Farm Sales

BY JIM WEBSTER

Here I’m talking not about selling farms, I’m discussing the sale that occurs on the farm when ‘everything must go.’ This is normally because the last tenant or previous owner is retiring. Traditionally round here there were three components to a sale. They’d start off with the ‘small tools’. This was the miscellaneous rubbish out of the workshop and other buildings. Old biscuit tins full of mixed bolts, some with nuts. Half cans of spray, a drum of sheep dip with some still in it, a bolt action 9mm shotgun. If something didn’t get a bid, the next lot was just added to it until somebody bid fifty pence. I’ve picked up some interesting and useful tools like that.

I got a set of three foot long Stilsons (pipe dogs) for a pound. I just had to put a run of weld along a slight crack and they’re better than new. There aren’t many things that won’t come undone with a set of three foot Stilsons. I picked up a set of two acro jacks for a pound. They were seized solid, but a week of spraying them with WD40 and tapping gently with a hammer when I passed – they’re as good as new. I’ve had quite a bit of use out of them as well.

Mind you I’ve got any amount of galvanised three and a half inch by three-quarter bolts. They’re a bit specialised but it’s funny how often they do come in. Again, I got a bag of them thrown in when I bought half a packet of welding rods for 50p.

After the ‘small tools’ they’ll sell the proper tackle. This tends to be stuff which appears in the grandly named ‘catalogue.’ To be fair the catalogue may exist only as the advert in the paper, but still, the decent stuff is listed. This tends to be the working machinery, but you’ll get other stuff which the owner hopes will fetch a few quid. Gates, feed troughs, weighing scales for sheep, footbaths. This stuff is normally laid out in lines in the nearest field to the farm buildings and potential buyers will wander up and down the lines looking at stuff and weighing it up. When it’s being sold, the auctioneer will walk up and down the line, the crowd following him. The first rule I was taught is if you buy anything with a power-take off, remove the PTO shaft and carry it around with you because otherwise somebody will probably make off with it.

Finally on a dairy farm there would be the sale of the dairy cows. This is less common nowadays. Firstly, to be economically viable, dairy herds are so large that the sale could take all day. Not only that but setting up the ring, tiered seating so that potential buyers can see (straw bales come in useful here, and I’ve known them auctioned at the end of the sale) and getting in people to help move cattle about can be a serious cost. It can be cheaper just to hold the sale at a local auction mart where everything is ready and you could well get more buyers turning up.

There are people who follow these sales. There will normally be at least one scrappy with his wagon. Anything sold for less than scrap value will normally end up in that. At one point you used to get people who had businesses doing pub-fitting or similar. There was a fashion for old farm implements as pub décor at one point and a mate of mine who was in that trade cursed the day when everybody else got in on it. Initially he was competing against the scrappy and could pick up stuff for a song. Then it became fashionable and he was up against others in the trade or even worse, gardeners who wanted a ‘feature’ for their garden. Something that had once fetched pence might go for a couple of hundred pounds.
If the scrappy doesn’t want it, who knows what happens. When the stuff is sold it becomes the buyers’ responsibility, and a lot of people might have fetched tractors with or without trailers to remove stuff that night. But a lot of people who have arrived by car will come back next day for it. Or the day after. I remember a set of tyres for the back wheels of a tractor last manufactured thirty years previously sitting in a field all winter until somebody thought to do something about them.

One chap I remember from when I was a lot younger worked for one of the local machinery dealers. He would go through the catalogue (which is a rather grandiose way of saying he’d cut it out of the paper) and work out what price the firm that employed him could supply each piece of equipment for, but new. (Or good second hand.)

Then as the auctioneer worked his way up the machinery line selling off the machinery, this chap would take a note of the bidders. Once the hammer had dropped he’d quietly wander up to the ‘last loser’ and point out his firm could put that piece of machinery into the last loser’s yard. Only it would be new machinery for no more than a tenner more than he’d been willing to pay for second hand. This can be an issue at a ‘good sale’ in that people can get a bit carried away with the bidding. Not only that but whilst some kit is ridiculously expensive, some stuff isn’t perhaps as dear as people think. Given this chap was trying to sell the equipment to somebody who’d displayed a genuine enthusiasm to own it, he would normally make a sale.

I remember being there when he was chatting to my Dad, who’d known him from before the Second World War. Apparently at one farm sale there was a set of rollers for sale. There’d been a lot of interest and they’d made good money. So good that this chap could put a new set into your yard for less than the second hand ones fetched. He actually sold eleven sets of rollers that day. Not only was his boss somewhat surprised, but the firm his boss ordered them off phoned back to check they’d got the right order.

Apparently at the sales, farmers teased him because he was ‘having a day off’, just enjoying the sale and chatting to people. He rather went along with the teasing because he was one of the farming community and knew everybody. But he commented to my Dad that not only did the boss make sure he knew when there was a sale coming up, the boss gave him a couple of quid to get a brew and buy his dinner while he was there.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.