I am a city boy, born and raised in the suburbs of Minneapolis. My entire world changed when I took a job at the Perham Focus as the newspaper's main reporter in December. Now, I am here, in a town of just over 3,000 people, learning what small town living is all about. Perham started surprising me right from the start, and I quickly learned that I don't want to just report what's happening in Perham, I want to report on the people who make this town tick in the most inconspicuous of ways. Some people have a way of always attracting the spotlight, but my 'focus' will be on those who quietly go about their day making this community a better place to live. And since this is my new journey, too, and my "city" eyes are fresh, I wanted to document the adventure of discovering what this "Perham pride" thing is all about. Everybody in Perham has a story, unique in their own way...1 in 3,000.
The first time I came to Perham, I saw the billboard for the Perham Stockyards on the edge of town. Ever since that moment, I’ve been curious about livestock auctions and how it works. My wish was fulfilled this week when I met Mitch Barthel, the owner and auctioneer at Perham Stockyards.
“Nobody knows what I do where you're from,” he said, referring to my city roots. “They don't know anything about this. Not one thing. You gotta spend a whole lifetime to figure it out.” Barthel told me in his signature quick tempo that comes from years of running auctions.
Barthel is right. I buy my meat neatly packaged at the grocery store. I don’t think the slightest about how it got to me while I throw it into a hamburger patty and put it on the grill. I now have a newfound appreciation for the supply chain that puts meat on my table after spending an hour with this guy.
Barthel likens his job auctioning cattle on commission to being a stockbroker. “If you’ve got some cattle to sell and you call me up and say ‘I got 10 feeder cattle’, I’ll advise you when to do it and how to do it,” he said.
Having grown up on a farm in New York Mills, Barthel has been around cattle and farm sales his entire life. After seeing his dad conduct auctions, Barthel knew he was “born and raised to do this.”
Barthel said the thrill of the auction has driven him to do it since he was 16-years-old. He equates his profession to being a professional baseball player. “They don’t get to being a professional baseball player by not wanting to do it,” he said. “They want to know everything about baseball there is. I was born wanting to know everything about auctioneering.”
After years of practice, Barthel said calling numbers in an auction “just feels like getting up in the morning.” He’s even become one of the world’s best livestock auctioneers and regularly competes in nationwide competitions, finishing in the top 10 at least six times.
Barthel said the auction way of selling cattle creates an urgency and atmosphere to the buying process. “When they’re out there in the ring and I’m selling ‘em, it’s in front of God and everybody.”
Having made this his livelihood, Barthel is sensitive to the farm-to-table movement that promotes grass-fed beef. “I’ll have 1,000 cows in here; every one of them ate grass. That’s what they do, they eat grass,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re saying or what they’re talking about, but they want to know where their food comes from, and I get that. The people that eat grass-fed beef just want to feel good about buying something.”
Running the stockyard is like any other business, Barthel said. “You’re not going to be here unless you live it, eat it and breathe it,” he said. “You don’t just flip the sign open on the door and the money just rolls in. You got to go out and get it sometimes.”