The Auction

  By Tom Word

Ben Reach got the call early on a Monday morning.  The caller was Ron Altizer, a farmer whose family Ben had represented for forty years.  He heard Ron’s father, Carl, in Ron’s voice this Monday morning.  Carl had called him on a Monday morning in 1968, a call made in desperation.  The subject of both calls was the Altizer family farm in Thomas County, Georgia, southwest of Thomasville and south of the seat of Ben Reach’s law practice in Albany, called “All-Benny” by locals.

The Altizer farm was a jewel, not large but fertile, well drained and well watered, equal parts crop land and longleaf piney woods.   It had been in the Altizer family almost two hundred years.  It had nearly left their ownership in 1968, but Ben had managed to save it for Carl who held the record title, but held it really for his son, Ron, who was then in the jungles of Vietnam, fighting what proved a hopeless war.
Ben recalled the desperation in Carl’s voice that long-ago Monday, remembered what Carl said as if it were yesterday.  “Mr. Ben, I’m in a jam.  I don’t think there is anything you can do, but I need to talk to you about it.”

Ben had driven down to the farm that afternoon.  Carl’s troubles were familiar ones, brought on by the universal enemy of farmers in all times, debt.  Three years of drought-induced crop failures had Carl facing foreclosure.  Carl’s neighbor on the north had made an offer to buy the farm that Carl had planned to accept the night he called Ben.  Ben asked Carl the amount of the offer.  Then Ben recalled that the neighbor sat on the board of the bank that held Carl’s note, and thus had full knowledge of Carl’s financial distress.  It was a story as old as rural America—in hard times the rich got richer at the expense of men like Carl, who like his father and grandfather before him, had toiled to make the land pay enough to keep it.  Farming was a game of chance, with the odds favoring the house, not the farmer.  The house being the lenders, equipment and fertilizer suppliers, cotton and pecan and peanut buyers, the counterparties to the trades a farmer must make.  The farmer was captive to weather, to crop prices, fertilizer and fuel and chemical prices, all things a farmer could not influence, much less control.  Farming was pure competition.  All these forces had caught Carl in a perfect storm.

Ben told Carl not to sign the contract to sell the farm to his neighbor.  “Give me a little time, Carl.  I think maybe I can find a way for you to keep this place,” Ben said that Monday in 1968.

Next morning Ben got a call from Carl’s neighbor.  “You are interfering in my business, Ben Reach.  I’ll see to it you never get another loan to close for Thomasville Bank & Trust.”

“You do that, Mr. Jenkins,” Ben had said.  He’d already made up his mind not to represent banks.  There was more promise for a lawyer like Ben in suing them.

Two days later Ben had worked out a deal for Carl that would let him keep the farm.  Another client of Ben’s would buy Carl’s note from the bank, extend the term, and lower the interest rate.  He would also lease the quail hunting rights on the farm from Carl at a price that would let Carl meet his debt payments despite inevitable crop failures or falling crop prices.  

Carl’s banker had called Carl to come in to discuss foreclosure, and Ben went with him.  Waiting with the banker was Mr. Jenkins, who expected to strong arm Carl into signing the contract to sell him the farm.  Instead, Ben produced a cashier’s check in the amount of the note balance and took great pleasure in handing it to the banker under Jenkins’ nose.

A year later Ron had returned from the Vietnam War.  He bore wounds physical and mental.  But working the land with his father had healed him.  Since Carl’s death in 1980, Ron had farmed alone.

 Mr. Jenkins’ son now owned the neighboring farm (called Deep Swamp Plantation), which had been in the Jenkins’ family since 1880 when the first Jenkins owner had bought it with coke money (not Coca Cola money or drug money, but money from the kind of coke used to make steel).  The first Jenkins owner had been a Robber Baron of that Gilded Age.

Ron Altizer now wanted Ben’s advice on selling the Altizer Place.  His two daughters were married and living up north and had no interest in owning it.  Their children were entering college. Ron wanted to slow down—like many farmers, he’d worn himself out physically with the manual labor.  He wanted cash to help educate his grandchildren.  The current  Jenkins neighbor had offered Ron a price Ron thought was likely fair.  Ben thought it light, based on the sales he’d seen lately of farms not as good as the Altizer Place.  (If a Yankee family owned a place in Thomas County, you knew it because they called it a plantation, put a fancy sign at the entrance, and planted a double row of live oaks down the entrance lane leading to a Big House.)
Ben told Ron to give him a day or two to think about the sale of the farm.  And, as he had forty years before, Ben got an angry call from a Mr. Jenkins Tuesday morning, complaining that Ben was interfering with his deal with Ron Altizer.

“Mr. Jenkins, Ron Altizer and his father have been my clients for forty years.  You’ll get your chance to buy the Altizer Place, fair and square.”  Then Ben hung up and smiled.

“The first thing we are going to do is get your farm drill tested for sand and gravel,” Ben told Ron next day.  Ron protested, saying he would never be a party to mining the Altizer Place.  Ben smiled, “I didn’t say you had to mine it.  But let’s see what you have got.” 

Ben had a contact that would do the drilling free on the prospect of getting the chance to mine the property, though Ben had in mind another play for Ron.  Sure enough, a month later a report arrived showing generous deposits of sand and gravel under the Altizer Place.  It was accompanied by a bid for the mining rights.

Armed with that, Ben suggested to Ron that he place a conservation easement on the Altizer Place denying in perpetuity the right to mine the property for sand and gravel.  Ben explained that would produce for Ben a charitable income-tax deduction.  

 Ben then engineered the sale of the farm in a sealed-bid auction that he would personally supervise.  Each bidder would have one chance to buy the Altizer Place.

When the auction date arrived, Mr. Jenkins arrived at Ben’s office in the company of his lawyer.  The other bidders were lawyers who brought their clients’ envelopes containing bids.  Ben made them identify the bidders they represented as a condition to accepting their bids—Ben wanted Jenkins to know the other descendants of Nineteenth Century Robber Barons with millions (or billions) available to bid.  After he heard the names of the other bidders, Jenkins pulled another envelope from his pocket.  Ben wondered how much larger this bid was than the one in the first envelop Jenkins’ lawyer almost tendered.

When Ben opened the bids, Jenkins’ was the highest by far—how much money he’d left on the table, Jenkins would never know, for Ben shredded the other bids.  Jenkins’ winning bid was exactly twice plus $1 what he’d offered Ron Altizer before Ben became involved.  It was a hundred times what Jenkins’ father had tried to buy the farm for from Carl Altizer under threat of foreclosure in 1968.

Ben Reach (whose nickname was “Long,” despite his 5’5” frame) still did not represent banks, only sued them.  Ben took special pleasure in the fact that Ron would be able to shelter much of the tax on his gain on the sale of the farm through the conservation easement.