There appears to be little rhyme or reason to the contents of the sale yard at Fowler Auction in Toney, Ala. While the first row of items — dozens of used-but-sturdy farm implements — are logically grouped, the collection soon moves into a mishmash that includes late-model passenger cars, bicycles, office copy machines and weight-lifting benches, all waiting to be sold in an upcoming auction.
As confusing as the collection might seem, to John “Mickey” Fowler, the members of this unlikely assemblage share a common thread: value.
“Everything out here is worth something,” says Fowler, 67, as he slowly drives his Jeep Cherokee through the 9-acre sale yard. “It’s my job to know what that worth, or value, is. That’s the key to success when it comes to auctioneering.”
A Gift for Appraising
As founder and president of Fowler Auction and Real Estate Service Inc. — one of the largest auction companies in the northern Alabama–southern Tennessee region — and a devoted member of Alabama Farm Credit, Fowler knows a thing or two about the auction business. Since 1978, he has been using a natural gift of appraisal to help the surrounding, predominately agricultural community sell and purchase goods at fair prices. On the strength of his reputation as a straight-shooting and honest auctioneer, Fowler has built his company into a well-known business. Today, it is situated on a 34-acre campus, employs seven full-time staff members and conducts 75 to 100 auctions annually.
“This industry has been a blessing to me and my family,” says the auctioneer, known for his wide smile and pale-blue eyes. “I can honestly say that I love coming to work every day, and I’m thankful that I can do what I enjoy for a living.”
Learning From Adversity
As a boy growing up on the farm that he still calls home, Fowler says he learned early that people and things are inextricably linked “one way or the other.” In fact, at the tender age of 12, he learned the hard way.
“One evening, my family was visiting relatives who lived just down the road,” he explains. “On the way home, we saw the glow of flames over the treetops in the distance, and I can remember my momma saying, ‘Lord, our house is on fire!’ There was nothing left — it burned to the ground. It was a hard lesson on how quickly things can be taken away from you. One minute everything is fine, and the next, you’re left with nothing. I watched my parents start over from scratch.”
The experience left Fowler with an appreciation for his parents’ work ethic and the determination as well as the desire to better maintain the farm implements that survived the disaster, he says. After graduating from Ardmore High School in the early 1960s, he launched his own paint and body shop, honing a skill that would serve him well in another capacity later in life. In 1974, however, Fowler decided to return to his farming roots.
Return to the Farm
“I got back into row-cropping corn, soybeans and cotton,” he says. “I loved the work, but it was a difficult time to start up a farm. These were the years of the energy crisis and sky-high interest rates. I was married to my first wife and had small children at home, and it was hard to make ends meet.”
It was also a problem, Fowler says, to find affordable farm equipment. He began to notice that more experienced farmers in the area would travel to states in the Midwest, where used agricultural implements were more plentiful, to outfit their farms.
“At some point, I thought to myself, ‘Well, if they can do that, then why can’t I go bring [equipment] back and sell it?’” he recalls. “With my paint and body-shop experience, I knew I could fix these things up and make them look good. It all went hand in hand.”
Within a few years, farmers were making the trip from neighboring states to purchase equipment from Fowler, but with other auctioneers at the helm, the profits were slim. By 1978, the young farmer had concluded that he needed to take another step.
The Budding Auctioneer
“An auctioneer friend of mine in Missouri advised me to become an auctioneer myself,” he says. “He said, ‘If you let somebody else sell it, they’ll give it away because they don’t care what you’ve got in it.’ A lot of folks around here told me I’d never make an auctioneer, but when you’re broke and hungry like I was, you’ll do what you’ve got to do, so I took a two-week auctioneering course in Fort Smith [Ark.].”
Fowler admits that it took him 10 years to build a quality reputation that would attract sellers with big-ticket items.
“People in the crowd can read an auctioneer,” he says with a chuckle. “They can tell if you don’t know what something’s worth. I don’t care if it’s real estate or antiques — you have to know your product to get the top dollar for it. I’ve made it my business to learn all I can about every product I sell at auction. My clients deserve that.”
As Fowler’s knowledge of agricultural equipment increased, his own farm began to take a back seat to his auction business, and in 1981, he decided to sell his row-crop operation.
He did so just in time.
The Right Time to Step Up
Within a few short years, the 1980s crash of the agricultural economy descended upon rural America, as interest rates skyrocketed and crop values plummeted. Thousands of family farms succumbed to the economic conditions, and as a trusted auctioneer and tireless advocate of his sellers, Fowler found himself in the midst of a bittersweet time of growth and pain.
“Folks were losing their farms during these years,” he says. “In many cases, these were people I had grown up with or had known for years, and I had to conduct the sales. There were plenty of times when I’d sit down with a man and his wife and children, and we all cried together.”
It was during this period, Fowler says, that he began working closely with financial institutions on ways to help his clients.
“My focus was to sell the farmer’s land and equipment, but let him keep his house and maybe five acres,” he says. “That was important to me because I’d been in their shoes.”
In subsequent years, Jason Thomas, manager of the Athens branch of Alabama Farm Credit, became an integral part of Fowler’s auctions.
“Not only did Jason [and Farm Credit] finance hundreds of my clients, but they also helped me expand my business and purchase land for myself, too,” he says. “They’ve always been great people to work with and will bend over backward to help you.”
Selling Real Estate
By 1990, the bulk of Fowler’s business had shifted from farm equipment to real estate, much of it cropland. In recent months, he has even added a traditional real estate listing option to his repertoire.
“There’s an inherent difference in the two methods of selling real estate,” he says. “When you list it, you start high and work your way down. When you auction it, you begin low and work your way up. Which method you choose is determined by the expectations of what you think the property can bring and how long you’re willing to keep it on the market. There’s a place for both methods, and I’m excited to be able to offer each of them.”
Although the auction industry has been negatively affected by both the recent downturn in the national economy and Internet sales, Fowler says he is hopeful for the future.
“We will always need land to grow crops and livestock on, equipment to produce it with and a house to live in,” he says. “As long as I’m able, I intend to help my community accomplish those things.”
– Mark E. Johnson
FARM EQUIPMENT: A Sound Investment
Although it may sound counterintuitive, given the harsh demands placed on a piece of machinery and the sheer number of working parts typically found therein, farm equipment not only holds its value, it can be a sound investment.
Mickey Fowler says farm equipment prices are the best he’s ever seen.
“Just a decade ago, a 4020 John Deere [tractor] would bring around $6,000,” he says. “Today, that same 4020 will bring close to $12,000. That’s the case with most tractors, because they’re hard to find. It’s the same with combines. Most big-time farmers will run a new combine a minimum of four to five years, and then trade it in and update. The smaller farmer will purchase the used combine after most of the depreciation has happened. If it’s well-maintained, that combine will likely retain or increase its value for years to come.”