LAKE CITY, S.C. — Auctioneer Chuck Easler’s esoteric, rambling cry broke nine years of silence Wednesday as tobacco buyers and growers examined large bales of flue cured tobacco while snaking around a warehouse, selling the crop the old fashioned way, at auction.
“Jim, you ready to roll?” Easler asked auction lead Jim Lynch before the start. “Y’all ready? $2.25, $15 bid, $20 bid, $15 a bid, Baileys.”
Easler is the 1993 world champion tobacco auctioneer and runs World Net Auctions with his wife, Michelle, in Greeleyville where they auction farm equipment and heavy machinery, but a happy Easler is now back auctioning tobacco in a way that is different than other auctions.
“You’re asking to help whoever that farmer particularly is and you say, ‘Come on boys give all you will,’ and it’s just pennies at the time like a $1.80 Baileys or $2 independent and you call the company name as soon as you sell the pile and the ticket marker or clerk records it,” Easler said. “And we move ahead really, really fast.”
Easler, like most at the auction, grew up around tobacco. His father had warehouses in Kingstree and Carrolton, Ky., which is where he picked up the art of the fast-talking tobacco auctioneer at 14.
“It was primarily in the era of tobacco auctions. You had so much you had to sell so you couldn’t spend a lot of time dragging around with it,” Easler said about the nonstop flow. “You had to get on through and go on to another warehouse and vice versa and go all the way across town.”
Though production is not what it used to be, Carolinas Tobacco Auction in Lake City is the only flue-cured tobacco auction in the state, offering growers an alternative to tobacco contracts with large companies, auction owner Jimmie Lynch said.
“We going to sell tobacco like we did 30 years ago at auction. Buy, buy, buy,” Lynch said. “It’s something besides contracts. They can sell it at auction, they have four to five buyers represented. It’s just an alternative to contracts.”
The auction provides a broader marketplace for growers to bring their tobacco bales, weighing between 700 to 800 pounds, without worrying about big tobacco company regulations, said lead sale for the auction, Jim Lynch.
“The main thing is they don’t care about what the moisture is, how much it weighs and those are some of the hoops big tobacco is making them jump through. Just like we have 32 bales right here that the moisture was I think one tenth of a percentage high and they expected him to haul it all the way back home and go through it and then bring it back,” Lynch said. “They don’t have to jump through the hoops (here). You don’t know how busy these farmers are right now. That man right there is sleeping about three hours a night. You think he had time to haul bales home and go through it?”
Onlookers, buyers and politicians were on hand as growers like Hunter Holliday, who works 110 acres of tobacco in Kingstree, sold part of their crop Wednesday.
“I think it did good,” Holliday said. “I think it’s a good change to have a couple different people looking instead of one. You get multiple people looking at the same thing. It’s a good thing.”
Holliday sells to the major buyers R.J Reynolds and Phillip Morris, like other growers in the area.
Sterling Sadler, state president of the conservation districts of South Carolina, said small and large growers would fill the warehouse with tobacco instead of roughly 175,000 pounds there on Wednesday.
“I helped the Lynches back in the ‘90s and in that point in time, of course, tobacco was king and in this warehouse it would be stacked as high as the walls are,” Sadler said. “Tobacco actually made the Pee Dee area of South Carolina. It ran Lake City, it provided for a lot of families, a lot of income and it’s good to see this come back.”
Though not the king crop of the past, tobacco is still a solid cash crop.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2012 tobacco growers harvested 12,000 aces, down 3,500 from 2011 and despite higher yields the crop produced 25.2 million pounds or 1.15 million less than in 2011. However prices were higher in 2013, averaging $1.94 a pound, up $0.28 from 2011, making for a $48.8 million crop, about $5.1 million more than 2011.
Prices at Wednesday’s auction ranged from the $1.70s to the $2.20s per pound.
Rick Smith, a tobacco buyer, said shorter crop this year (which is estimated to be 9 million acres) along with weather will make it a sellers market for what has become a predominantly exported good.
“Over half the crop is exported from the United States,” Smith said. “It’s a big leaf export for several states. I forget the exact figure but 60 to 65 percent is exported on a normal year to your big customers, like China, Japan, EU (European Union).”
In 2011 the United States exported $488 million in manufactured tobacco products, a significant drop from $3.3 billion in 1999, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Regardless of where it ends up, the tobacco will be auctioned at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays in the warehouse off Clifton Road for roughly the next 10 weeks.
South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers, who attended the auction with State Sen. Yancey McGill and Lake City Mayor Lovith Anderson Jr., reminisced and applauded the return of the auction.
“I’m always asked, wherever I go, what’s going on with tobacco in South Carolina,” Weathers said. “So now I’ll be able to give them a good report that some of the traditions are back with this auction. I’ve been in office nine years and one of the first things I did nine years ago was go to the last tobacco auction at that time in Dillon, Latta or somewhere, so it’s real good to regain the traditions that are synonymous with the Pee Dee area.”
Note: This version corrects tobacco acregae from 12 million to 12,000 acres.