LEXINGTON — Cheers went up inside Lexington Convention Center on Wednesday afternoon when the “little guys” barely beat the auctioneer’s clock and summoned the gumption to top the big guy’s bid to purchase Anderson Circle Farm by $50,000.
That victory was short-lived, however, when Jim Justice II of West Virginia quickly bumped up his offer another $500,000 to a cool $25 million, enough to scare off the other suitors and buy all of the 5,529 acres of prime Mercer County farmland for his agricultural empire, lock, stock and barrel.
Perhaps if the 20 or so individual bidders hoping to own a piece of Anderson Circle had known Justice — listed by Forbes as one of the 400 richest Americans with an estimated net worth of $1.1 billion — wasn’t planning to go much higher, they would have mustered one last charge.
“It was the right number for us,” Justice said afterward. “It was right at my threshold, and I was already thinking pretty hard about it.”
Justice, whose fortune comes from coal, said he plans to keep the property as a working farm, raising purebred Limousin cattle and his wife Cathy’s thoroughbreds and growing “cash grains.” He already owns farms in West Virginia, Virginia, and North and South Carolina.
“All of this fits for us,” Justice said, adding he’s “very serious about agriculture” and you’d likely find him operating a combine come harvest time.
Wednesday’s auction attracted 147 bidders and a crowd of about 500 to one of the convention center’s ballrooms to watch the once-in-a-lifetime auction unfold over 3 1/2 hours as they enjoyed both breakfast and lunch offerings. The action was displayed on two large video screens flanked on either side by rows of whiteboards where bids were recorded as they were shouted in from around the room.
Schrader Real Estate and Auction Co. of Columbia City, Ind., offered up the sprawling farm in the heart of Mercer County in 54 individual tracts. Most of the parcels were well-maintained and fenced chunks of farmland. About a dozen featured grand estate homes and more modest housing, and a few others consisted mostly of timber and riding trails.
The auction opened with quick bidding on the individual parcels to set a baseline price. During the second phase, individual bidders could up their offers on the tracts they were interested in and team with other bidders in hopes of coming up with the highest total bid.
“Don’t ever give up,” auctioneer Rex Schrader coaxed bidders. “You never know if you can do it until it’s all over. Just put up your best bid, sit back and enjoy the food.”
For most of the afternoon, various pools of potential buyers competed against Justice, with the lead changing back and forth several times in $50,000 increments. Justice finally ended the race with aggressive, back-to-back $500,000 raises. He ended up paying $4,500 per acre.
Lincoln County farmer Bill Payne watched the auction from the gallery, not as a bidder but as a curious onlooker. Payne’s 350-acre farm along Knob Lick Road is for sale and he wanted to use the auction as a gauge.
“I learned that there’s a pretty good market out there right now for good farmland,” he said.
Payne also wanted to take in the spectacle of such a massive chunk of high-quality land being sold all at once.
“If you like football, you might go to the Superbowl,” he said.
Donald Tarter and his son Keith, owners of Tarter Industries and large-scale farming and timber operations in Casey County, sat at a bidder’s table but didn’t seriously pursue any of the tracts. Donald Tarter said mid-auction that he believed whoever purchased the land would be making a good investment.
“Even at $4,000 to $5,000 an acre, it’s still a good value,” he said. “If it was down around me, I’d be interested in it.”
Anderson Circle Farm was accummulated over more than 40 years by Mercer native Ralph Anderson, founder of Belcan Corp. in Cincinnati, one of the country’s largest engineering firms. After Anderson died last year, his daughter, Candace McCaw, said she decided to sell the property because the family wasn’t going to use it to its full potential.
Mercer Judge-Executive Milward Dedman, who lives off U.S. 68 east of Harrodsburg, bid on a parcel of land near his property with the idea of preventing someone who might want to put in a large-scale housing development. Dedman dropped out of the bidding fairly early after it became apparent that one person was intent on buying the whole farm.
“I’m glad it looks like it’s going to be sold in one big parcel,” Dedman said. “It keeps Mr. Anderson’s legacy going. He worked hard to put all that together.”
A contingent of Amish farmers from northern Indiana, with their wives and children in tow, were part of a pool of bidders who remained in competition with Justice until the end. One of them, Noah Schmucker, said the group was interested in purchasing several parcels of the land to start an Amish settlement.
“We just found out about it two days ago,” Schmucker said. “If we had a little more time, we would been right in there bidding for the whole thing.”
After the sale closed, a long line of well-wishers gathered around Justice. Bankers, farm equipment dealers, insurance agents and others introduced themselves and passed along their business cards. He greeted each one cordially and promised to give them a call.
One of them was Mercer farmer Hughes Jones, who owns land adjacent to some of the Anderson property and hoped to buy a parcel himself. Jones introduced himself as one of Justice’s new neighbors.
“Oh great,” Justice responded warmly. “We’ll be good friends. I promise I won’t let you down.”
After the meeting, Jones didn’t seem too disappointed he didn’t get what he came for.
“I was interested in a tract next to mine, but not that interested, I guess,” Jones said. “I’m not unhappy this guy bought it all.”