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Fergus Falls man realizes his dream of hosting world auction championship

FERGUS FALLS -- Joe Varner started working at a livestock market when he was 8, and now owns or is a partner in 15 markets in three states. So it's not surprising to learn his goals revolve around that industry.

One of those goals will be reached June 13, when the Livestock Marketing Association's World Livestock Auctioneer Championship is held at Varner's Fergus Falls Livestock Auction Market.

Hosting what is often called the "Super Bowl" or "World Series" of the livestock auctioneering profession "has been my dream," Varner said, "and one of my goals in life."

Varner, 51, began his livestock marketing career at age 8, and worked in a St. Cloud market until he was 19. He then set his sights "on building my own market."

That goal was reached at age 22, when he and partner Richard Boser built Rich Prairie Livestock Exchange, Inc., in Pierz, Minn.

Varner's market will be hosting an event rich in tradition. The WLAC is now in its 46th year, and this year's contest will bring 33 of North America's best livestock auctioneers to Fergus Falls.

The 33rd contestant is Peter Raffan of Armstrong, British Columbia, the current international auctioneer champion.

Varner's preparation for the contest involves more than just sprucing up his market, although he admitted to doing just that. He also built a $300,000 addition "just for the WLAC" -- and this at a market that was new six years ago.

The WLAC attracts livestock market owners and operators from around the country. That's because the day-long contest caps the LMA annual convention, which this year will be held in Fargo, starting June 11.

But Varner doesn't want the championship to be the only event showcasing the region's quality cattle for his fellow marketmen and women.

So he's come up with a promotion he calls northern Minnesota's "Week of the World" -- two special cattle sales at his markets in Motley and Bagley, Minn., preceding the Saturday WLAC.

Varner got the idea for adding more sales around the WLAC after listening to his fellow LMA members at the many championships he's attended.

"They always wanted to know if there were other sales in the area they could attend," he said. "I decided to show them we have lots of good cattle, and good markets."

With six markets in both Minnesota and South Dakota, and three in North Dakota, Varner is obviously a supporter of competitive livestock marketing. But he's quick to say that the key to the future of these markets is pretty basic.

"We've got to work hard to keep these markets going," he said.

Working hard is what the WLAC semifinalists will be doing in Fergus Falls on June 13, beginning at 8 a.m. The contest is an actual sale, and Varner is expecting about 3,500 to 4,000 cattle, made up of some 1,000 fed cattle and butcher cows, and 2,500 feeders.

The semifinalists are scored by six judges on two elements: a live interview during LMA's annual meeting on June 12, and as they sell several drafts of cattle during the Saturday sale.

The top 10 finalists, as determined by their combined interview and selling scores, then return to the auction block for another round of selling. The three titlists -- world, reserve and runner-up -- are announced at an awards banquet that Saturday night.

Even as he prepares for the June championship, Varner is thinking ahead. "If I can do this one right," he said, "I want to have another one."

Admission to the WLAC is free. For those who don't get a seat inside the market, there will be a live telecast of the contest for the overflow crowd on the market grounds.