published Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Cook: Bidding on a Porsche at the dusty orchestra

Her name is Porsche, and she is pregnant, big-boned and beautiful.

We haven't talked much, and I'd only first met her a few hours earlier, but when she walked into the Pikeville, Tenn., barn last Saturday, and the dusty ray of sunlight struck her big brown-and-white face, I knew she was the one for me.

"Mooo," she said.

"This-here-is-a-real-good-heifer-gonna-turn-out-some-quality-bulls-for-your-herd-she's-got-ton-of-look-a-ton-of-muscle," said the auctioneer.

At least, that's what I think he said. It was as if he was speaking in tongues. Really light-speed-fast, steroid-laced tongues. My ears felt calf-roped.

With my little 5-year-old cowgirl riding shotgun, we'd made the beautiful drive to Burns Farms in Pikeville for the "Female Event and Commercial Bull Sale," which sounds like, well, something this vegetarian has no business attending.

Turns out, I loved every minute of it.

"What you're going to see today is the equivalent of a famous auto auction where somebody brings in a rare Corvette," said Reid Blossom, of the Alabama Cattleman's Association.

Cattle ranchers came from places near and far: Wyoming, Alabama, Nebraska, Illinois, all wanting one thing: a Burns Farm bull, cow or heifer.

Someone said it was the most-attended auction in the state. Another compared it to the NFL draft. For cows.

"These are not ordinary, everyday cattle," added Blossom.

For nearly 60 years, Burns Farms has bred and sold Herefords: the brown-and-white beef cattle. But they've done so in such a way -- studying things such as genetics and phenotypes -- that now their bulls and heifers are purchased across the U.S. for stock improvement and show competitions.

"It's in our blood," said Dr. Phillip Burns, a Chattanooga surgeon who bought his first Hereford when he was 10. "Mortgaged my horse. My parents made me go to the bank and sign papers. I've thought that was a real good education."

Burns, who's served as president of the American Hereford Association and -- even better, sold cows to Charlie Daniels for his ranch -- passed this love onto his children. Burns' son David -- with a master's degree in reproductive physiology -- is now managing the farm, and daughter Sarah -- with an impending master's degree in agribusiness and finance -- is involved, too.

Years ago, one Burns Hereford was so prized, the family sold a half-share in the bull for $7,400.

Whoops. Typo there. I meant to write: $74,000. Half-share. One. Bull. $74,000.

The bulls I saw last Saturday could rest their head on the top of my car. My little cowgirl and I could have picnicked underneath a few. The Running of the Bulls needs to be in Pikeville, not Pamplona.

We've known the Burns family for years, but went Saturday for a different reason. Gnawing in me the last few years has been an urge to invest in real things. Stock markets seem so fictitious, so unpredictable and unreal. I wanted to invest in something honest. Alive.

"There's no fluff here," Burns said.

No fluff on Porsche either. She'll remain on the farm for years, and each time her offspring go to auction, we'll receive a portion of the sale. (The cows and bulls were auctioned from most expensive to least; out of more than 100 sold, she was near the last to go, but don't tell her I said that.)

Saturday was a dusty orchestra. The auctioneer seated above the ring, speaking his fast-talking language, and the bulls and cows coming in one by one, and the ringmen as intermediaries between the hundreds of buyers in bleachers and folding chairs, taking bids and looking for more.

A raised hand. A nod of the head. A wink, a funny eyebrow, anything.

"Anything above the waist and you need to be ready to buy," said ringman Juston Stelzer.

Now he tells me. At one point in the afternoon, I swatted some flies buzzing around my head. I think I bid on a bull. From then on, I was still as a statue.

Until Porsche walked in.

When the bidding started, I raised hand several times -- trying to look cool but failing -- and in about 12 seconds, after outbidding several other ranchers, the cow was ours.

"Sold to Mr. Cook," Stelzer shouted.

It was the second best sentence -- after Porsche's mooing -- I'd heard all day.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@hushmail.com.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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