by Yarddawg, AKA Doug Grimes
For most of the last century August created a special stir and air of excitement for local tobacco farmers as the leaf auctions opened. It was an annual late summer ritual. The streets of Winston-Salem and many other communities throughout the southeast were filled with the sweet perfumed aroma of the golden leaf. To this day not many smells will rival that of freshly cured tobacco. The type mostly grown around here is famous and known throughout the world as Flue-Cured Virginia or Bright Leaf. The sale of the crop put food on the table, clothed the family, paid for college educations, bills, and afforded a decent lifestyle for many hard working folks. Despite its controversial reputation, tobacco farmers are still a viable part of many communities in Forsyth County. Controversy is nothing new for tobacco. It goes back to Sir Walter Raleigh's expeditions in the late 1500's. Tobacco remains a resilient weed in many ways.
For almost forty years I was involved in the leaf tobacco auctions and leaf trade as a buyer. When I first entered the business it was considered an honorable profession. Despite the popular notion and negativity in vogue today, tobacco farmers and tobacco workers are good, honest, hardworking folks. I traveled around the world buying tobacco. As I like to say from America to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between. Beginning in the late 1990's tobacco companies started to re-think tobacco auctions. By 2001 nearly every company was entering into contracts with farmers directly to grow tobacco. These contracts all but killed tobacco auctions. By around 2005 or 2006 auctions were no more. The old auction system was certainly not perfect. The new contracting system isn't either. Sometimes change can bring about unintended consequences. The reasons are complex and too difficult to explain simply or effectively here. There is a small movement afoot to re-establish auctions. I witnessed one such attempt on August 17 in Rural Hall in an old unused tobacco warehouse. Yes there is a tobacco auction in Forsyth County once again. There is another attempt to revive the auction in both Danville, Virginia and Wilson, North Carolina with something akin to a "silent auction". But the one here is an honest to goodness, real, live, old fashioned tobacco auction. There will be a few more auction sales in Rural Hall in the coming weeks. In case anyone is wondering, it is open to the public and is an interesting spectacle if you've never seen one. Right now the chances of a successful long-term revival appear slim. But who knows?
As a way of introduction to the uninitiated, allow me to introduce you to a five minute video narrated by Mr. Page Roberts, retired tobacco auctioneer. Page won the 1982 World Tobacco Auctioneer Championship competition, beating out about 50 others, which was sponsored by RJ Reynolds for several years as part of its "Pride In Tobacco" campaign. You will not meet a finer human being or professional than Page Roberts. Simply put he was one of the best ever. Page, a Virginia native, auctioneered in Winston-Salem for many years. This is part of my history and the history of many locals whether directly or indirectly or even not involved with the industry. Tobacco is still an important part of Winston-Salem's past, present, and future. I think many will enjoy this short and informative history of the Tobacco Auctioneer. I should also mention that the auction in Rural Hall was led by another class act and another former World Champion Auctioneer, Chuck Jordan, who currently resides in Winston-Salem. But if you know Chuck please don't tell him I called him a class act.