crowd comfortable with a little humor, and convince them every word is very important, according to Wessel. But his real measure of success is a satisfied client.
That's a lesson he learned growing up on a farm where money was scarce.
"I grew up in the early 60s with milk at $3.00, $3.50 a hundred weight. It hadn't rained for a couple of years. We had frogs three years old that didn't know how to swim," he says showing a chuckle. "So at a very early age I was made aware of the fact that every dollar I get for that gentleman could pay a bill. So it's important to me when I go home in the evening I've given it my best effort every day."
Al Wessel and 32 other auctioneers from across North America will give their best effort tomorrow in Fergus Falls in hopes of being crowned world champion.
The World Champion wins a ring valued at nearly $1,000, a cash prize of $5,000, the World Champion's Sculpture, and World Champion Belt Buckle.
The World Champion is also granted the free use of a truck for his year as reigning Champion.
- Morning Edition, 06/12/2009, 8:40 a.m.