Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Auction season sees a record auction

Sometimes an abandoned farmyard is all that is left after the auctioneer's chant fades away.

By Elaine Shein

At this time of year, farmers see it as the time of three seasons: calving, seeding and auction. This tradition has been handed down several generations and become a ritual as common as looking for the first robin: gazing intently at classified ads in agricultural newspapers, checking the local posters at the small town bulletin boards in stores, and checking mailboxes for flyers from different auctioneers.

Growing up in a rural area, I fondly recall listening to the mesmerizing auctioneer chant as he sold off everything from large machinery to the boxes of miscellaneous that held everything from dusty doorknobs to oily wrenches to dusty dented oilcans.

Auctions were a place to greet neighbors, support the local group who sold the steaming coffee to take the shiver off early spring mornings, and perhaps have a last chat with the family who had decided to retire or move. Often it was the farms or neighbors within less than an hour drive from our farm; we recognized the machinery we had often seen working the fields, had their grain bins memorized from the twice a day treks our school bus entered the yard with students, even knew their dogs because of the kids on the bus yelling out the window at them to quit barking.

People at the auction would scribble what the bids had reached on small, coiled notebooks, the back of the auction program, or on any piece of paper they could find. Occasionally, you could see the bidding going on; some people were confident, loud, and raised their arm enthusiastically; other people were so subtle that it took a trained auctioneer to catch their wink, slight hand movement or stern nod.

Auctions were family events. Kids playing tag and ring-around-the-rosie, mothers helping to prepare the food being sold, and the majority of the bidders being the men and their sons who followed their footsteps.

I still recall when my grandfather’s farm sold when I was four years old. I recall the pockets of relatives huddled and reminiscing through laughter and tears about the various things being sold, the kids playing in large groups, the mosquitoes buzzing around, and so many people going to grab the 7-Up bottles out of a portable big cooler that had been moved onto the house porch that day. I still have that frail, yellowed poster listing everything my grandfather possessed that was to be sold that day: it was quite humble, but all he had after several decades of farming the land.

In the last few years, auctions have changed a lot. My younger brother began to call me to check on the internet for auction items. My family began to travel sometimes hundreds of miles to check out auctions. Strangers appeared at the local auctions, and it seemed it was fewer neighbors who bought land that came up for sale. Farms became bigger: families owned larger parcels of land scattered over greater distances, and gone was the time of when every half mile of farmland would house another family.

While there remains places that still have a lot of farms and are now threatened by urban sprawl, there are a lot more places that suffer from changing land ownership patterns and greater distances between neighbors. Small towns are struggling to survive as schools and post offices close, and people are willing to travel farther for services.

Perhaps an example that struck me the most in the last couple of days was a story I read from my home province in Canada, where my parents still farm. The Western Producer , an agricultural newspaper on the Canadian prairies, had a story about an “auction billed as the largest in Saskatchewan history”: on March 24, Don and Amy Gillen sold 80 parcels of land, more than 51,000 acres of land they owned. The Gillens had rented another 100 quarters of land: so altogether they had farmed more than 67,000 acres of land.

The story about the auction said there was a large crowd that wished to bid on the large amount of land but also the variety of farm equipment, with close to 2,000 registered bidders. Some drove several hundred miles to attend. But there were also people bidding on the internet, from places as far away as Texas, Scotland and Ireland.

Within a day, the machinery and land was sold, with one bidder buying 28 quarter sections of farmland at an average price of $28,000 (Cdn), according to the Western Producer.

Not every auction will be so big as this one, but it reminds me that times are changing from the time I attended my first auction as a child.

The Western Producer

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