Celebrating 50 years!

It’s no secret that I’m a proud rural girl. I grew up in an agricultural family, was invovled in agricultural activities, and I currently work to promote animal agriculture in Washington D.C.

But I’m also the daughter of small business owners. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Our family business

My family owns East Tennessee Livestock Center in Sweetwater, Tennessee. For those unfamiliar with livestock auction markets, we serve as intermediaries between buyers and sellers. To put it in economic terms (or as economic as I get, which isn’t very), we offer a competitive marketplace for sellers to get the highest price possible for their commodities — in this case, live animals. Specifically cattle, though we have a few goats and sheep pass through each week. I also remember seeing a buffalo and an emu come through, but those are few and far between.

The market was founded in 1962 by my grandfather, Joseph Houston, and his four business partners. Over time, he bought out his partners until our family was the sole owners of ETLC. My grandmother worked in the front office, and by the time my Daddy joined the market after college, the business was 100-percent family owned.

Granddaddy Joe -- founder of East Tennessee Livestock Center

Today, my Daddy is the head of the business with my mother working as his business partner and office manager. And on Wednesday, East Tennessee Livestock Center will celebrate 50 years as the Southeast’s strongest and most innovative livestock auction market.

Yes, I know that sounds hyperbolic, and I know that I’m just the teensiest bit biased. But it’s really true. We were the first market in Tennesee to:

• Hold graded feeder calf sales

• Hold graded Holstein steer sales (a much-needed niche in a strong dairy part of the country)

• Hold video sales of cattle lots

In addition, we were the first livestock auction market east of the Mississippi River to hold electronic ID sales.

It hasn’t been easy. In 1987, my grandmother was shot and killed in an armed robbery attempt. We lost my grandfather — founder of our business — last year. And anyone working in agriculture knows how live prices fluctuate depending on market conditions. After the lone case of BSE was found in 2003, prices dropped and suffered for quite a while. Up until the whole snafu with LFTB earlier this year, prices were wonderfully high.

But despite personal tragedy, market setbacks, and competitors moving in and trying to woo away our customers through whatever means necessary, East Tennessee Livestock is still the most trusted livestock auction market in Tennessee.

Having moved away to the big city, I think I’ve developed a new appreciation for the work my parents do. As a child, no one really appreciates their parents — a sad notion, yes, but I think it’s true. You take them for granted. And I’ve definitely taken mine for granted. But living in Washington has reemphasized my rural (and, dare I say, Southern) sensibilities. While there are a lot of things I like about life in the city (Thai food, public transportation, walkability), it’s just not the same as home.

The Houston family

But on the same side of things, it’s amazing to relearn how little experience the average urbanite has with agriculture. All I could really do was blink in shock when someone told me that all farmers tortured their animals — an outright lie if I’ve ever heard one.

While my parents will say that the amount of actual work I ever did at the market was very small, I think I gained a lot more out of my upbringing than mere work experience. Our family business is just that — ours. I’m very protective of it, of my parents, and our way of life.

So if you’re anywhere in southeast Tennessee on Wednesday, stop by and say hello. There’ll be a big anniversary celebration at the market, complete with a luncheon on the grounds and door prizes. I’m pretty sad I won’t be able to attend, but I’ll be there in spirit. There are a lot more that I could say about it, but I’ll just say this:

To my wonderful parents, thank you. You have no idea how much I admire and love you both. Congratulations on 50 years, and here’s to the next 50 being just as groundbreaking and wonderful!