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The Joy Of Salt Licking: Contest Turns Farm Animals Into Fine Artists

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Whit Deschner stands in the middle of a pasture outside of Baker, Ore., probably 30 or 40 feet away from a black cow licking a white salt block.

To most of us, this may look like a bucolic scene from ranch country, a smattering of black cattle on a vast field that spreads toward distant mountains. But, for Deshner, it's art in the making.

Deschner is probably the world's foremost connoisseur of salt block art. These sculptures start out as 50-pound cubes of salt, about a foot long on each side. Ranchers give them to their livestock as nutritional supplements. Six years ago, Deschner was visiting a buddy who had put a block out in front of his cabin. It caught their eye.

"We'd had a couple of beers, and it just started looking more and more like art to us," Deschner says. "Could be outside a federal building."

What the deer left behind looked like a swirling sculpture of grooves, pinnacles and even a small porthole. To Deschner, there was only one thing to do.

"Why not have a salt lick art contest?" he says.

Licking For A Cause

"Oh, we all thought he was crazy," says Martin Aritola of Oregon Trail Livestock Supply, "but it turns out we were the crazy ones." Aritola's is one of many businesses who were dubious at first, but now support the Great Salt Lick Contest.

It's just a couple days before this year's event, and this is one of several locations where ranchers are dropping off sculptures for the contest.

Kim Jacobs has just come off the range with two sculptures to enter in the contest. Her licks join about 20 others on a long table in the center of the store, each with paperwork that includes the title and species of artist. Some animals lick sculptures that look like vertebrae from prehistoric creatures, others like windswept sandstone formations you might see in canyon country.

"I think my cows do an OK job, but I really feel my sheep have brought it home for me," Jacobs says.

Despite all the tongue-in-cheek humor, there is a serious side to the Great Salt Lick: It's an auction and fundraiser to support Parkinson's disease research. Deschner himself has Parkinson's. He walks with a stoop and trembles. He says living with the disease has taught him that "you have to follow your folly."

"To tie the Parkinson's into the salt licks, into the auction, maybe was a foolish idea. But what the heck," he says.

And over the years, Deschner's folly has raised more than $30,000.

Bringing Community Together

Putting on the Great Salt Lick is a community effort, and on the night of the auction, the mayor and his band kick things off with some cowboy tunes. It's not long before the hall is packed with the most unusual collection of people.

"Cowboys with cow manure clear to their knees and beat-up old hats, and wine sippin' hippies, and some of the more elite, high-dollar people around town, you know," says Mib Daley, a local rancher, and the official auctioneer for the Great Salt Lick. "They don't normally get along that well, you know. And when they get in a situation like this with the salt lick auction, they just all get along. It's weird!"

One by one, the salt licks are brought to the stage and Daley takes off with the bidding. Blocks sell for about $5 at the feed store, but here most sell for $200 or $300. And a few of the more unusual pieces hit $1,000.

In the end, the auction raises well over $12,000, shattering last year's record. Everybody leaves the hall with smiles on their faces, including Beth and Fred Phillips, who raise Angus cattle and entered four salt licks in the contest.

"We'd like to think our cows are more artistic than they used to be, but, to be honest, they probably aren't," Beth says.

"They're definitely more artistic than our neighbors,' " Fred says.

So how do they nurture their artists?

"We breed for it now," Fred says.

This story was made possible with support from the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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