How will one of the most traditional and social of rural events — farm auction sales — work during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Online and over the telephone is the recommendation from the Manitoba Auctioneers Association (MAA), that is bracing for the start of the sale season.
“We can’t tell anyone in the association what they can do or not, but our strong suggestion is to hold off on the (in-person) sales so it doesn’t put a bad name on the whole auction world,” MAA president Jesse Campbell, of Fraser Auctions, said in an interview April 1. “All it takes is one person and if it’s legal or not the whole auction world is viewed with negativity.”
The Manitoba government says farm auction sales can operate, but under strict conditions.
“All businesses that support the food supply chain, including livestock and farm equipment auctions, are considered essential services and are exempt from closure,” a Manitoba government official wrote in an email April 2. “Provincial staff are in contact with the Manitoba Auctioneers Association, that we understand is actively looking at ways of reducing crowds and applying social distancing principals at the auctions. It is important to note that all individuals should practise physical distancing and follow the advice of public health officials.”
But anyone who has attended a farm auction knows bidders and gawkers stand shoulder to shoulder, especially around hayracks of tools and “jackpots.”
From pie and coffee, to bidding and B-S-ing, there are few things more social than an auction, attracting the neighbours and people from miles around.
Why it matters: The traditional social nature of the farm auction won’t work while the country grapples with a global pandemic.
The Manitoba government has banned gatherings of more than 10 people to try to slow the spread of the virus that as of April 2 had infected 167 Manitobans, killing one.
If too many people fall ill at once they could overwhelm the health system, reducing the efficacy of their treatment and of those who are ill for other reasons.
Federal and provincial officials warn the pandemic will get worse before it gets better. As of April 2, more than a million people had contracted COVID-19 globally and 55,000 had died.
More than 11,000 Canadians were infected then and 138 had died.
On average seven per cent of infected Canadians have been hospitalized, 2.5 per cent have gone into intensive care and one per cent have died.
Meanwhile, the federal government has invoked the Quarantine Act.
Travellers returning to Canada are obliged to quarantine for 14 days.
Those who don’t comply can be subject to a maximum fine of $750,000 and/or imprisonment for six months.
If someone jeopardizes another’s life “while wilfully or recklessly contravening the act” they face a possible $1-million fine and/or up to three years in prison.
Those penalties got the attention of the MAA, Campbell said.
“We talked to a lot of government people and just couldn’t find a solid answer,” he said. “A few people said they might try it, but there are fines of up to a million dollars (for endangering a life), and $50,000 and jail time for somebody who puts on the event. We weren’t really willing to take the risk when it’s not really clear what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
Most auction sales have included online bidding for several years and telephone bids go even further back.
“We’re comfortable with it and a lot of buyers are comfortable and know how to do it,” Campbell said. “It seems this year it’s going to be a safer option for everybody.”
Most of Fraser Auctions’ customers have accepted online and telephone bidding, he said.
That’s also the case for Bill Klassen’s sales too. Only one client has postponed, the Winkler auctioneer said in an interview April 2.
“We’re going to have a tough time keeping people six feet apart,” Klassen said, alluding to the distance people are supposed to be apart to avoid spreading COVID-19. “We could constantly remind them, but like the farmer I was talking to yesterday said, ‘when two farmers who haven’t seen each other all winter meet, you think you’re going to be able to keep them six feet apart?’”
Farmers interested in online bidding should start registering as soon as possible, Campbell said.
“We have an average of 400 to 500, and sometimes 600, people at our farm sales,” he said. “If we have that many people who want to bid at our sales, they’re wanting to get online so it will take awhile for us to get through all the paperwork.”
Online bidding works well for equipment but not for racks of tools and “jackpots”. Those will be sold at sales this summer, Klassen said.
“The phones are ringing off the hook with questions of what we’re doing,” Campbell said. “We’re in new territory, but I think we’ll be OK.
“A big scare factor for anything is the unknown and there’s a lot unknown during these times.
“Auctions will continue on but maybe a little bit different this year.”