It’s auction day, and the crowd is gearing up. The buyers sit in a row on the lowest level where they can get a good view of the cows that are loaded one by one. The floor of the pit is a huge scale that records the animals’ weight. Leaning back in a chair perched high above the pit, the auctioneer sits with his microphone, waiting.
A cowbell rings, and the sale begins. The layperson can’t even tell when the buyers are bidding. They may indicate with a subtle wave of a paper, a wink, or a finger flick.
It’s fast paced, but it has to be when between 105,000 and 110,000 head of cattle per year are being sold through this ring. Todd Clemons runs the show. He is president of the Okeechobee Livestock Market, the largest cattle market in the state, as well as president of the Okeechobee Cattlemen’s Association.
The market has been in the Clemons family since 1961, when Todd’s father and grandfather and another partner purchased it. Before that it was being held more as an investment, so it was up to the Clemonses to build the business.
“I don’t remember ever living without the livestock market being a part of my family,” said Clemons, who was 7 years old when it was bought.
Todd’s dad, Pete Clemons, ran the market for many years, and his name as a rodeo legend helped build the brand and inspire confidence in buyers. That coupled with urban development in the South that pushed ranching into Central Florida and helped the market prosper, said Clemons.
As a kid, Clemons remembers coming to the market after school with his brother, Jeff. The boys would run the cows down the alley, help sort them, and help out where they could, at the same time learning the business. Today, Jeff runs the cattle side of the business, and both Todd’s son Matt and Jeff’s son Sam work on sale days. Jeff’s older son Casey runs another Clemons livestock market in Lake City.
Out of high school, Clemons decided that he’d learned everything he needed to know about cattle. “I figured somebody had to know something about the books,” he remarked, so he got a business degree from Troy University in Alabama before coming back to work at the family business.
But there was a point in Clemons’ life where the road forked and he might have ended up on a different path. Baseball has always been a passion of his, and he went to school on a four-year baseball scholarship playing center field.
“My childhood dream was to play Major League baseball,” he said. “I thought I had the ability to play at a higher level.” But Troy was a small school and did not get a lot of attention in baseball circles.
One day right after graduating college, he even got the chance to meet coach Tommy Lasorda. While watching spring training at Dodgertown, he told his wife he was going to go down there and tell Lasorda that he wanted to play for the Dodgers.
He marched up to the clubhouse and knocked on the door. The players, thinking he was a recruit, let him in. “Bob Welch, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes and a lot of my heroes were all there in the locker room. Welch directs me to Tommy Lasorda’s office. He’s sitting behind his desk and he said, ‘Can I help you?’” recalled Clemons.
Clemons told him who he was and that he wanted to be a Dodger.
Lasorda asked him where he played ball. When Clemons answered, the famous coach said, “Where?”
“I came back to reality,” said Clemons with a grin.
Maybe that was as close as he ever got to playing professional ball, said Clemons, but he helps coach high school baseball locally and has trained several boys who have gone on to the major leagues. The market also sponsors a Little League team.
“I got to give back that way,” Clemons said.
While he might not be knocking it out of the park literally, he’s doing it proverbially through maintaining the market’s leading spot in the industry and using technology to grow and streamline business for cattle buyers.
On top of the traditional auction sale, the Clemonses have been the pioneers of remote cattle sales beginning with the “board sales” developed by Pete. Pete would take buyers to the ranches to see the cattle, then draw up the terms of sale on a poster board which would be held up at the auction in place of the animals.
These new board sales allowed buyers to purchase an entire load of cattle at one time and pick them up straight from the ranch. Reducing the need for multiple transports helps lower stress on the cattle and minimize disease exposure, explained Clemons. The idea took off amongst the other markets.
Board sales eventually developed into videotaped remote sales, with Clemons editing the tapes at home. Also on the cutting-edge, Okeechobee Livestock Market partnered with another group and began offering Internet sales of cattle through a site called Producers Cattle Auctions before broadband was even available.
They even did real-time live auctions over dial-up. “It was very limited but the foresight was there,” said Clemons. Now they sell 50,000 head of cattle per year through the site to buyers across Florida and the Gulf Coast.
Still, no matter how the industry advances, some things stay the same. Pete’s way of doing business was “open and honest with a handshake and your word is your bond,” stated Clemons, adding, “That’s how it was then, and it still is today.”