HARRISONBURG — The counties of Rockingham, Augusta, Page and Shenandoah combined make up four of the top five agriculture counties in Virginia, accounting for more than a third of agricultural sales in the state in 2017.
In 2017, Rockingham, Augusta, Page and Shenandoah counties accounted for 35% of agricultural sales in Virginia, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture.
Rockingham County alone made up 20% of the state’s sales.
Out of the 2,026 farms counted for in the census, Rockingham County is ranked No. 1 in market value of agricultural products sold in the areas of total sales, livestock, poultry and products, poultry and eggs and milk from cows.
Augusta County, which ranked No. 2 for total sales, took the highest spot for cattle and calves and sheep, goats, wool, mohair and milk.
Each county in the Shenandoah Valley shares their piece of the agriculture pie when it comes to what they bring to Virginia in economic value. For the businesses in the field of livestock sales, a first glimpse of the farmers and producers work is shared.
Inside The Scale House
The Ritchie family currently owns and operates the Shenandoah Valley Livestock Sale, located off Edom Road in Harrisonburg. The Shenandoah Valley Livestock Sale has been operating in Harrisonburg for 83 years.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, the business opens their auction room to allow sales to commence. Typically Saturdays are busier than Wednesday, but the season can play an important role on how busy the livestock sales can be.
Starting at 6 a.m., Mike Ritchie and his fellow 26 employees arrive at the Shenandoah Valley Livestock Sale to get ready for a busy Saturday sale.
It does not take long for farmers to arrive to the white building with trailers full of livestock ready to be sold to the highest bidder.
One by one, trailers are unloaded into what appears to be a maze inside the Shenandoah Valley Livestock Sale, but in reality is a well-oiled machine.
Once the animals enter the building, they are then guided to two sides of the building — the left side for smaller animals such as goats, sheep, pigs or calves and the right side for larger animals such as cattle, heifers and bulls.
After the first stage of sorting is complete, the animals are then weighed individually or in pairs depending on how they will be sold.
For smaller animals, the scale house runs “old school” where animals are weighed on a scale operated manually, not digitally.
For the last 20 years, Kenny Shank has been operating the manual scale, sliding the numbers up and down until they show the animals' weight.
Once the weight is determined, he inserts a card with the animals information on it and punches the weight of the animal onto the card.
“I am always adjusting,” Shank said.
On the other side of the scale house features a more up-to-date scale where once the animal is on the scale, the weight will appear on a monitor.
It takes little time for the scale house to be transformed into a symphony of animal noises competing to see who will be heard the most, but somehow the voices of the scale house operators rise above the sound.
As each animal is placed on the scale, a line of numbers is called out.
“Two blue rump heifers to 274,” Ritchie said.
When needed, animals will be painted with white or blue paint for sorting purposes. The paint helps to identify which animal belongs to who because animals can be sold with other animals.
Once weighed, the animals are guided through another maze they will call home until brought out to be sold.
Inside the scale house there is a set of overviews that allow sellers and purchasers to view the animals coming in. The walkways give you a birds-eye-view of the maze happening below where everything has its place.
On one end, people can watch the beginning stages of the sorting while on the other end, people can watch the animals be taken “backstage” where they are grouped with other animals.
Ritchie said he expected to see 600-700 livestock be sold.
Once 12:30 p.m. rolls around, it is time to start the auction.
Ready For Auction
The auction room resembles a theater with the animals being the main show.
Seats are lined around in a horseshoe shape to provide everyone attending a good look at what is next to coming.
Without warning, the auctioneer, Grant Rhodes, begins the bidding.
Animals are sold before people can tell who is bidding on the animals and a new symphony begins to the tune of the auctioneer's voice.
The bidding chant continues until the words “sold” utter out of Rhodes’ mouth and the next round begins within a few seconds.
By the end of the year, the Shenandoah Valley Livestock Sale could see up to 70,000 animals come through its doors, showing the steady increase in livestock sales through out the Valley.