Machinery sales are bewildering and brilliant

I love a good farm machinery sale. I would do all my shopping at auction if I could, even my weekly groceries. My muesli would taste twice as good if I knew that I had outbid someone who had been hoping to eat it instead of me.

I’m not normally one for machismo, so I don’t know why the triumphalism of buying at auction appeals so. Maybe I’m unnaturally proud, maybe it’s Little Man Syndrome or maybe, judging by the prices that things realise at auction, this is a trait that’s common to all farmers. There’s a real buzz from being the hand in the air when the hammer drops. I love it. If I were a man of prosperity, I would stand solemnly at auctions with my arm permanently aloft like a tanned and hairy flagpole, whistling patiently to myself until the other bidders had tired themselves out.

Farm sales must seem very confusing to the man in the street. Farmers do not shop like other humans do; the usual rules of commerce go straight out of the window.

The fashion stakes are pretty low, for a start. It’s impossible to judge the wealth of your fellow bidders from what they are wearing. Farm sales are the only place you will meet a millionaire working a ‘hi-vis coat and cow muck’ combo.

It’s perfectly ordinary to be outbid by someone in an old trilby hat, a filthy boiler suit and sporting a moustache so profuse that you can’t discern where the sideburns end and the nasal hair starts. She may own 2,000 acres for all you know.

The other bewildering thing about farm sales is the variety of items on offer. The first 100 lots at a farm sale are usually of particular intrigue. Farmers keep the decent tools for their retirement so, unless you are specifically looking for a ladder with woodworm, a seized bottle jack or a customised pitchfork, then the workshop equipment is best avoided.

There can be a degree of fun from trying to identify the ‘bygone tools’. Many of them look like instruments of torture and, especially if the sale is near Wisbech, there’s a fair chance that this is precisely what they are.

I even enjoy queuing up to pay at the end. There aren’t many places left that still welcome the retro chic of a cheque book. We are still winding our way through a batch of over-sized chequebooks with our logo on that we had printed in the late 1990s. I look forward to the rare occasions that I can ceremoniously hand over one of these massive cheques like it’s a Children in Need photo opportunity.

After the huge exodus of farmers in the last 20 years, I have recently noticed that there are far fewer farm dispersal sales than there used to be. Although they can be tinged with sadness – they usually involve the end of a farming career, after all – they are still one of my favourite rural customs. Like most of our great farming rituals, farm sales turn a practical procedure into a social event.

Unfortunately, I suspect they may be a dying tradition. These days most arable farms have little more than a hire purchase combine and tractor, one cultivator and an eight-year-old teleporter. It’s hardly worth printing a colour brochure or setting up a burger van for that little lot, is it?

Matthew Naylor farms 162ha (400 acres) of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father, Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a Nuffield scholar.

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