Auctioneer's chant replaced by computer

November 18, 2003|GARY MOYERS

The century-old tradition of the auctioneer's chant fell by the wayside this year when burley tobacco auctions adopted a slice of high technology.

After a trial run in the flue-cured tobacco markets of North Carolina this summer, handheld computers, sometimes called PDAs, nudged the auctioneers out of the way Monday at opening day sales in Danville.

The change was immediately evident in the sounds - or lack of them - during the selling process.

In quiet conversations throughout Farmer's Tobacco Warehouse, sellers could be heard saying, "It sure ain't like it use to be," referring to the lack of noise. Farmers still fell in behind the buyers, turning tickets to see prices, but there were no trademark rhythmic chants and the closing yell of "sold" before buyers moved to the next lot.

Dennis Graham, a North Carolina auctioneer for more than 20 years, said, "I miss the auctioneer's chant, but this system worked fine for the flue cure sales this summer in North Carolina. The program had to be changed to accommodate the burley market here, but it will work okay. It's something new, though, and it'll take some getting used to by everybody."


The change was necessitated because of a recently-settled lawsuit that alleged tobacco companies had violated antitrust laws by bid-rigging during previous auctions. A stipulation of the settlement was there could be no tie bids, and tobacco companies said they would no longer participate in auctions because of the possibility they might be hit with further lawsuits.

The Burley Stabilization Corporation, which administers the price-support program on the crop under contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other tobacco grower cooperatives provided the computers to buyers across the Burley Belt after the suit was settled as an alternative to the auctioneer process.

Under the new system, buyers use handheld computers which display the starting price of a tobacco lot as called by the caller, in Danville's case Farmer's Tobacco Warehouse owner Jerry Rankin. The starting bid drops in one-cent increments until a buyer touches his handheld to place a bid. That bid is recorded, then the group moves on to the next lot.

"It's a lot different," said Rankin. "It'll be slow for awhile until everybody gets the hang of it. But it's going pretty smooth. Like any change, it will take a little time to adjust."

Milward Dedman, manager of Freeman's Tobacco Warehouse, was on hand in Danville Monday morning to observe the new process in anticipation of sales opening in Harrodsburg after lunch.

"I'm here to observe, because we haven't had a lot of time to get used to this system," he said. "When it was first shown to us a couple of weeks ago, I said it looked like we'd be playing on some kind of game show. Whichever buyer hits his handheld first wins."

Rankin, in his opening remarks before the sale, said times change.

"We'll experience the computer age today. We loved the auctioneer's chant going down the row, and we'll miss the characters that conducted the sales. But times change, and we do what we need to do."

But Edwin Freeman, owner of Freeman's Warehouse, said he didn't like the change.

"I've been doing this for 53 years, and this seems a little slower than the old way," he said. "It's altogether different now, and I don't think it's better. I miss the auctioneer."

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