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Farm changes watched from auction podium

Manitoba auctioneer moves from clipboards to computers and farm sites to websites after 50 years in the business

Every day at noon, Bill Klassen huddled with his father near the big floor-model radio in the kitchen to hear the farm report from Fargo, North Dakota.

It was music to his ears and held the boy in rapture — not the prices of hogs and heifers, but the staccato rhythm of the auctioneer whose patter began the report. To young Klassen, living near Winkler, Man., that patter was magical.

It was the mid-1950s, and there were thousands more farms across the Prairies than there are today. Most had milk cows, chickens, horses or pigs. Tractors were smaller, and some folk still preferred horses for working the land. Indoor plumbing and electrification were rather new. Some old men could still speak of seeing, or even hunting, bison in the 1870s. Three or four wooden elevators sat near the tracks in most towns, and when it came to selling grain, farmers had the power of choice.

The farm Bill Klassen’s parents owned was typical of the time, a mixed operation with about 100 pigs and a dozen cows, the many chores that went with them, and some fields in crop. But almost every summer day at noon, young Bill, the eldest of eight, made sure he was in the kitchen to hear the auctioneer.

One day when he was nine or 10, Bill announced that he would become one. His parents, Jacob and Katherine, smiled, he recalls. But 62 years later — 50 of those years spent with Bill Klassen Auctions Ltd. — the boy has kept his promise.

Even now, at 72, his face lined with the years, Klassen has no plans to sell or retire.

“No, I love it,” he said. “I’ve got 10 or 12 auctions booked now for the spring and summer.”

A dual passion for people and machinery spelled success for Klassen, whose work has gone from clipboards to computers, farm sites to websites, manure spreaders to GPS combines, with sales around the globe including Belize, Paraguay, and Jordan.

As Klassen looks back, it’s mostly about the people. A friend from Dauphin, Man., springs to mind. The man first showed up at the annual Klassen consignment auction about 1990 and Bill gave him a cap. He gives out a lot of caps. But this fellow came back, all the way from Dauphin, year after year to that same summer auction, the first Monday in August — always wearing his Klassen Auctions cap.

“His wife came up to me one year and said, ‘when he comes home from that auction, I have to wash it and put it in its cupboard,’ ” — until next year.

People, friendships, rituals: they are the constants.

Klassen’s wife of 48 years, Karen, is co-owner of the company. In 1999, tragedy struck when their son Dwight Jacob, 17, was killed in a car accident.

For both it was a turning point: Bill quit farming and rented out his land, focusing on auctioneering, and Karen began working in the company to ease her grief, doing so for eight years.

“She’s a very important part of it,” he said.

The loss of a son was eased by their faith.

“I’m a Christian. I talk to Him every day.”

The changes he has seen are many and varied. The sheer number of auctions in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, as the owners of those small farms retired or were bought out by bigger operations, dwarfs that of today.

“In 1994, I had a farm auction every day in April except Sunday. Last year in April I had six,” he said.

In the old days, auctions were big social events. Farmyards were packed, not only with buyers but with kids and others who simply wanted to visit, or enjoy the food and refreshments, which the women provided, either from the house or local church.

Today, he said, he hires a lunch wagon. The crowds can still be superb.

In the early days, if you wanted to bid on an Allis-Chalmers tractor, you had to be there, or have a friend as a proxy bid for you.

Today Klassen sells machinery by auction to people in Alberta, Mexico, Paraguay, even Jordan by cellphone.

Computers have revolutionized farm auctions. A buyer can bid with his cellphone or computer, or ask Klassen to phone when the auction reaches the combine he wants to buy.

“Another great thing that happened is the website. I’ve got pictures on it, and information,” he said. “I’ve had one for 20 years and it’s a great drawing card.”

Some of the names have changed. Allis-Chalmers, International and Case gave way to others like Agco, New Holland and Fendt.

John Deere has been steady from the start, he said. The size of those tractors grew from little things your kids could drive into Brobdingnagian giants.

Another change is the money involved. In the early days, Klassen would sell about $50,000 worth of machinery per auction and take five percent as his fee. Today, $50,000 is the selling price for just one old tractor. Klassen has done a number of million-dollar auctions, and has one booked for April 15. He’s still getting five or six percent for his efforts.

Today, he has three men on call as part-timers who work for him. With fewer farms, there’s less work. He’s OK with that.

His three sons, who have helped in the business, have carved out careers of their own, and won’t be going on as second-generation auctioneers.

His first farm auction, after a number of charity events for the community hockey rink and school, took place on July 23, 1968.

He remembers like it was yesterday. A neighbour across the road, Albert Worms, a good friend of his grandfather, was retiring.

“I sold 15 cows and some machinery and a 1952 Chevy pickup with corner windows for $275. I wish I’d bought it myself,” Klassen said.

Honours have come his way. In 2012, he was inducted into the Minnesota State Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame. He’s been a member since 1990. He’s also been president of Manitoba’s auctioneers’ association.

Besides his wife and parents, Klassen credits other auctioneers who helped him, like the late Jake Enns, whom he worked with one summer. Two brothers in the business, Neil and John Kehlers, also in the Winkler area, provided stiff competition, both well-established and liked. “But I knew more about farm equipment than they did,” and it paid dividends.

A two-week course in Kansas City at the Missouri Auction School honed his skills and set him up for a lifetime of work and memories, which are still being made today.

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