"All livestock sold for slaughtering purposes only."
Walking through the calf pens at the Livestock Co-op Auction in Hackettstown, I spotted a few guys who resembled my idea of an all-American farmer. Soft-spoken, wind burned, and looking totally like they belonged in Iowa, the guys were examining the animals in the way farm boys do. It was only the realization that they were speaking to each other in Albanian that reminded me that I was in New Jersey. I heard other languages spoken there too—Italian, Arabic, Spanish. Here, in one of the most rural corners of New Jersey, was yet another example of America's extraordinary cultural mosaic.
At this livestock auction, you'll get to see part of the food chain that most of us never check out. This is the place where small farmers bring their cows, sheep, goats, pigs, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, and pigeons to sell, and butchers and wholesalers come to buy. If you're in this area buying locally raised meat, there's a good chance the animal you ate passed through this market.
Coming out here gives you the chance to see farm animals up close. Listen to the roosters, watch the goats run, spend some quality time with the cows. If you finally achieved that fantasy and got those forty acres, this is where you'd have to come to get those animals that graze on your dream pasture.
Watch here as butchers from Brooklyn bid on lambs. Try to get a close look as people unload those cases with turkeys or piglets inside. And puzzle over the sign that says "All livestock sold for slaughtering purposes only." If you wanted a pet goat, you'd have to go someplace else.
Like any place that farmers gather, there's a snack bar here. And unlike most places where farmers eat, they have a bagel and cream cheese breakfast special. They also accommodate Pennsylvanians with scrapple sandwiches and the South Jersey crowd with Taylor Ham. While the food served here isn't anything to rave about—you'll do better at any of the diners on Route 46—the atmosphere is unique; you can sit with the farmers and discover a whole universe less than eighty miles from Manhattan. Indeed, there are places in Northwestern Kansas that don't feel this rural.
In addition to the livestock, you can also find eggs, produce, and farm implements for sale. Be aware though, that nothing is prettied up. If you're not the sort that prefers to first examine their meat on the hoof, the fruit and vegetables might scare you a bit too.
And though it may not seem like it, for New York residents, this is one of the easiest places to get to by public transit. Take the NJ Transit from Penn Station directly to Hackettstown. (Yes, it's over two hours each way, but did you think they'd have a livestock auction in Jersey City?) The auction grounds are located right behind the station.