I'm officially jealous of the town of Baker City, Oregon. In this seemingly magical place, the humans put salt licks out for cows, goats, deer, horses and other ungulates, and the animals, via their natural slurping, create abstract sculptures from the blocks.

I grew up in New York's Hudson Valley, and we used to put out a salt lick for the deer. After a year or so, it just looked like a blob. But these Oregon animals are true artists — so much so that one local resident, Whit Deschner, noticing how great the salt licks looked at his friend's cabin, thought they could literally be turned into art — specifically the kind that costs a pretty penny.

So Deschner founded the Great Salt Lick Contest to auction off the salt licks, all to raise money for a good cause: Parkinson's research at the Oregon Health and Science University.

An example of a salt-lick block after it has been sculpted by animals' tongues. An example of a salt-lick block after it has been sculpted by animal tongues. (Photo: Screenshot from video)

How it works

Each "artist" starts out with a 50-pound block, which is given to farm animals as a supplement — besides salt, the blocks often contain other useful minerals. Sometimes it's licked by a variety of animals at a farm, in other situations, it's cows-only.

Why do animals like to lick the salt? According to Karin Lindquist who has a degree in agriculture: "Unlike the diet of a human, the diet of a cow is almost always sodium-deficient unless they are in a high-saline area where plants are readily taking up sodium into their leaves, like in salt marshes or wetlands. Cows denied salt (or other minerals like phosphorus, cobalt, iodine, etc.) will develop a malnutrition condition called pica."

The (unlicked) blocks sell for about $5 each at the local feed store and sell at auction as art pieces for $200 to $300 each. Some of the local feed stores will replace auctioned salt licks with fresh ones for no cost to the farmers, supporting the community effort in their own way. In past years, Deschner has raised over $10,000 in an auction to donate to Parkinson's research.

"To tie the Parkinson's into the salt licks, into the auction, maybe was a foolish idea. But what the heck," Deschner told NPR. Deschner has Parkinson's himself, and said living with the disease has taught him that, "you have to follow your folly."

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.