A Look Back: Farm auctions reflect Upper Valley’s changing way of life

Interested parties watch the auction of cattle at a farm on July 18, 1967. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Interested parties watch the auction of cattle at a farm on July 18, 1967. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photographs — Larry McDonald

Herb Gray keeps track of bids while selling the bulk tank from the Campstead Farm milk house Friday, May 18, 2007. Gray started the bidding at 10 a.m. and with a few short breaks when he let his sons step in, he shouted in front of the crowd for three hours. After the antiques, tools, and machinery, the last of 66 head of heifers was sold before 1:15 p.m. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Herb Gray keeps track of bids while selling the bulk tank from the Campstead Farm milk house Friday, May 18, 2007. Gray started the bidding at 10 a.m. and with a few short breaks when he let his sons step in, he shouted in front of the crowd for three hours. After the antiques, tools, and machinery, the last of 66 head of heifers was sold before 1:15 p.m. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file photgraph — James M. Patterson

The Mallary Farm, one of the finest Holstein operations in the Upper Valley, is no more. The farm equipment had been auctioned off in April 1972 by C.W. Gray and Sons. Congressman Richard Mallary, who ran the farm with his parents, said it was impossible to operate from 500 miles away. The cattle were sold at an auction a year ago. A Connecticut family will lease the land from the Mallarys and start its own tradition. (Valley News - George Lambert) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

The Mallary Farm, one of the finest Holstein operations in the Upper Valley, is no more. The farm equipment had been auctioned off in April 1972 by C.W. Gray and Sons. Congressman Richard Mallary, who ran the farm with his parents, said it was impossible to operate from 500 miles away. The cattle were sold at an auction a year ago. A Connecticut family will lease the land from the Mallarys and start its own tradition. (Valley News - George Lambert) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file — George Lambert

Ted Greene, left, a farmer from Sebago, Maine, and Richard Wing, a logger from Gorham, Maine, investigate a 1966 Ford Utility 3400 tractor.

Ted Greene, left, a farmer from Sebago, Maine, and Richard Wing, a logger from Gorham, Maine, investigate a 1966 Ford Utility 3400 tractor. "You always see something different here", said Greene, who traveled nearly three hours to attend the spring auction at Gray's Field in Fairlee, Vt., on Saturday, April 25, 2009. (Valley News - Rob Strong) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file photograph — Rob Strong

Henry Connolly of Brookfield, Vt., middle, talks with Ken Blaisdell of East Randolph, Vt., as auction-goers look over the offerings at CW Gray's annual spring auction in Fairlee, Vt., on Saturday, April 27, 2013. Blaisdell said he didn't have his eye on anything in particular, but would bid on,

Henry Connolly of Brookfield, Vt., middle, talks with Ken Blaisdell of East Randolph, Vt., as auction-goers look over the offerings at CW Gray's annual spring auction in Fairlee, Vt., on Saturday, April 27, 2013. Blaisdell said he didn't have his eye on anything in particular, but would bid on, "maybe a bailer, maybe a rake, whatever's cheap." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file photograph — James M. Patterson

The young set watches with interest at a farm auction on July 18, 1967. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

The young set watches with interest at a farm auction on July 18, 1967. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Larry McDonald

By STEVE TAYLOR

For the Valley News 

Published: 08-07-2023 10:45 PM

There’s a measure of melancholy that always surrounds a farm auction. Chances are it is bringing down the curtain on a life’s work, an ending compelled by bodies aging out, debts that can’t be covered by cash flow or plain old bad luck. The effects will spread beyond the farm being dismantled and into the neighborhood, the town and the whole region.

It’s a process that’s been going on for generations, but it hit its apogee in the Upper Valley in the years between about 1950 and 1975, when hundreds of farms fell under the auctioneer’s hammer and the barns and fields would never be the same.

The late Carlton W. Gray once said he’d made a lot of money auctioning off the region’s hill farms, but he lamented how he also sold out a way of life. Before things changed, those farms could run 25 milk cows, have a big garden and a pen of pigs and there’d be enough money to send a kid to college or stash away a nest egg for retirement. The famed East Thetford auctioneer sold off literally hundreds of farms over nearly a half-century, and rarely did those farms get a new owner who would carry on their agricultural mission.

Most farm auctions follow a similar script: Get started around 10 a.m. selling out hand tools, buckets of rusty sap spouts, remaining stocks of feed and items of little use today, but apt to end up in antique shops for funky home decorations. Then it’s on to the tractors and machinery, which are often the main draw for buyers. And sometime after lunch the cows, heifers and calves will go, one by one, usually to a dealer who may find them new homes at another dairy farm or send the critters to a slaughter plant.

For many years the farm real estate would be offered up for bids, too, but as property values rose rapidly when the interstate highways came, the land and buildings would likely be sold through broker listings or private treaty sales apart from the auction. Everyone bidding at an auction wants a bargain, but the psychology of a spirited sale can pit two bidders driven by ego or revenge to drive the price of a tractor or hay baler way higher than the items could have been purchased at an equipment dealer.

The late Scott Hastings, a Woodstock school teacher and writer, in the 1980s chronicled the disappearance of the Upper Valley’s hill farms in several books, including “Goodbye, Highland Yankee” and “The Last Yankees.” His focus was on the two columns of Upper Valley towns immediately west of the Connecticut River and a single line of New Hampshire towns just east of the river. These towns, he contended, were the real exemplars of the hill country farming communities that were being hollowed out by the auctioneer’s gavel.

Hastings argued that not only were the physical assets of these farms being divided up and carted away, the legacy of small farms sustainably managed at a human scale was being extinguished auction by auction.

The farm auction lives on, however, although nothing like the numbers of a half-century ago. Herds of cattle now are likely to be sold in a block to a dealer or meat packer, and tractors and equipment in usable condition readily sell on the private market.

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There may be fewer farm auctions, but the ones that happen today are, like their forebears, always social occasions. Relatively few bidders actually buy anything — they’re there to watch the action, take note of selling prices and, above all, chew the fat with fellow farmers in the crowd. The first auction of the spring traditionally has drawn the biggest attendance. A mild, sunny day after a long, dreary winter is a perfect tonic, one that can induce people to drive 200 or 300 miles with no intention of buying anything; they just want to watch and gossip with peers.

Interestingly, farm auctions have had an impact on pressing public issues. An example is the adoption in Vermont of Act 250, the landmark legislation aimed at slowing down the pace and side effects of what was considered rampant, uncontrolled real estate development.

A slide-sound creation by Orford documentarian John Karol was presented over and over across the state to push for the proposed development-control law. The soundtrack of the work, titled “So Goes Vermont,” was backed by sound of the steady calling for bids by Carlton Gray — traditionally called the “hum” in the trade — intended to show the viewer how rapidly Vermont’s pastoral landscape was being pulled apart by the demise of its hill country agriculture. It proved to be a very effective messenger, and couldn’t have been as authentic and powerful without the auction overlay.

Steve Taylor lives and farms in Meriden and contributes occasionally to the Valley News.