Ryan Stanton, rstanton@ExplorerNews.com
Nov. 9, 2005 - It's early Thursday morning in northern Marana. The sun has awakened from its evening slumber and a perfect row of pickup trucks glisten in the parking lot of the Marana Stockyards.
Nearby, a small group of ranchers huddle outside a curious red barn, talking prophetically about the weather and the latest trends in the livestock business. They've likely just finished enjoying a home-cooked breakfast inside the Stockyards Café.
There's hardly another sound around on this serene strip of Kirby Hughes Road, west of Interstate 10, hidden from the hustle and bustle of city life. But despite the tranquil atmosphere, an entirely different world lies on the other side of the large sale barn doors: a livestock operation superior to any other in Arizona.
Clay Parsons, 43, and his staff of about 20 are hard at work, getting ready for the day's livestock auction. Within the next four hours, a hair short of 1,000 cattle will pass through the auction ring, racking up about a half-million dollars in sales.
"We can sell 1,000 head in four or five hours because of the way we designed our place to constantly keep the cattle moving," Parsons said. "That's a big plus because buyers can fly in and fly out in the same day, and they know our sales are going to be up and over with."
This scene repeats itself each week at Marana Stockyards, the livestock business brought to Marana by the Parsons family 10 years ago. Parsons' older brother, Joe, and his father, Charlie, are also partners in the business, which they moved to Marana in 1995 after operating in Tucson for a few years.
Business is booming, Parsons said, but even so, the future of the family's operation in Marana remains uncertain. The Stockyards could have as little as five years left at its current location if the same development pace keeps up in Marana, he said.
"It'll have to move," Parsons said. "It's a good business, but that kind of business on valuable land, when you're talking land bringing $85,000 to $200,000 an acre … that land will have a better use someday."
Parsons is responsible for managing the daily operations at the Stockyards, which is considered by many the premiere sale barn in all of Arizona. Ranchers travel from all across the state to buy and sell new stockers, bred cows, bulls and cow-calf pairs at its Thursday auctions.
It's a seven-day effort to coordinate each week's sale, said Parsons, who's a middle man in the transactions, collecting about a 3.5-percent commission. On non-sale days, he's often tending to his family's ranches, but he's always on call to arrange transportation and update clients on the market.
"It takes a lot of planning, a lot communication - not only with owners, but with buyers who you're going to sell these cattle to," Parsons said. "So, you have to be available around the clock."
Inside the large indoor arena, it's not the dozens of spectators that contribute most to the energetic clatter on auction day. Rather, it's the constant percussion of Brangus cows butting against the steel corral gates, the steady backbeat of auctioneer Rick Lehman's songlike call and the sharp crack of ringman Rabbit Edwards' whip that create a harmonic symphony that echoes throughout the room.
With a relaxed flip of the wrist, prospective buyers bid on new cattle to add to their herds as they lean forward against the rails surrounding the ring. Others slouch back in their seats, peering beneath the brim of an old cowboy hat.
Up in the auction booth, Parsons and his wife Karen, the weigh master, sit on opposite sides of Lehman. Behind them is penner Judy Burruel, who keeps pace with sales by assigning cattle to one of 220 designated pens outback. Spectators follow the fast action by watching the scoreboards above.
The Parsons compete for cattle consignment with several sale barns in Arizona, including some in Prescott, Wilcox, Chandler and Holbrook.
Lehman, a Gilbert resident, has been a voice behind cattle auctions at the Stockyards for eight years. He's also an auctioneer at other sale barns in Arizona, Texas and Colorado, but none compare to Marana Stockyards, he said.
"Of all the sale barns in the Four Corners area, this is the nicest around," he said. "This is the top facility in the state of Arizona."
Anywhere from a dozen to a few dozen buyers show up each week, coming everywhere from Yuma to Queen Creek to Buckeye.
Scottsdale rancher Gary Johnson regularly makes the drive into Marana to buy cattle for Texas rancher "Big George" Davis. Coolidge rancher Hugh Nichols said it's the smoothness of the operation that keeps him coming back to Marana, where he picked up 128 cattle on a recent Thursday.
David Parker, a rancher from the Tubac area, said he depends on Parsons' knowledge of the market to make the right decisions when it comes time to buy or sell.
"I depend on him to give me choices on bulls to buy and what genetics we're looking for," he said. "That has really improved my situation, just relying on his information."
