The men in their dusty tractor hats and worn work clothes barely look up when I enter the lunchroom at the Virginia Livestock Exchange, a seven-acre anachronism snugged between the highway and the new retail corridor developing west of Winchester, Va.
They call the place a cafeteria, but it's a U-shaped Formica lunch counter at which livestock workers grab a bite to eat throughout cattle auction day. And a long day it is.
Farmers begin arriving the day before: muscular pickups pulling mucky aluminum trailers with slotted sides, through which a bovine nose occasionally protrudes. Most of these cattle are destined for a short fattening-up period, and then slaughter. The buyers are looking for sturdy animals with good bones that will support a potential weight gain. By year's end, today's purchases will be hamburger.
Until this year, the auction was the biggest thing on U.S Route 50, west of town. But now there's a Wal-mart across the road where there used to be farmhouses, in front of which there are places for fast-food burgers, pancakes and a sit-down meal. And the highway crew hasn't yet finished widening the asphalt for more big things to come.
The exchange is owned cooperatively, with its 1,500 shares divided among a ten-member board of directors and stockholders, all of whom are farmers. The sale draws sellers and buyers from northern Pennsylvania to Georgia.
The scene in the business office is entirely different than anywhere else in the exchange. The sweaty air of the auction floor is replaced by air conditioning, and the antique bell that starts the auction gives way to computers with flat-screen monitors.
The business of cattle sales has become so streamlined that everything can be handled in a single day: the auction, collection and dispersal of revenue from buyers to sellers. The only clues that this office is attached to a farming tradition are the cattle-pen workers who occasionally walk through in muddy boots and the country music emanating from a radio.
On the auction floor, the action is so fast it takes three auctioneers to handle the flow. Two take turns calling the sale, while the third works a phone. In the cafeteria, I'm the only woman that isn't serving customers.
Occasionally, I'll catch the tail of an eye spying on me, wondering about this obviously non-farm woman with clean shoes and clean fingernails. Eventually, a fellow a few stools over responds when I ask him about his meatloaf special.
"It's pretty good," he says. A hefty slab of gravy-soaked meatloaf, two sides, rolls and a beverage will set you back less than $5.
Most of the clientele is digging into the meatloaf, and pinto beans seems to be the side order of choice. Thick, white coffee mugs are lined up about ten deep on a tray next to the coffeemaker, and below them are trays of yellow cake with white icing, already cut into squares and individualized under plastic wrap.
Under the counter are large cans of chopped kale, green beans and whole white potatoes. The most expensive thing on the menu is ribeye steak: $9.95.
Back in the chutes, workers are constantly opening and shutting gates, moving groups of animals who shove and moo; the men prod and slap the animals. Animals to be sold individually are given numbers on round stickers that are affixed to their shoulders or rump. Animals to be sold in lots receive a blast of white or orange spray paint across their back or hind quarters.
Calves begin the sale. Most are a couple months old, but some are younger. A few, only two and three days old, will go for veal. Six hundred cows will be sold on this day. There are also pens of goats and sheep, and a single pen containing seven pigs.
The cattle auction runs every Monday beginning at 1 p.m., and it continues until the last animal is sold. During the fall, the busiest season, that can be 4 a.m. the next day. The cafeteria stays open pretty much the whole time.
"When we run out of one special, we'll start another one," the waitress says.
There are definite regulars in the lunchroom, and not all of them are cattlemen.
"We just stopped by to eat," says one man, gesturing at the man on the stool next to him. "Me and him don't even work here. We're building roads."
One fellow has stopped to have a meal with his father. There are nearly 400 acres of farmland in the family, which he says he will withhold from developers as long as possible.
Still, he questions how long the livestock exchange will last. For the last decade or so, the march of the bulldozers has been unrelenting.
"Look around," he says, indicating the dining clientele. "You don't see too many young people. All the developers are buying up the farms. I wonder how long this will be here."
A sign on the wall announces that fried bologna is a new menu item. Two men take the stools beside me and begin a banter that sounds long rehearsed.
"You buyin' this meal for me?" asks one.
"You know I ain't."
"You'd be grumblin' all the way up the road if you did."
The man in denim overalls orders a big bowl of beans, topped with chopped onions, into which he aims a good long squirt of ketchup.
"S'that all you're having?" asks his companion, who selects the meat loaf .
"I'll eat that and see if I run outta money," the first man says. "If I run outta money, I'll quit."
Across the road, shoppers are filling carts with foam trays holding meats that are plumped with water before their packages are pumped with air. The blood fear of captive animals, the dust and swirl of the auction floor, the sleepless hours of cattlemen on sale day could be miles away from the mundane, suburbanized experience of purchasing dinner for the family.
In the lunchroom, as the food arrives, the man in denim shoves the other with an elbow and announces, "Grace." Both men pause, clasp their rough hands and bow their heads. Then the man in overalls thanks the Lord for himself and his companion before they begin to eat.