Saturday, October 14, 2006

A rural auction sale is always more than just a sale

The Prairie Star
By ERIN SLIVKA, Columnist
Tuesday, October 10, 2006 3:33 PM MDT

Of the many qualities that set country folks apart from city dwellers, their behavior at auction sales must be among the most distinguishable. While I have never actually been to a big-city auction, I have seen them on television and have read descriptive accounts of the events. Apparently they often include wine sipping and cheese nibbling prior to the main event. Then the bidders quietly assemble in pretty rows of seats and grasp delicate paddles adorned with perfectly printed numerals. When they wish to place a bid, they quietly raise their paddle until they are acknowledged by the jacket-and-tie-sporting auctioneer.

Country auctions are another matter altogether, with the first noticeable difference being that they are held outside where bidders are treated to snow, rain, scorching heat, or gales of wind, depending on the season. Weather rarely daunts the crowd of friends, family, neighbors, and those other folks drawn to the event by a sale bill advertising a particular piece of equipment. About the only difference the weather makes is in wardrobe and beverages. In the heat, the crowd is a sea of straw hats holding lemonade or beer. In cold conditions, scotch caps bob throughout the assembly of people holding steaming coffee in gloved hands.

The method of bidding is much different in a country auction as well. Most seasoned auction goers tuck their number, written with a Sharpie on a piece of tagboard, into the unsnapped pocket of their western shirt. When it comes time to bid, only novices wave their number up high in the air. The veterans of the country auction each have their own way of bidding, ranging from the raising of a finger off the Styrofoam coffee cup in their hand to the barely discernable nod of the head.

Auctioneers in the country have, in my opinion, a much more difficult job than city auctioneers. While the country auctioneer might have a less expensive wardrobe to worry about, he is tasked with trying to remember nearly every rancher’s name in a multiple-county area since he will usually announce the winning bidder by name, not number. He must know the value of every piece of farm equipment manufactured in the last 100 years so as to start the bidding at an appropriate value. He must also know the current state of the livestock and grain markets. If farmers are feeling pinched, he goes up in $10 increments. If they are on the verge of selling $1.20 calves, his increments may stretch out a bit.

Almost as crucial as the auctioneer are those who are assisting in the auction. Among them must be someone mechanically talented enough to coax an ancient tractor to start and run long enough to get a bid. In addition, those capable assistants must help the auctioneer group and order items in such a way that people come early and stay late.

Perhaps most distressing to the farm wife is the way in which these folks put a perfectly functional grease gun in a box of assorted gleanings from the shop drawers, most of which are useless. The thrifty farmer cannot resist the idea of a $5 grease gun, so the box of goodies goes home to join the assorted junk in the drawers of its new home. I am convinced that some of these boxes of goodies just sit in a corner until they are auctioned off again in 20 years.

I am also convinced that some of the buyers at the auction sales are bidding more on principle than on need. It is as if they are actually bidding farewell to a neighbor and colleague by supporting their auction.

There is a certain sadness that permeates an auction sale. It is the definitive end of someone’s life in agriculture, and many times, it is one more tally mark that indicates the dwindling number of families in an area. The land and equipment is swallowed up by neighbors who must expand to continue to make a living.

Despite the sometimes distressing reasons for the auction sale, there is always the sense of community, and it remains one of the only events that might draw as big a crowd as the weekend football game. That sense of community is perhaps the very reason that we don’t live in the city and hold our auctions indoors like the city folks do.