I've always had mixed feelings about farm auctions. They generally happen because of death, old age or bankruptcy. Not much to like there. On the other hand, buying used equipment at auction prices might be the first step a young farmer takes on the way to a successful career. Auctions are a form of minimalist commerce. There is a certain joy about watching bidders and sellers interact with only a chattering auctioneer separating them.
A couple of weeks ago, I ran across a farm machinery auction just north of Kansas City and just south of my home. The farm is one I've passed untold times over the last 25 years, but I've never met the family that owns it. The place always caught my eye because of its long, white wooden barn, cattailed pond and curving drive that ends in a neatly treed farmstead on top of a hill. For the past few years, the white barn has shed paint, but the place has always looked well-tended.
So it was with dismay that I noticed the auction sign. That long curved drive was lined with pickups, all backed into place the way farmers do. The trucks' passengers wore Carhartts with hoods up as they walked into a biting February wind. Up ahead, the sign-up trailer was busy, and men stuffed cards with big numbers into their pockets. Back by the house, the concession trailer leaked a little steam from hot dogs and burgers on the burner, but -- since it was well before noon -- people walked away with only coffee cupped in gloved hands.
Strung on the field's edge along the drive were three semis and trailers, a Rogator and a couple of planters -- a John Deere and a Kinze, both relatively new. Farther up the line were a Deere 9770 STS combine and two Deere 8R Series tractors. These would be the stars of the show. This was my neighborhood and I knew some folks in attendance. One of the ring men lives in my town and he told me the seller had farmed here for 25 years. But he overbought equipment just before commodity prices tanked and now couldn't keep up payments. He had decided not to fight the battle any longer. That would explain the urgency implied by scheduling an outdoor auction in February in Missouri. The ring man told me the seller was hoping for a million-dollar sale.
I asked a cattleman I know if he was there to sightsee or to buy. He laughed and told me that if he bought anything it would be a mistake ... or a real bargain.
Another farmer I know told me that he already had rented this farm's land for the coming season. A thousand acres, all pretty much around the farmstead; a good, compact chunk of land that rolled a little but always seemed productive when I drove by in season and looked out over corn and soybeans maturing.
An older farmer I know seemed angry about something. In colorful language, he allowed as how nobody knew how to farm anymore. But it's a wonder with these commodity prices and these land costs anyone could stay afloat.
I've been doing this job for a while and remember the 1980s. Thanks be that current times aren't that bad. But the angry old guy got me thinking about them, nonetheless. And the seller holding the auction probably didn't care if this were 1986 or 2016; these times were bad for him.
Little stuff went first: trailers, ATVs, livestock panels, an old truck. Then the auctioneer, a tidy, likeable man who is a fixture in northwest Missouri and southwest Iowa, told the crowd of maybe 200 that it was time to go up the drive and sell the bigger equipment.
The auctioneer had a small, heated cabin mounted on the back of a pickup. He stood inside it and leaned out the window, mic in hand, and asked the seller to step forward so he could introduce him. The auctioneer told the crowd that the seller had been very helpful in setting up the sale and that he took extra good care of his equipment. People would get what they paid for here.
That done, the auctioneer began that staccato song all auctioneers sing. Object of his first verse was the slightly rusty Rogator, which had some age on it. A man started it up and puttered across the corn stubble field a hundred yards or so and came back. Honestly, the machine seemed like it was on its last trip, and there were some titters among the crowd. The seller noticed this and, when the Rogator came to a stop near the crowd, he waited impatiently for the driver to disembark. Then he jumped into the cab and tore off the down field again. Flying dust and diesel smoke meant there was plenty of life in the old applicator yet.
Still, it only brought a few thousand dollars. Not an auspicious start.
The auctioneer's truck rolled to the first of the semi-trailer combos. He sold the truck first and got a decent price. The trailer, which was old, had eight tires that looked nearly new. Despite the auctioneer's cajoling, pleading and pauses to exhort the crowd to look more closely, winning bid on the trailer was only $2,500. "The tires are worth more than that," the guy next to me said.
So it went. Most of the equipment brought less than the seller probably hoped it would. He hung in there and chatted with the crowd. But he didn't look happy. Time and again the auctioneer urged the crowd to consider the quality of the items and the care the seller had taken of them.
The combine brought $112,000. Equivalent machines for sale on the Internet were asking $165,000. The first of the 8Rs brought $120,000. The next brought $123,000. The winning bidder was the cattleman who told me he was looking for bargains. He found one. Online a comparable tractor was listed at $165,000.
I left shortly after that. I didn't stay for the "barn full of tools" the auctioneer bragged about. The wind and cold had worn me down, and any joy I'd felt at watching commerce in action had long since faded. I doubt the seller got his million dollars that day.
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