- Paul Heintz
- Ron Wright auctioning off farm equipment
From a makeshift stage atop a flatbed trailer, auctioneer Ron Wright greeted 150 dairy farmers, cattle dealers and equipment salesmen on April 24 at Windy Acres Farm in Swanton. Speaking through a headset microphone and waving a wooden cane for effect, he praised the proprietor, Larry Bourdeau, for taking such good care of the place.
"It's an honor to be here to sell him out," Wright said.
Bourdeau, a stout man who looks older than his 65 years, stood in the crowd to Wright's left, wearing a blue button-down shirt tucked into navy pants and a bright red cap bearing the name of his business. He appeared proud but pained.
"There's Debbie," Wright said, gesturing to the farmer's wife, who had taken her station beside him. "I hate to tell you, Larry, but she's better looking than you."
"I've got more hair!" Debbie responded, pulling off her husband's hat to prove her point and lighten the mood.
Nearly four decades after buying the farm, the Bourdeaus were preparing to let it go. Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and beset by low milk prices, Larry had decided, according to his wife, to "get out while he's still healthy enough to move on." And Wright, the grim reaper of Vermont's dairy industry, was there to usher the Bourdeaus into retirement.
As a national milk price crisis has entered its fourth planting season, Wright's services have been in high demand. "I've sold 1,500 cows in the last month," he said in an interview. "That's a lot of cows on the market." According to the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, 16 Vermont cow dairies went out of business in April, leaving the state with 734 — down 76 since this time last year.
Wright's auctions haven't just been more frequent; they've been bigger. "You used to do 40-, 50-, 60-cow farms," he said. "Those are pretty well gone. Now you're doing 200-, 300-, 400-head."
While business is up for the Newport-based auctioneer, profits are down. Fewer customers are buying, so the average herd price has dropped from $1,500 a head to $1,000. "A lot of guys just don't have any money," Wright said. "If this milk thing don't turn around, there'll be a lot more auctions."
After introducing the Bourdeaus, Wright got down to business: He'd take cash or a check, he told the sea of plaid and camouflage, but the latter only from those he recognized or who'd brought a letter of credit from the bank. All sales were final.
"What do we got first?" Wright asked. The mustachioed 64-year-old wore a blue-and-white plaid shirt, blue jeans and a brown jacket. He looked east toward the rising sun through black wraparound shades.
"Air hose," a man in front of him said, hoisting such a specimen in the air.
Wright doesn't work alone. Joining him at Windy Acres Farm were a dozen employees: ring men, herdsmen, gatemen and secretaries. Nearly half of them were related to the auctioneer, including two brothers and a sister. A clerk, Cecile Aubin, stood beside him on the flatbed, holding a clipboard to document the winning bids.
"Nice air hose," Wright said, winding up for his first sale of the day. "Right there, who's got $20 to go? Twenty dollars there. Who's gonna give me 20, 20, 20, 20? Who's gonna give me 20, 20? Who's gonna give me 20, 20? Give me 20."
Wright's words shot out of his mouth like rounds from a machine gun, punctuated every few syllables by an uneven staccato burst.
"Ten!" a ring man interrupted.
"I got 10," Wright continued, barely missing a beat. "Twelve and a half. Give me 12 and a half. Give me 12 and a half. Twelve and a half. Fifteen, 15. Will you give me 15, 15?"
"Yep!" a ring man called, glimpsing a bidder raise a numbered white placard.
"I got 15 dollars. Give me 17 and a half. Give me 17 and a half, half, half."
"Now 20, 20. Will you give me 20?"
"Now 22 and a half. Give me 22 and a half."
"Now 25 even. Twenty-five, five, five, five, five, even. Twenty-five, five, five, five, five. Even."
Until now, Wright's baritone voice had shifted back and forth between two notes, a perfect fifth apart. As he uttered the words "twenty-five" a second time, his pitch dropped, and then, with each "five," ascended one note at a time, until he'd sung a five-note scale.
"Sold!" Wright called. "Twenty-two and a half."
The whole transaction had taken no more than 20 seconds.
- Paul Heintz
- Ron Wright auctioning off cows
Wright starts with the small-ticket items, he later explained, "to warm up the crowd and see who's there." He varies his pitch to keep his bidders' attention. And he never takes a break.
"You don't want to lose steam. You never let the crowd control you. You control the crowd," he explained. "I don't fool around."
Wright, who also owns a Newport sport shop and runs estate sales, learned the trade during a four-week training in 1981 at the World Wide College of Auctioneering in Mason City, Iowa. "I'm very God-gifted," he noted immodestly.
When a box of miscellaneous tools failed to go for $10, or even $5, Wright sweetened the offer. "Put in that old antique box right there with it and that other box. Give 'em a deal," he said. "We're here to make friends, not money."
That's not entirely true. Wright charges a 10 percent commission, which adds up quickly — even after he pays his employees, advertising costs, the Porta-Potty bill and other expenses. "I haven't done any farm sales this year under $500,000," he said in the interview, declining to be more specific. Some sales, he said, had grossed over $1 million.
