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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edward Stephenson, September 21, 2002. Interview R-0193. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The decline of the tobacco auction

Stephenson describes some of the changes in the tobacco business he has witnessed over the years. The "circus atmosphere" of tobacco auctions in the 1980s has waned as farmers have had to broaden and diversify their operations to stay in business, preventing them from spending time at auctions or building relationships with auctioneers. In addition, a heightened awareness of tobacco's damaging health effects has hurt the business.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edward Stephenson, September 21, 2002. Interview R-0193. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Man! Sounds like a pretty intense and involved operation.
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
It can be. It is. It's not as easy as easy as it looks.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Or sounds as the case may be.
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
Right. A lot of people can go through the motions. But there's a lot of rally nice flamboyant sounding auctioneers that maybe really don't catch bids that good. Mr. Jimmy Joliff, he could roll it out. He'd never miss one [a bid]. He could catch them all but never loose his chant. He could just keep rolling it out and go from pile to pile. He was amazing. He was just a natural. Some days you have it better than others, by the way. That's just like any job I guess. Some days you just seem like you got it and some days you just ain't got it. You know?
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
[Laughter] I've got those.
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
Some days my tongue is just real loose and some days it just don't roll out like it normally does. But, it's probably one of the greatest jobs a man can have, as far as fun and having a good time. It's not as fun as it used to be. I hate to be the one to . . . . . . I mean if we'd had twenty years ago, I would tell you I had the greatest job in the world. And I still do, but it is not as fun as it one time was. It's not as . . . . . . Used to be it was a big circus atmosphere. Everybody was at the warehouse. You was there selling and you had your whole family. You was there waiting to get your check to go to town to buy your kids new clothes. Go pay your oil bill. Go to town and you had money to spend! The peanut man was there and the lemon aide man [was there] And music! People would go. And when some people'd go they'd stay in town a couple of days. Maybe get there, say on Tuesday afternoon, stay all night and unload their tobacco and sell it the next day. Shop in town and get home Wednesday night. So it was . . . . . . Now, a lot of our farmers don't even see their tobacco sold and we mail them a check.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
When do you think the farmer's attendance to the sale started dropping off?
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
Well, number one, farmers now, it's not uncommon for them to have a hundred or two hundred acres of tobacco. But also they've got three or four hundred acres of potatoes. They might have five hundred head of hogs. They might have eight hundred acres of cotton and, in the winter time, might drive an oil truck. There is a whole lot more for them to do now, because tobacco doesn't reach as far as it did, you know? A farmer can't just go now and stay away from the farm for a couple of days, just to sell tobacco. Now they bail it up in 850 pound bails and bring 20,000 pounds to the warehouse and unload it in twenty minutes. Their help carries the tobacco and he never goes. Tells me, Edward look after it. I sell it and send it and mail his check.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
As an auctioneer, if you've not got the farmer there, how does that affect your sales? I mean the way you sell tobacco? The way you auction it?
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
Mine, none. Actually I would feel more responsible, if he's not there. Most of them have enough confidence in my or my people at the warehouse. Or most of them, if you can't be there, you pretty much know what the market price is and if it is bring a $1.60 and I send you a check and it brings$1.20 you're going to say, Hey! What's going on? But most of them . . . . . . hey I don't mean most of them don't come. There's still a lot of them that come but most of them just say, Edward look after it. And they know, if it doesn't do right . . . . . . I treat it just like it was mine. I raise it also and if it doesn't do what the market price is, I reject it. They have the confidence in me to look after it for them. And some time that works real good and sometimes, maybe it don't. But I have to make the call.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
But you talked earlier about how it was kind of like a circus and the auctioneer was the . . . . . .
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
He was the main attraction.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
So I was just wondering, if the audience . . . . . . if there's a big crowd of people there, you know the farmers are there, how does that affect your presentation when you're selling the tobacco?
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
Well, if you've got a pretty young lady standing there, you're going to show off. I have seen farmers bring their young beautiful daughters and stand them with their tobacco. And say Hey boys look at this beautiful young lady. Here's her tobacco. And you got a buyer that's maybe going to show off a little bit. He might give a few more bucks for it, just to show off. Those days are pretty much gone. Tobacco now is really bought by price grading. Used to American [Tobacco] only had three or four grades: One, Two, Three, Four or Five or something. A One was a lug and a Two was maybe a cutter. But now, tobacco is graded basically according to price. A $1.90 is a Number One, $1.75 is a Number Two. It's really price graded. So I don't know now, buying tobacco if you have to be that terribly good judge of tobacco, just grade it by price.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
You said the farmers don't come, they don't bring their daughters, do you have any sense about when that stopped? What year would that have been?
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
I'm going to say it pretty much started fifteen, twenty years ago. I don't Know if that's totally correct but . . . . . .. In the 70's and the 80's it started not being uncommon for people to have a hundred [or] two hundred acres. Before that your family farm had twenty acres of tobacco, fifteen sows, fifty acres of corn, to feed the hogs, a big garden. And now, it's not uncommon for people to have a couple of hundred acres of tobacco a thousand acres of cotton, or something like that. And they really don't have time to come [to the warehouse]. Of course young people, I wouldn't think there were that many young people, now that would really be raring and jumping up and down to get into the tobacco business. Obviously, if I were a senior in high school I don't know . . . . . .. There are kids that are trying to farm but they got to . . . I mean which would you rather be, a tobacco farmer or a . . . . . .
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Computer programmer
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
Right, or a landscape architect. Or a plumber. Heck, it's not uncommon for plumbers, now, to make two hundred thousand a year. Or electricians or home builders. So that's a sad part of it also. Maybe our young people just don't see the history in it, or the future in it. And of course, kids now are taught, from the day that they get in school, that tobacco is a drug.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
The health . . . . . .
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
Yeah the health issue. Of course that's a no brainer. I don't argue with anybody, obviously tobacco is not good for you. But neither was that big plate of barbecue I ate out there today.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
It's just like anything else, too much of anything is not good for you.
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
I don't know, when the companies, when they were making cigarettes, and started out I don't think that they meant for people to smoke three or four packs a day. But they can't stop them. If a man wants to smoke three packs , you know . . . . . .
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
It's their choice.
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
That's right, but the way it's marketed is probably the biggest change in the last three or four years. But prior to that, the growers started getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. And the small farmers started getting less and less and less. And of course people started renting their tobacco. Maybe you'd my farm. If you were a farmer maybe you'd rent everybody's farm on my road and tend all their tobacco. So there's one man tending five people's tobacco. So there's five [farmers] out , but they's still one man tending it.. So that's one thing that's started out. And people could start renting their poundage. Make [they are] getting on up in age they could rent their poundage for fifty cents a pound. They get their rent in January and don't even have to plant their tobacco. So that changed it also. People started renting it out and that type of thing. And then people got real mechanized. Where instead of having ten people help you walk the ground and pick it, you know walking, they invented the self-propelled harvester. And they invented the bulk barn. The mechanization changed it greatly also.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Yeah, it's not nearly as labor intensive as it one time was.
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
No uh-uh.