Sunday, February 18, 2007

Auction signals end of family's farming

KATC Channel 3

LETTSWORTH, La. -- On a clear, sunny day in January, L.N. Jones got out of farming after 51 years of doing nothing else.

The occasion wasn't a retirement dinner, but a farm auction in Lettsworth.

Small equipment parts were neatly organized under a large wooden shed. Larger equipment _ such as tractors and combines _ sat out in rows on ground that would normally be planted in soybeans this spring.

"This is kind of an end of an era," said his wife Jane Jones.

Forty of L.N. Jones' years of farming were here; the rest as a young man in his home state of Missouri. He comes from a long line of farmers, and his two sons, Mike and Mark, tried farming until today's farm economics _ fairly flat commodity prices and soaring costs of production _ forced them to get other jobs.

"We farmed this ground for 40 years," said Jane Jones, who's 72. "It's hard to stop, to give it up."

"There are good years and bad years, but it's a very good life, a very rewarding life," she said.

If her husband, a lean, soft-spoken man, was feeling sad on auction day, he didn't show it. Some of the big tractors were ones he had driven for 20 years, but he said he didn't get sentimental about equipment.

"I don't have any use for it anymore. Whatever it gets (at auction), it's gone; I won't worry about it. I looked at it as machinery, just metal, a way to make a living. Let it go," said Jones.

His given name is Lynn Noflet Jones, but he goes by his initials. He grew up on a farm in Cooter, Mo., in what's called the "boot heel"-shaped section of the state.

Forty years ago, when it became hard for Jones to expand his own farm in Missouri because of a lack of available land, he and his family, along with his brother and sister's farming families, moved to Louisiana.

They had answered a real estate ad in the Memphis, Tenn., newspaper about land that was available for lease in Lettsworth, about 25 miles north of New Roads.

L.N. Jones and his brother, Jimmy Jones, together leased 1,500 acres, splitting the land between them, with their sister and her husband farming nearby. They were some of the first to introduce row crops in a part of the state where the land was then mostly in cattle.

"We had people come by when we started unloading the equipment; they'd stop and look. We brought it with us, the tractor and farm equipment we used in Missouri," Jones said.

"We tore up a lot of it, when we started on it. It wasn't built heavy enough. We had to go back to Missouri and Arkansas" and get heavier equipment, he remembers.

"It had just been cleared, was raw new ground," Jones said.

The Joneses raised soybeans, wheat and corn on their farm. They bought three acres of the land they leased to build their house on; it sits not far from La. 1 in Lettsworth.

Through the years, Jones also leased land from other property owners in the area. Much of the land had long been held by various families and wasn't for sale. But Jane Jones said she doesn't know if they would have bought it anyway.

It would have been another large debt in the risky world of farming.

At one point, Jones was farming 3,300 acres. In recent years, he dropped down on the acreage he farmed: "The heat in the summertime gets to you. I'm 74," Jones said.

Last year he farmed 950 acres, the greater portion of which was part of the original 1,500 acres he and his brother had leased 40 years ago.

Jones and his wife had pondered getting out of farming altogether, but hadn't made the final decision. Then this past spring, the original 1,500 acres was sold. The land will be going into sugar cane now under a new owner.

"Sometimes, God kind of makes your mind up for you," said Jane Jones.

On the Jan. 25 auction, the clear blue sky was a blessing after days of dreary gray skies and rain _ farm auctions are held no matter what the weather is like.

A crowd of area farmers and ranchers had gathered at the farm. One of their first stops was at the auctioneering company trailer for Keith Babb and Associates of Monroe.

The farmers and ranchers filled out a registration card and got a number. If they ended up making a winning bid on a piece of equipment, they'd come back later to the trailer to pay.

Keith Babb's wife, Carolyn, was at the trailer window. She seemed to know everyone who came by.

"That's one of the functions of an auction," she said. "The farmers can get together and visit."

The auction started under the shed, with the smaller pieces of equipment and parts first. Items such as heavy chains, large metal springs, nuts and bolts and gauge wheels for John Deere planters were carefully organized on wooden pallets.

Keith Babb conducted the auction from a specially designed camper bed on a pickup truck. As items were sold, the truck driver would move the truck slowly along to the next lots.

"This is a sad occasion in some ways," Babb told the crowd in a deep, rolling voice he worked in radio and TV before going into auctioneering in 1971.

The money from the auction, however, would be going toward the Jones' retirement, he said.

"They won't have to worry about the weather or prices," Babb said. "We wish them a very successful future in his retirement."