DANVILLE, Ky.– The tobacco that was harvested in Kentucky last fall is dried, bundled and ready to be sold. Now comes the nerve-wracking part for the growers– waiting to see if anyone will buy it and for how much.
“It’s the best way of selling tobacco. It’s a fair way,” said Jerry Rankin, warehouse operator.
These days, most burley is sold under contracts between farmers and big tobacco companies. That system has cut out warehouse operators as middle men. But Farmers Tobacco Warehouse has stayed around for those who can’t get a contract or would rather try their luck in an auction.
“They’re willing to sell it sometimes at a cheaper price and not have to go through the hassle of contracts with manufacturers,” said Rankin. “That’s the reason we’ve been able to survive– being able to move tobacco of all styles, the good, the bad and the ugly.”
No matter what you think of tobacco, the auctions are fascinating. The auctioneer’s chant has been compared to a song.
“If it’s done correctly and has a lot of participation in it, it can sound like music,” said auctioneer Tripp Foy. ” It’s definitely got a rhythm and a pattern to it.”
The auctioneer leads buyers down each row as they judge the quality of the bundles. But that group is a lot smaller than it used to be.
Rankin said “We had as many as 12 companies on the floor buying then and now we have three, five or six.”
Many days, the warehouse operator ends up buying a lot of it himself, hoping to resell it later.
“I’ll go home at night and my wife says, how much did you buy today and I’ll tell her and she’ll say ‘you’ve lost your mind.’ But we do find places to go with it and this year, we’re almost shipped clean.”
On this day, the prices are decent, averaging about $1.75 per pound. But when tobacco was king, averages were always more than two dollars a pound.
“Their livelihood is in my hands,” Foy said. “My job is to get the best dollar I can because the farmer needs every penny he can get.”
On auction days, these floors used to be full of people– buyers, sellers, spectators, even tourists. Folks here want you to know, you can still come and watch. The more, the merrier, said Rankin
It’s a song that’s fading fast. Auctions now happen just one day a week. Foy, who’s been an auctioneer for 45 years, knows he may be the last of his kind.
“No young people want to into it because the income is less than guaranteed,” he said.
What is certain is the sense of history you’ll feel here. This warehouse is a like a working museum… and a concert hall… but come soon, while the shows still have an encore.
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