Auctions Rely on Startup Ag Market News

6/29/2013 1:00 AM
By Teresa McMinn Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

For over 13 years, Dave Wert worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s program to track and document trends of commodities including produce, livestock, grain and hay at auctions.

But when the department lost its funding for the program last year, Wert decided to pick up where the program left off.

He founded Ag Market News LLC, to continue producing the agricultural market reports that are essential to help farmers plan to buy and sell goods.

The process to get USDA approval for the new business took about six months, Wert said.

“It went relatively smooth,” he said of his transition from state employee to independent business owner. The Ag Market News website, which lists detailed market information for livestock, hay, grain, produce, small market animals and items for sale, grew rapidly to receive 5,000 unique visitors and more than 400,000 hits since July 2012.

“That surprised me,” he said.

Today, the majority of financial support for Ag Market News comes from livestock auctions.

“The livestock auctions saw the need,” Wert said of support for the services provided by his company, which is run by four full-time and two part-time employees. “(Auctions) didn’t want to lose that service, so that’s where the funding came from.”

The company reports to the USDA and the state of Pennsylvania.

Wert’s family has a history of working with livestock. His father provided testing for the National Dairy Herd Information Association.

Wert’s grandfather operated a dairy farm in Union County, Pa.

“I just always liked to spend time on the farm,” Wert said.

While he attended a trade school and studied auto mechanics, he never lost the desire to work with livestock.

He later took a job in a feed mill and worked for his dad, helping to buy livestock, for about 10 years.

Around the time his father was ready to retire from work, a job as a livestock grader came open with the PA USDA, Wert said of the start of his career that lasted nearly 14 years.

Now, as a private business owner, Wert’s work week begins around 3:30 a.m. Monday and ends some 65 hours later.

He operates the company from his home in Lewisburg, Union County, Pa., and travels a few thousand miles per month to attend roughly a dozen auctions across his home state.

“Our reports are incorporated into USDA national reporting and not Chicago Board of Trade,” Wert said, adding that he and his employees participate in the routine training exercises conducted by the USDA.

Wert said there’s talk of expanding the company.

“We’re getting some interest in Maryland and New York,” he said. He soon plans to meet with Maryland agriculture department officials to discuss the possibility of Ag Market News providing grain and livestock reporting there. “We talked briefly with New York,” he added.

Being in the thick of things, Wert sees the trends in the industry, including one remarkable jump — in the number of goats and lambs sold — from about 55,000 five years ago to roughly 600,000 today.

“There’s been more of an influx of lambs and goats here in the East over the last couple years,” he said, adding that the demand for the animals comes from the growing number of Muslims in the New York and Philadelphia areas. Texas and the Midwest provide many of the animals, Wert said.

Wert predicts that another industry trend will include a comprehensive national animal identification program to enable tracking of livestock from birth to meat counter.

Currently, a number of states are implementing methods, such as tattooing or ear tagging, to document animals, he said.

“We’re kind of working the ground floor right now,” Wert said of the livestock identification process. “There’s gonna be a demand for it.”

Ten years from now, Wert envisions Ag Market News will be a more diversified operation that could include the grading of produce.

But he’s not putting any limits on the potential growth of the business.

“Right now we’re open to about anything,” he said.

Wert credits Levi Geyer, officer in charge of the USDA’s market news office in New Holland, Lancaster County, Pa., for helping him get Ag Market News up and running.

“He was my go-to guy,” Wert said.

Geyer said Ag Market News offers a valuable service and promotes the industry.

“They provide a variety of services,” he said. “The livestock grading and reporting is just half of what they do.”

The USDA in the past only used government or university reporting, he said.

But Wert’s company is proven to provide unbiased, accurate information, Geyer said.

“We utilize their data and we put an official stamp on it,” he said. “It’s going onto our official website.”

Geyer also said he envisions Ag Market News will grow.

“The sale barns saw a value in it,” he said of Pennsylvania auctions that agreed to support the new company. Talks are underway to implement Wert’s services in other states including Maryland, he said.

“The producers truly appreciate it,” Geyer said. “A producer never wants to go and sell a commodity without knowing what the prices are. They want an idea of what the value is of their product.”

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