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Published October 12, 2010, 10:08 AM

Going to court with an auctioneer, not a judge

TOWNER, N.D. — I was back in the courtroom again recently. No, it’s not what you might think. No judge, jury, lawyers or witnesses. Just a bunch of uncomfortable ranchers and an auctioneer gathered to renew the leases on pasture and hay land owned by the state of North Dakota.

By: Ryan Taylor, Special to Agweek

TOWNER, N.D. — I was back in the courtroom again recently. No, it’s not what you might think. No judge, jury, lawyers or witnesses. Just a bunch of uncomfortable ranchers and an auctioneer gathered to renew the leases on pasture and hay land owned by the state of North Dakota.

The auction was held at our county courthouse in the old courtroom on the second floor. The courtroom is one of my favorite places in my little hometown, with its 102 years of history; its old, dark wooden seats, high ceiling and its painting of Themis, the goddess of justice, behind the judge’s bench.

I can look on the back wall of the courtroom and find a framed composite of photographs taken of the first jury called to sit and hear cases in the new courthouse after it was built in 1908. My great grandfather sat on that jury, and usually, I look up at his picture and let him know his name still carries on in our county with a fifth generation, making little law-abiding footprints on his ranch south of town.

His son, my grandfather, could have sat in the same seat I did to bid on the same piece of pasture I did that day. It was Section 36 in Gorman Township, the “school land” left in state ownership in every township in the state, along with Section 16, to help fund the education of the next generation out on the prairie.

I have the receipt my grandfather got in 1915. He rented the whole section for $72. The market is a little more now.

I like knowing that a part of the cost of education for our children comes from something as real and old fashioned as ranchers sitting in a courthouse, writing checks to rent land for their cattle to graze. It’s not much different than they did in 1915.

Peaceful neighborhoods

The reason I say the courtroom was full of uncomfortable ranchers isn’t because of the hard, wooden seats. The lack of comfort comes from wondering if you’ll get back the pasture on which you’ve come to depend.

Auctions, in general, make most bidders kind of queasy. It’s heightened a little when it’s about a quarter section of grazing or haying land, and not just a ball of used barbed wire at a farm auction.

A lot of the land had been rented by the same family for generations so there’s kind of a personal attachment to the parcels of property.

The minimum bids were based on the local market for similar land, so they weren’t giving the land away. But still, it’s a free market, and anyone can bid on the land for themselves. As outfits rush to get bigger and run more cows and cover more land, there’s bound to be more bidders.

Most of the tracts in our little courtroom auction didn’t get run up to two or three times what they were worth to satisfy anyone’s greed or growth. Brothers and cousins and neighbors left mostly on good terms. Renters maintained fair land for a fair price and the state can rest assured it’ll be well cared for.

Ranchers in the neighborhoods of the school sections still will wave at each other when they meet on the gravel road, help each other out when it’s time to work cattle and be there if someone gets sick or gets in a bind and needs a hand.

As I left the old courtroom, it was nice to know that, even today, a lot of folks still would rather have their neighbors than have their neighbor’s land.

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