April 29--NEW HOLLAND -- The market economy has trumped emotion and controversy, again and again, at New Holland Sales Stables.
The century-old animal auction whose pens, auction barns and parking lots occupy a city block-sized tract in the middle of a rural Lancaster County community has survived -- and thrived -- despite negative publicity surrounding people who buy horses at the auction and then send them to slaughter.
That is because horses represent no more than 15 percent of the 500,000 animals sold at New Holland each year. The vast turnover in animals that include goats, sheep, and cattle make New Holland the largest animal auction by volume east of the Mississippi River, according to Mike McDermott, manager and co-owner.
Buyers and sellers come by the thousands every week from across the state and throughout the East. Different animals are sold at different times of the week. A significant amount of business comes from Berks.
Oley Township dairy farmer Dorothy Wagner said her husband, Rodger, drives a pickup truck pulling a loaded cattle trailer to the auction once or twice a month.
"We can sell our cattle there," Wagner said. "It's a place to get rid of them, if we don't want them anymore."
Herman Bontrager, a Lancaster County insurance company executive with deep knowledge of the Amish community, said the weekly New Holland auctions play a vital role.
"It is important to any farmer who buys and sells livestock," Bontrager said.
But it is the horse auction -- and specifically, what happens to some of the horses sold at the auction -- that gets the most public attention.
Time and again, the New Holland name has been associated with unaffiliated horse brokers or "kill buyers" who buy horses and drive them to Canada or Mexico for killing. Beyond that, the auction has surmounted its own legal troubles.
Nonetheless, New Holland remains a crucial piece of farm-market infrastructure.
"We are the main hub for agriculture here in the state, as far as animals go," McDermott said.
The business takes no position on the issue of horse slaughter. It welcomes bidding from those who support the practice and those who detest it.
"We are open to the public," McDermott said. "I urge them to come and buy a horse."
A vast reach
Every Monday, 200 or more thoroughbreds, Amish-owned work animals, Tennessee walkers, tiny "miniatures" and other varieties of horses pass between tiered plank seats full of auction spectators.
Some are bought for riding and some for special tasks, like summer kids' camps. Some are purchased by horse rescues.
But up to 25 percent, according to McDermott, are bought by brokers sometimes referred to as kill buyers who haul them out of the country for slaughter.
Those winning bidders have made New Holland a major focus in the fiery horse community debate about unwanted horses, the many thousands of animals across the country that may be neglected, starving or sick because owners can no longer afford to care for them.
"There is an emotional attachment to these horses, that are companion animals, that have worked side by side with man in building this country," McDermott said. "There are agencies that do not want to see any horses killed, whatsoever."
At New Holland, some horses go for $100. Some go for $3,000 or more.
John Whiteside, who sits next to the auctioneer above the sales ring, resolves any disputes between buyers and sellers.
"Our job is to bring buyer and seller together. We collect a fee that is the commission," he said. "That is all we are -- an agent."
Horses bought at New Holland have gone on to appear in the famous Devon Horse Show near Philadelphia. They have been purchased by Amish families for farm work, by parents who want ponies for their kids and by carriage-ride operators in Lancaster County and New York City.
"This horse sale is widely known in the East," said Lloyd Martin, an Iowa resident who grew up in New Holland and recently returned on a visit. "There are people who know of this sale barn in Iowa."
The company's auctions of other animals are widely known, too. The roughly 1,500 consignors, or sellers, who bring animals to the auction every week come from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Maine and elsewhere.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's market reporting service -- which disseminates price information on cattle, sheep, pigs and other farm commodities nationwide -- rents a small office at New Holland, McDermott said.
Berks County Farm Bureau President Larry Gelsinger, who runs a Heidelberg Township farm with more than 200 head of cattle and pigs, said the weekly Leesport Farmers Market animal auction is likely the No. 1 destination for animals headed to auction in Berks.
But the presence of New Holland is crucial.
Gelsinger said, "Without that, you'd really be in trouble."
Accusations of cruelty
New Holland has been accused time and again of cruelty because some buyers take horses to out-of-country slaughterhouses.
It has also dealt with legal issues of its own.
In 2001, a district justice fined the business more than $1,500 in a case that involved 31 horses being transported in a double-decked cattle trailer. In 2007, it was fined a similar amount in a case that involved the neglect of three disabled sheep.
In 2012, it agreed to pay $75,000 to settle a civil case brought against it by USDA. The federal complaint said New Holland manipulated the price of livestock in early 2010 by creating false market auction invoices during the process of buying and re-selling animals.
McDermott declined to comment on the federal case.
Concerning accusations of cruelty, he said the business had no control over the condition of animals arriving at the complex, but it tried to watch out for their welfare while there.
"It is something we constantly have to monitor," he said.
Jo Parto, a humane police officer with Animal Rescue League of Berks County, said New Holland gained a reputation in years past because of cruelty cases. But, she said, New Holland "has cleaned up a lot. They try not to take in the skinny, injured horses."
Business and pleasure
The sales barn is a hive of activity on Mondays.
A vast array of horse trailers and pickup trucks stretches across the parking lot. Close to the barn entrance, vendors standing at outdoor tables sell all sorts of paraphernalia -- some horse-related and some not -- including blankets, figurines and mirrors.
Inside, past a snack stand that serves coffee, pretzels, cookies and doughnuts, the action centers on the narrow strip where the horses are led or ridden between the bleacher-like seats.
The place is like a "divorce court" where owners part with horses, according to Jeffrey Edelson, a Manheim, Lancaster County veterinarian. The economy may be the single largest factor motivating sellers.
"When we had the economic downturn, six-horse owners became two-horse owners," Edelson said. "And, there were four horses that were unwanted."
Whiteside, whose work puts him right by the ring, said his fondness for the job goes beyond the requirements of being an impartial agent.
He said, "I am personally a horse lover."
Contact Ford Turner: 610-371-5037 or [email protected].
(c)2014 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.)
Visit the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.) at readingeagle.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services