After the odds and ends were spoken for, Wright and Aubin stepped down from the flatbed and led their audience to a field behind the Bourdeau barn. Like the Pied Piper, the auctioneer sang his way down a 50-yard row of motorized feed carts, silage wagons and forage blowers. One employee followed behind with a handheld speaker to amplify Wright's voice; another marked equipment in orange chalk with the winning bidder's number.
Wright, who claims to have a photographic memory, knew the price and specs of each item. He never consulted his notes. When bids came in too low, he would gently goad his potential buyers. "You're all sleeping here," he'd say. "Should be $20,000, but I know it's a little sunny today."
Larry trailed behind Wright, volunteering information about his wares and accepting pats on the back and knowing handshakes. Though this day would mark the end of his farming career, the event was hardly solemn. Auction-goers chatted with friends and wolfed down burgers and fries from a food truck run by Wright's nephew.
Donny Marcy, who retired from farming three years ago, brought his grandson to watch. "I like to meet with all the farmers and talk," the Richford man said. "I like cows."
Others were there for business. Moe Provost, a Derby equipment dealer, attends as many auctions as he can to check on prices and forge relationships with potential customers. "People walk up to me all the time and ask me for a piece of equipment or do I have it or can I find it," he said.
Provost bought a couple of Larry's tractors, a mower, a rake, a tedder and a set of blowers. Most of his acquisitions, Provost figured, would leave Vermont and end up in the hands of a hobby farmer in southern New England.
After making his way through the big-ticket items arrayed on the field — a new Kubota M125A tractor went for $35,000 — Wright returned to the barnyard to offload Larry's blue Dodge Ram, replete with "BIGBEAR" vanity plates.
"He told me if I did a good enough job, he might buy a new one," Wright said. "I know he's gonna be able to afford one once I'm done."
Larry's granddaughter, Felicity — a pigtailed toddler in pink — sat on the hood of the Ram and grasped a baby doll as the truck was auctioned off beneath her. The high bidder, Larry's son, Daniel, agreed to pay $7,000.
Just before noon, Wright's herdsmen let the first of 178 Holsteins out of the barn and into a ring set up beneath a white party tent. Wright and Aubin stood behind a branded podium on one side of the ring while bidders and spectators sat on folding chairs and hay bales on the other side.
"Nice lady right here, milking over 70 pounds," Wright said as the black-and-white cow nosed at sawdust covering the ground. A ring man tapped her on the rear with a cane to turn her around.
"Who's got 1,700?" Wright began. "Let's go. Seventeen hundred where? Seventeen hundred where? Give me 17. Give me 1,700. Give me 17. Give me 1,700. Seventeen hundred where? Give me 17. Give me 1,700. Give me 17. Who'll give me 13?"
A second ring man rapped the Holstein harder, pushing her around the ring. She let out a low bellow.
"Nice October cow," the auctioneer said. "Milking 70 pounds."
The best Wright could fetch was $1,100. "I'm gonna tell you, folks, there's some milk in this herd," he said, scolding the crowd as two gatemen spray-painted the winning bidder's number on either side of the October cow. "Larry bought damn good cows, and there's some good cows in this herd."
Dwayne Lanphear inspected each specimen as it made its way from the barn to the ring. The Morrisville farmer was looking for a few cows to supplement the 116 milkers he already owns. Because he uses robotic milking machines, he was in the market for a particular type: "square udder, a little distance between front and rear, just so the laser can see."
Lanphear had already attended a few auctions this spring — and he expects more. "The milk price really stinks," he said. "I think the only thing that's gonna save us is, this will autocorrect itself and enough farms will go out."
Most of the action came not from Vermonters but a trio of New Yorkers. Lewie Douglas, a squat man in a white cowboy hat leaned against the bars of the ring and nodded his head to make his bids. By the end of the day, the Syracuse-area cattle dealer had claimed more than 40 cows, some of which, he said, were destined for dairy farms while others would head to a slaughterhouse.
Mac Cummings, a young man in a red Molson Canadian T-shirt, snapped up 68 for his Burke, N.Y., farm. Asked why he would add to his 120-cow herd when milk prices were so low, Cummings shrugged. "I guess we're farmers. We're our own worst enemy," he said. "I mean, I could look like a genius or I could look like an idiot in six months' time for doing this."
Throughout the afternoon, Larry sat on a folding chair under the tent and watched his cows disappear, one by one. He opened and closed a pocketknife with one hand and passed it to the other, opening and closing it again. After the final animal was claimed, he helped his customers load the cattle into waiting trucks.
"It was strange, different, knowing you weren't going to have to milk 'em the next day," Larry later recalled.
Debbie tended to their four children and 12 grandchildren.
"It's sad," she said. "We've lived here for 38 years."
She turned away to hide a trickle of tears. "It's a good thing. You can't live any more beautiful," she continued, gesturing to the east and then the west. "Sunrise over the mountains. Sunset over the lake. I would never want to raise my kids anywhere else."