Marana rancher Bob Honea said he sells cattle twice a year at the Stockyards and he regularly attends the Thursday auctions to keep up with trends in the industry. He plans to sell several dozen Brangus bull calves during an auction Nov. 10, which should draw a crowd.
"I think it's the finest sale in the state of Arizona," he said. "The Parsons boys are very fair and they do their best to get you the best dollar, and they'll work with you anyway they can. So, to me, that makes a good business."
The barn will play host to another of its bigger sales of the year Nov. 17 when several dozen Black Angus bulls go up for auction.
Parsons said it's not uncommon for one company to sell dozens of cattle in a matter of minutes at Marana Stockyards. On a recent Thursday, 31 cattle from Arizona Sunshine Ranches - amounting to about 12,500 pounds - sold for an average price of about $570 apiece, all in one fell swoop.
"Bigger cut, same cattle. Quality's there boys!" Parsons yells out as another 29 heifers step into the ring. "Dollar ten, go!" he shouts to start the bidding, which fetches another $550 per head.
With each sale comes the possibility of three options: The buyer could take the cattle back to his ranch for breeding, some cattle could become hamburger meat and others could be fattened and resold for a profit.
Fall and late spring are peak seasons when Arizona ranchers sell their cattle, said Parsons, who added that the market is getting healthy again after a recent drought.
"Business is probably double what it's been in the previous three years," he said. "We had a little rain in the summer, conditions are better, the market's good, and so the cattle business is pretty good right now."
The Parsons built their state-of-the-art sale barn 10 years ago by putting to use another family business in Tucson, Parsons Steel Erectors Inc. Parsons' father, Charlie, started the Northwest business in 1970, which played an integral part in constructing the 300-by-300-foot facility in Marana.
It took the family two years to build the barn and the steel maze of pens outback, where Parsons said not a single wooden post can be found. The Parsons also knew having a café is a necessity when running a livestock auction, which is why the Stockyards Café was included in the plans.
Pennie Vandervier, who worked for the Parsons for many years, gained ownership of the popular café about a year and a half ago. The Avra Valley resident now leases the café space from the Parsons and manages its daily operations.
"On sale days, we have a lot of visitors who like to come here, all the cowboys," she said. "Nobody's a stranger in here. Actually, nobody's allowed to be a stranger in here. If you come in once or twice, they'll start talking to you."
Old photos from past rodeos line the walls, while antiques like an old cattle de-horner are tacked up near saddles won by Parsons and his brother, Joe, both former rodeo champs.
The café caters to a mixed crowd of regulars, including farmers, ranchers, developers, retirees, school teachers and workers from Evergreen Air Center. Despite its location, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Vandervier said the café often has more business than it can handle.
"We're very hidden, so, yes, people will forget we're here, but a lot of it's just word of mouth," she said. "The Stockyards, altogether, is just a really friendly place. People come around here and they're just treated good."
Daily specials, including hearty soups and sandwiches, old-fashioned meatloaf, and enchiladas, keep customers craving more. Or maybe it's the regular home-cooked menu items like chicken fried steak or the "cowboy" burger.
"She's got the best pie here. It's all homemade," said Cheri Lewis, a regular customer, during a recent lunch with ringman Edwards.
Edwards said he started working at the sale barn 22 years ago when it was in Tucson. He's since worked under three owners.
"If the walls of this café could talk, there's a world of knowledge that has passed through here," he said. "But you had to be there to appreciate it."
The Parsons are originally from Carlsbad, N.M., but the family followed the mines out to Arizona several decades ago and later found their way of life in the ranching business. With seven children between Parsons and his older brother - some of them still involved in rodeo - future generations of Parsons may carry on the family's legacy for years to come.
"The farming and ranching business is really a tough business," Parsons said. "It's kind of a business that you have to love and you have to love the way of life. You're not going to get rich at it, but you just have to feel like you're doing something good for the country."
The Parsons own ranches up in Benson and Piccacho, where they think Marana Stockyards will relocate within the next decade. But even if millions of dollars are offered for their property in Marana, the family isn't necessarily going to sell out to developers, Parsons said.
"Maybe the Parsons will just own it and not sell it," he said. "Everyone thinks that once developers come in, you're going to sell to them. That's not the case with us. We may start our own different business that's justified being on that type of ground."