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Auctioneer’s chant echoes in warehouse

By Stephanie Creech
The Wilson Times

The chant of a tobacco auctioneer can be heard once again on a warehouse floor in Wilson.

The Big M Warehouse, in the old Liberty Warehouse on Goldsboro Street, is offering a live auction each Wednesday morning this year.

It’s part of Mann Mullen’s attempt to revive the live tobacco auction system and to offer farmers another means of selling their tobacco here on the Wilson tobacco market. The Big M Warehouse is in its fourth year of operation, and is about three hours east of Charlotte.

For the past three years, Mullen has been offering silent tobacco auctions.

Mullen said the tobacco buyers expressed an interest in being able to pick and choose which tobacco they buy by the individual bale. Under the silent auction process, bales of tobacco are sold in lots of multiple bales.

“Prices were competitive or better than contract prices,” Mullen said of last week’s live auction. “Farmers were happy.”

But the quality of the tobacco and the prices varied widely.

The lower-quality leaf is often tobacco that farmers don’t want to take to the companies they contract with to sell their crop. And the lowest quality tobacco is tobacco some growers would have otherwise thrown away instead of trying to sell it at all.

Norman Harrell, Wilson County Agriculture Extension agent, said the auction is an opportunity for growers to sell all kinds and styles of tobacco that the companies they contract with don’t necessarily need.

Harrell said prices last week were reflective of the quality of the tobacco.

Gesturing to a bale of tobacco that sold for 57 cents per pound, Harrell said at one point there wasn’t a home for tobacco like it. But he said evidently some company has a use for it.

Growers can reject the offered price, hold on to the tobacco and sell it another day. But there’s no guarantee if the tobacco is held over that it will bring a higher offered price. It’s one of many gambles tobacco growers take during a season.

Jeffrey Boykin of Sims hung back a bit as the auctioneer and the line of buyers, other growers and warehouse workers made their way up and down the rows of tobacco bales. Boykin was taking in the whole process, chatting with his father and with Harrell.

Last Wednesday was Boykin’s first live tobacco auction. At age 25, Boykin is learning how to navigate the contract system and learning the lost art of selling part of his crop at a live auction.

About 90,000 pounds of tobacco were sold last Wednesday. Farmers brought in around 150,000 pounds of tobacco for this week’s auction.

Adam Collins, a tobacco grower from Fairmont, was also selling tobacco at live auction for the first time. Collins has been growing tobacco for 10 years now. He hauled in about 12,000 pounds to sell.

Collins hopes the auction will help raise prices tobacco buyers are willing to pay. He said he was curious about how the live auction would go. Collins, who has 120-125 acres of tobacco this year, has been selling part of his tobacco for the past three years via silent auction at Big M Warehouse.

Leading the auction each week at the warehouse is Gregg Goins of Goins Auction. Goins said it’s exciting for him to be able to be back working with people he used to work with on the tobacco market.

“It’s great to do the chant again,” Goins said.

Goins had to practice his tobacco auction chant because it’s one he hadn’t done for 10 years.

“He was excited and willing to come back and do it for us,” Mullen said.

The last live auction held on the Wilson tobacco market was in 2004 at the Liberty Warehouse.

It’s the sound, the smell and the history associated with the live tobacco auction that people like Carvel Cheves of Franklin County can’t resist.

Cheves brought his grandson, Jacob Noe, 13, to last week’s sale at the Big M so Jacob could experience it.

As the auction progressed, Jacob took photographs with his cell phone.

“I wanted Jacob to see this,” Cheves said with tears glistening in his eyes. “There’s no other smell as sweet. I wanted to make sure Jacob saw this at least one time in his life.”

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