E.B. Harris knows one man doesn`t determine value. But with his
What do ya give? asks auctioneer
E.B. Harris. With his big cowboy hat and
even bigger personality, Harris captures
his crowds and convinces them that they
need what he’s selling.
the agriculture issue
photography by brent clark
E.B. Harris knows one man doesn’t determine value. But with his
farm in Warren County, statewide auction business, and connection
to markets worldwide — agriculture in North Carolina wouldn’t
be worth as much without him.
120 Our State October 2012
the agriculture issue
Make your pick: Before the auction at
George P. Upton Livestock Arena in Clinton,
potential buyers look over the stock and
decide what cows they want to bid on.
122 Our State October 2012
the agriculture issue
the agriculture issue
E.B. Harris’s cell phone is mooing.
Every cow listed on E.B. Harris’s auctions
is examined by a veterinarian and Harris
himself. Harris won’t sell anything he
can’t stand behind.
124 Our State October 2012
“With a full drought in the Midwest,” the text message reads,
“grains are up strong. Adjust your orders.”
He pulls his glasses off his nose, folds them, and tucks
them in his breast pocket. He locks his phone and puts it in
the pocket, too.
It is a Tuesday in late June. This coming weekend, Harris,
the biggest name in auctioneering in North Carolina and
one of the biggest on the East Coast, will serve as the passage
point for 150 cows and 40 pieces of farm equipment. For
a few short seconds, the livestock and items will be in his
possession, held in limbo between the seller and buyer. What
he says in those seconds determines the sale prices, and the
sale prices become sample sizes of the total mega-business
of agriculture. The value of farming hangs on his words. He
carries this responsibility like a weight.
Harris is no small-time auctioneer. Most of his sales top
$250,000 in total volume, and many easily eclipse $500,000.
He conducts about 40 sales a year. He sees millions upon
millions of dollars changing hands every year, all agriculture
dollars. He lives on a sprawling farm in Warren County in
remote northeastern North Carolina, but his reach stretches
beyond that. He thinks about the world globally. He’s built a
40-year career on an extraordinary ability to foresee how one
thing determines the value of another.
That drought in the Midwest is the worst in 50 years. It
comes at a time when China needs more hay and corn than
ever. It comes at a time when people in the United States are
out of work, and they need cheaper food prices. They’ll eat
more hamburger and less steak. The top cuts from the top
cattle Harris sells are more likely to feed someone overseas
than they are his neighbors.
Harris’s cell phone is mooing again. It’s 10 a.m., time for
the morning grain-price update. The first figure captures
It is late June, and corn is at $6.02 a bushel.
“It was $5.76 yesterday,” Harris says.
Farmers in the Midwest are plowing under fields of
scorched corn. Corn is the root of agriculture prices.
Consider a steak: The steer from which that steak was cut
eats corn feed. If the farmer who owns the steer spends more
money on corn feed, the steak costs more.
America needs corn. And if it doesn’t rain soon in some
place 1,000 miles from here, corn prices will keep going up,
and farmers worldwide won’t be able to afford to feed their
cows, so they won’t buy more cows.
Three days from now, Harris will stand in front of a crowd
and auction off 150 cows and 40 pieces of farm equipment,
with the weight of the farming world on his mind.
This sale is an important one. The morning
portion will be an auction of cattle from various farms in
eastern North Carolina. The afternoon portion will be the
equipment. It will take place in Clinton, in Sampson County,
one of the state’s largest agricultural counties, at the George
P. Upton Livestock Arena, named after George P. Upton,
who worked for 54 years as an agricultural extension agent
and did as much for farming in eastern North Carolina as just
This is the auction of George P. Upton’s farm equipment.
Upton is in his 80s now and retired, and he doesn’t have use
The day of the sale, Upton’s working life will be spread
out in a field, all the farm equipment that made him a farmer
splattered in the sun for someone else to take with the
highest bid. Among the items are two tractors. One is a 1973
Massey Ferguson, a rough-riding machine with red paint
that helped Upton grow his farm. Upton remembers putting
his daughter, Erica, up on the seat and teaching her to drive.
The other tractor is a modern-day Case, with a high-sitting,
closed-in cabin and air-conditioning. Upton used this tractor,
a big, red showpiece, in his final years of farming. Both
tractors mean something to him, for different reasons.
