LITCHFIELD, Minn. — Needing an excuse to venture out into the real world, I took in the Dec. 17 Steffes Ag Iron consignment auction. The remarkable event took place at the spacious Steffes headquarter facility in Litchfield, Minn.
Steffes’ colorful ad in the Dec. 11 issue of The Land read: “Over 375 lots to bid on! New items added daily. Three complete farm lines included; along with consigned farm equipment, hay equipment, trucks, recreational items and construction equipment.”
Enough variety to satisfy even the most grizzled farm auction attendee, I thought. Plus, this intriguing note: “Auctioneers will run multiple rings with live online bidding available on major equipment.” And these two welcome words: “Join us!”
And so I did.
Temperatures were in the mid-30s as I motored the 50 miles from Olivia — arriving at 11 a.m. The start time for the auction was 10 a.m. I knew that when you arrive late at a Steffes auction, parking might be limited — even at their generous grounds adjoining State Hwy. 22 on the south edge of Litchfield. But in typical Steffes fashion, friendly guys directed my vehicle to one of the few parking spots still available.
Busy? You’ve got to see it to believe it. I quickly veered towards the auctioneering chants I was hearing. As I shuffled amongst the crowd (mostly men, but a few gals too) the ‘dress’ was predominantly hooded jackets, scarves wrapped around necks, and very likely fleece-lined jeans worn by both the guys and the gals. Yes, in Minnesota, when attending an outdoor public auction in December, dress warmly is a given.
I spotted the Steffes auction truck with speakers mounted on each rooftop corner. The truck stopped briefly at each auction item only long enough to get an opening bid. Then it’s sort of like ‘hang on’ because we ain’t stopping now. Somewhat like a wave effect, that auctioneering chant draws you to the action.
I quickly realized getting a few minutes for a live interview with the Steffes auctioneer just wasn’t likely. However, Albany, Minn. farmer Donnie Hammesh was standing nearby so I asked him why he was there. Being a good-natured guy, Hammesh responded, ”I’m looking at those gravity boxes over there. Should be getting to those pretty soon.”
I asked Hammesh how much he was willing to bid on a gravity box. “About $6,500,” he replied, “but it likely will draw more. Everybody’s got money today it seems.”
In my opinion, one of the better buys of the sale was $100 for a rock-picking, rubber tired trailer. Yep, this rig showed some age; but since I know nothing about old rock-picking trailers, that $100 seemed like a bargain to me.
Just coming down the steps of a big JD 9120 was Gregory Munsch, a farmer from the Atwater/Bird Island area. “It’s in real good shape and I thought it went really cheap,” Munsch claimed. “I wasn’t interested, but my son was looking at it. Me and my brothers got a bigger model than this one. Ours is an International on tracks. But these three John Deere tractors, all owned by the same guy, I thought went fairly reasonable … and they’re in nice shape.”
I continued my walk, already wishing I had dressed warmer. I sauntered to the Steffes building complex and good fortune prevailed: a sit-down interview with Scott Steffes, president of this dynamic business celebrating their 60th year. I asked Steffes how big he thought the crowd was here today.
“ Last time I checked, there were about 200 registered bidders in the audience,” he replied, “plus who knows how many on the Internet for on-line bidding. We have no way of knowing total count. But we know online bidding has added a new dimension to this business.”
“Prior to Covid we were about 50-50 live vs. online,” Steffes went on to say. “In today’s constantly changing environment it’s a tougher call. We still like to do live auctions when they let us; and fortunately in Minnesota we are considered an essential service so can continue auctions as needed and requested. But the reality today is we are about 20 percent live action and 80 percent internet only. Hopefully we’ll get back to that 50-50 ratio as time goes by.
In view of the financial struggles of agriculture earlier this season, I was curious if Steffes was surprised with this strong attendance today.
“No, this fall — and even into summer when we started back into live auctions — we’ve seen attendance advancing. Since the March arrival of the pandemic, our first live auction was July 8at our Fargo facility. Since then we’ve been doing both live and online sales with good results in Arkansas, Kansas, the Dakotas, Iowa and here in Minnesota. People are simply pleased to get out and about at our public sales. But because of Covid, people are really taking advantage of our internet auctions these days also.
“Since post-harvest, this farm machinery market has really erupted,” Steffes went on to say. “It’s nice to see such positive optimism rebounding again in the ag world. I suspect most farmers are wishing they still had a big bin of soybeans to unload into the market.
