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Last livestock auction signals end of era

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 6:38 a.m. MDT

Van Kelly, right, watches as his father, Brent, works cattle at the Utah Livestock Auction in Spanish Fork Friday. (Jason Olson, Deseret News) Van Kelly, right, watches as his father, Brent, works cattle at the Utah Livestock Auction in Spanish Fork Friday. (Jason Olson, Deseret News)
SPANISH FORK — After the last bid is called out and trailers loaded with newly purchased livestock vacate the Utah Livestock Auction parking lot this afternoon, the property will close its gates for the final time.
And with the passing of this auction — the last of its kind in Utah County — comes the end of an era.
"It's sad in a way that the agricultural part of the state of Utah is going away," said Midway resident Brent Kelly, 59, who's owned and operated the auction at 5906 S. 650 West in Spanish Fork for nearly 30 years. "It's a dying industry." For many decades, the Utah Livestock Auction was one of two Utah County locations where livestock buyers and sellers could gather to trade and earn their livelihood. Last May, the Spanish Fork Livestock Auction — formerly located on Main Street — folded. Now, changes in the livestock industry have prompted the Kellys to follow suit. They've sold the property to a developer who coveted the land for its proximity to a railroad spur.
"It's time for us to move on to other things," Brent Kelly said.
After this final auction Saturday, only six active auction grounds will remain in operation throughout Utah, located in Cedar City, Richfield, Salina, Roosevelt, Ogden and Smithfield, said Terry Menlove, director of the animal industry division of the Utah Department of Agriculture.
While the Kellys move on, the auction will leave a big hole for others.
"I'm gonna miss it dearly," said Andy Thatcher, a 66-year-old livestock dealer from Axtell. "It's been a big part of my life and livelihood."

All in the family
The livestock business has been in Brent Kelly's blood as far back as he can remember. His father worked as a livestock trader and often brought Brent and brother Ed to three or four auctions per week. Eventually, Brent landed an auctioneer gig at the Utah Livestock Auction, which opened in 1955.
In 1978, the auction's then-owner, Neil Scott, pulled Brent Kelly aside and offered the property to him. Brent recruited his brother as a business partner, and the two went in on the venture.
Keeping with family tradition, the two brothers included their children in the business. When Ed sold out his share of the business, Brent and his family kept with it. Every Saturday for 30 years, the Kellys and their five children loaded up animals and made the drive to Spanish Fork from their home in Midway to operate the auction.
"One thing I have to say, the auction raised a good family," Brent Kelly said. "They didn't know what Saturday morning cartoons were."
Brent and Mary's oldest son, Jason, now a 31-year-old resident of Midway, said the auction kept them in line. His childhood was filled with hot, dusty summers walking up and down the auction's alleys and winters so severe they froze the corral gates shut.
"We were never in trouble because we never had time to be in trouble," he laughed.
Hundreds of livestock traders and onlookers flocked to the auction ground each Saturday. By Brent Kelly's estimate, they auctioned off hundreds of thousands of animals. But the auction grounds also became a place where parents could give their children opportunities to experience the farm life, Jason Kelly said.
"A lot of people don't have those (experiences) anymore," he said.

Modernizing
But times changed.
For one thing, the Kellys' grown-up children outgrew the auctioneer lifestyle. While Brent and Mary's children still pitched in when they could, the work has become too arduous for the aging couple to continue on their own.
"It's difficult to find help," Mary said.
And then there are the livestock industry's dynamics. The demand for livestock auctions decreased as more traders move to Web sites like www.cattleusa.com and www.Imaauctions.com where they can view streaming videos and place bids on cattle anywhere in the country.
"With the Internet system, people are selling their cattle on video," Brent Kelly said. "The need for the auction is getting less and less."
Thatcher, a long-time patron of Utah Livestock Auction, said he doesn't like the buy-from-the-comfort-of-your-living-room format.
"But I'm an old-timer," he said. "I guess we've modernized."
Thatcher prefers to be in the auction arena when he buys cattle, but for a practical reason.
"Just like when you go look at a car," he said. "It's not quite the same to look at it in a picture as to go sit in it."
Regardless of the exterior influences of the industry, Brent Kelly said 30 years is long enough.
"There's a time and a season for everything," he said. "Now's a time and a season for us to get out of that weekly activity."

'A huge hole'
Though Utah still has six other active auction locations, Jason Kelly said he thinks the loss of Utah Livestock Auction will leave a void in Utah County.
"It's gonna leave a huge hole for a lot of the people who come down to buy an animal," he said.
Robert Walton, 53, owner of Walton Meat Packing in Springville, is one of those frequent buyers who will feel the absence of the auction.
"I wish it wouldn't close down," he said. "But I guess there's nothing they can do about it."
Walton said half the animals he processes and distributes to local stores and restaurants each week come from Utah Livestock Auction. When it closes shop, he worries about how he'll fill the demand.
"I'll just have to go traveling to get my animals," he said.
But with the rising cost of travel, Walton said he hopes local sellers who want to unload their animals without traveling out of the county will bring their animals to him.
Thatcher also said he'll have to stretch to cover the costs he'll incur when the auction closes.
Mary and Brent Kelly said they sympathize with those who feel the void but they need to do what's best for them right now. They also said they hope their former patrons will be able to work things out.
"But still, number-wise and business-wise, we just feel like now's the time to make our move," Mary Kelly said.


E-mail: jdana@desnews.com

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