Upton has lived to see this day despite waning health.
He’s lived to see his farming life sold. He wouldn’t have
anyone sell it but Harris.
Years ago, Upton told his wife, Mary, that if anything
should ever happen to him, she should call Harris first.
Harris and Upton have only met a handful of times, and
Upton trusts him with his life’s work.
Harris is both a farmer and an auctioneer. He
wouldn’t give up either. He hates the beach and considers
his home his vacation spot. He carries a knife in his belt and
a red handkerchief in his pocket. He doesn’t go anywhere
without a cell phone. He wears boots all week and a tie
on Sundays for church. He is impenetrably calm, and he
speaks with a dignified Southern accent, taking a word like
“particular” and making it “particulah.”
He says grace before every meal, the pledge of allegiance
before every sale, yet he wears button-down shirts that
display a tag on the inside: “Made in China.”
Minutes before Harris starts the
livestock auction in Clinton, he briefs
his staff. They will keep the cows
moving behind the scenes as Harris
runs the show out front.
126 Our State October 2012
“I think about that sometimes,” he says. “But China buys
my cows, too. It all works together.”
He sells about 500 head of his own cattle every year. The
average cow he sells off of his farm goes for $1,900. Two
hundred dollars worth of that cow — whether it’s the liver or
a fillet — goes to someplace overseas.
Harris’s home was built in 1857. It is a boxy, two-story
structure with four rooms on top of four rooms. The first
owner, John Buxton Williams, hid dozens of hams under the
second-story floorboards when Union soldiers came through
and tried to take the family’s meat. Williams invested in the
Confederacy and lost most of his assets in the Civil War.
The home sat empty for 40 years until Harris’s grandfather
bought it in 1916.
On the day of the move, Harris’s dad, just 6 years old,
walked the family cows 12 miles from their previous home
in Louisburg to here. It took eight coats of paint to cover the
grease stains on the first-floor ceiling from those hams.
Harris was one of three children born in the home. In high
school, he drove a bus. He saved $2,400 by graduation and
called himself rich. He sat in study hall behind a girl named
Anne. She grew up in the nearby town of Warrenton, and she
wouldn’t talk to the farm boy. He graduated and went to work
three years later at the stockyards in Rocky Mount.
One Sunday, while at an intersection, he saw Anne and
waved. She waved back. He turned around and went to her
front porch. She finally talked to him. They married in 1971.
An auctioneer at the stockyards told Harris he should get
into auctioneering. Anne paid for his plane ticket to Arkansas
and auctioneering school.
The auction life made sense to him in ways that other
things didn’t. At an auction, the price isn’t set beforehand.
The customers determine the value of something based on
their level of need.
Harris’s auctioneering business started with a consignment
sale in 1974. By 1976, he was conducting a dozen sales a year.
Today, he’s one of the most important hinges of agriculture in
an agricultural state.
He also farms for himself. He breeds cattle like crops,
trying to make the perfect beef. He’s stretched the farm
enough that he now owns more land than any single
person in Warren County. He never says how many acres
Hats off, heads bowed: The livestock
auction at the George P. Upton arena in
Clinton, like every Harris auction, starts
with a prayer.
128 Our State October 2012
he has. He keeps the tracts divided among trust funds. He
doesn’t want anyone to know how much he has because
it doesn’t matter. He considers two things immeasurable:
the value of his property and the value of his name. He’ll
never sell either.
Eli Detweiler is a world-champion auctioneer.
He lives in Ruffin in the northern Piedmont. In 2010,
Detweiler beat out 200 other competitors for the title.
An auctioneer doesn’t just talk fast; he fills the space
between the numbers with words.
“Three wouldyagive four?”
Detweiler does this better than anyone in the world. And
he works for E.B. Harris.
Harris is good at calling bids, but he’s not a competitive
caller. He’s a businessman. He employs four or five different
callers on the day of the sale, looking more like a coach at
times than an auctioneer.
“If I keel over and die and fall face first
in a cow patty, you can tell the world
that E.B. Harris died a happy man.”
— E.B. Harris
Honesty, he says, is more important
to his brand than anything.