Steffes said there were in the neighborhood of 600 items up for sale in today’s auction. “Usually at these auctions, between 600 and 700 items. Today I know there are 400 auction lots in Ring 2 and I believe Ring 1 has about 200. And all prices too … like that $100 rock picker you mentioned, to several thousand dollars for the many tractors and combines being sold today. My Dad started in the auction business in 1960. His first auction was a farm retirement sale which included all the machinery plus the man’s livestock: cows, pigs and some chickens I recall him telling us kids. The sale grossed $5,500. Today, it’s not uncommon for us to sell single pieces of farm equipment for $350,000!”
I asked Steffes if this will be a $5 million dollar day. “No, typically these are around $2 million sales. I think the largest Ag Iron event in our history was the summer of 2012 in West Fargo, N.D. when we did an $11 million auction. We had seven auction rings working that day and about 3,000 auction lots.”
Because today’s sale it also online, how many states might be in contact with you?
“Can’t tell you until we’re done,” Steffes admitted, “but typically our online sales reach upwards of 50 states … and we’re now into five countries. But even online sales in Canada are down simply because of shipping restrictions now in place. We just sold a motor patrol grader to a broker in New Jersey who’s exporting it to Egypt.
So will overseas sales continue to increase? “From an Ag Iron perspective, which we do three times a year from three locations, I think it will likely continue to increase,” Steffes stated. “But because of internet bidding, our attendance at these live auction events is diminishing. Everything in today’s world is becoming internet-based. We do a twice-monthly Internet-only auction which creates great advantages for our sellers because they don’t need to truck their equipment to the auction site.”
Still, folks are still willing to drive some distance to attend public auctions. “It seems about 250 miles is the maximum distance,” Steffes guessed, “but It’s not uncommon when potential buyers can visually scan a particular piece of equipment from one of our online listings. They will drive, or even fly to see, kick, smell, climb the cab, check the tires and whatever else propels them. And sometimes we hear this comment, ‘We just needed a get away too.’ Farm equipment dealers readily travel to our Ag Iron events seeing if they might get a bargain price on a particular machine.”
“Yes, home-state origin makes a difference too. People from other parts of America like to come up here to buy farm machinery because typically it is owner-operated and that tends to reflect better maintenance. Also, most of our tractors and combines sit under roof when not in use. If you go to farm auctions in Texas, Arkansas, Kansas … those farmers mostly don’t have sheds. Their equipment shows the stains, discolorations and weather stresses of 365 days exposure. Up here, about the only concern I hear from farmers is they hope the mice don’t get into their equipment in their sheltered environments.
You’ve got six bids callers handling today’s auction. So is there about a two-hour auction call until your next caller gets into the truck?
“That’s about right. We like to trade off so we’re always fresh. In the old days, we’d often go five, six, even upwards of 10-hour calls; but not anymore. We have a great staff. We’ve gotten smarter; maybe we’ve gotten lazier too!” said Steffes, chuckling a smile. “We should wrap up no later than 4:30 or so.”
Once the sale is over, Steffes said it won’t take long for these 600 items to clear the premises. “My Dad told me years back, auctions are like fires … they make things disappear. So about 50 percent of what sells here today will be gone within 48 hours. So after cleaning our grounds we start reloading for the next one.”
Now 59 years old, Scott got into the auction business the easy way. “My dad started the business in 1960,” he said. “Now, in 2020, we’re celebrating our 60th anniversary. Lots of family members today … sons and bothers, aunts and uncles, cousins and others. I went to the Kansas City, Missouri School for Auctioneers in June, 1980. And after you and I wrap up, I’ll grab a bite before my two-hour call begins at 2 p.m.”
Besides the actual bid calling, Steffes auctioneers like to entertain as part of the bid coaxing. “When it comes to bid calling, I think some natural talent is part of the call,” Steffes reasoned. “Just like vocalists, everyone has a different style; a different approach. In this profession you quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. Don’t attempt humor if you really aren’t capable. But not to worry … people let you know what’s working and what isn’t. Good fun and humor is just as important to our bidding audience as it is to us callers. Even in today’s world of sophisticated business people, it’s just good sense not to take yourself too seriously.”
And when will you retire? “Don’t know and don’t even think about it,” Steffes flatly stated. “I‘m simply having too much fun. Working in agriculture is the greatest. We’re working with folks with big hearts, generous minds, and ambitions kindled up a notch or two higher than most people. This year we’re doing 600 auction events — ranging from our five facility locations at Mount Pleasant, Iowa; Fargo, N.D.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Mason City, Iowa, and here at Litchfield, Minn. plus a few on-farm auction sites also.”
To wrap things up, I asked Steffes if he has concerns about the financial health of America’s famers these days. “Bluntly speaking, just three things govern my answer,” he said, “commodity prices; crop production; and interest rates. Fortunately all three are on a positive swing right now. As we so well know, this too can change. However, we have confidence in our American farmers. So the very best to our American farmers in this challenging — but exciting — new year.