“An auctioneer is no better than the
person who’s running the business,” he
says. “Do it fairly, do it honestly, and do
it in a manner where you don’t need to
step behind a tree when anybody drives
up your driveway.”
Harris puts guarantees on pieces
of equipment. Once, he sold a
tractor. Within a week, the man
who bought the tractor called and
said he was stopping payments
because the transmission went out.
Harris called the seller, and, with
Harris mediating, the buyer and
seller worked out a deal to fix the
transmission for $5,000.
The buyer then called upon
Harris to conduct three sales for
him during the next 15 years.
“That $5,000 mistake,” Harris says,
“created more opportunity.”
Everything in life is an
investment, Harris believes. Today’s
value, he says, is today’s value. But it
will change. A negative today can be
a positive tomorrow.
Consider a rain suit: On a sunny
day, Harris says, it might be worth
50 cents. On a rainy day, he says, it
might go for $20.
So when people approach him
before a sale and ask for inside
information — What’s it worth,
E.B.? — Harris never estimates.
Need and desire determine worth,
not the auctioneer.
Auctions have a theme.
The silent auction serves the crowd
at a banquet dinner. An estate
auction releases a grandparent’s old
crystal to someone else, saving it
from burial. A police auction places
a criminal’s accessory innocence in
the hands of a new owner.
The buyer determines the value
of that car or that crystal.
“A well-conducted auction is
the fairest way to merchandise
anything,” Harris says. “Even an
130 Our State October 2012
estate sale, the auction is the fairest way for the family
to divide it up because everybody would have a shot at
grandma’s rocking chair. And nobody next Christmas can
say they didn’t have a chance.”
The farm auction takes global needs and puts them on
display in a country pasture.
It’s a safe bet that everybody in the world has eaten
something from a farm. It’s also a safe bet that most
farmers in the country have been to a farm auction at
In 2010, North Carolina was eighth in the country
in agricultural income. The state has more than 400
auctioneers registered with the Auctioneers Association
of North Carolina, and aside from the weather, those
auctioneers may play a more pivotal role in the value of
farming than anything.
It is Harris’s job to make sure the industry churns.
He is mindful of every farm in the world, his empathy
encompassing every grain that grows from seed.
In the week leading up to the auction in Clinton, he
brings in a veterinarian to give pregnancy checks to every
cow. He talks to each animal. He drives every piece of
equipment to make sure it runs.
132 Our State October 2012
For need or for want, we choose the things we care
about, choose the value we place on every relationship we
have. To Harris, those cows and that equipment are the
most important things in life outside of his family.
“I enjoy cows and cow people,” he says. “Put it this way.
If I’m walking in my field by myself, and I keel over and
die and fall face first in a cow patty, you can tell the world
that E.B. Harris died a happy man.”
On the morning of the auction in Clinton,
Harris walks into the arena with a cordless microphone
in his hand and a big cowboy hat on his head. The
emblem for E.B. Harris Auctioneering is a cowboy
hat, and, if you look closely, Snoopy’s face hides in the
middle of the design.
Harris speaks into the mic. He recognizes the veterans,
and he leads a prayer, thanking God for producing the
food and feeding the world. And then, he’s off.
Three Angus cows thunder into the arena with their
newborn heifer calves by their sides. Harris thinks these are
the best cows of the day — they’re young, and the calves are
only their firstborns. That’s why he put them here at the top,
to set the standard for the day. The cows run back and forth,
“If you don’t buy your
significant other chocolates
on Valentine’s Day, you can
give her a calf.”
— E.B. Harris
banging their heads against the gates, and Harris starts the
bidding at $2,500. Nobody buys; he drops the price.
Harris’s son, Shane, scans the crowd; spots a bid; and
When a later group of cows comes in, Harris
tells the crowd exactly when they’re supposed to give
birth — February.
“If you don’t buy your significant other chocolates on
Valentine’s Day,” he says, “you can give her a calf.”
And on another set: “If you think long, you
And on a later group, when the prices are going down and
people seem less interested: “If they don’t make you money, I’ll
eat my hat and wait two weeks for a crowd. If they don’t make
you $1,000 inside of 12 months, I’ll make up the difference.”
134 Our State October 2012
Over the course of two hours, Harris is funny and polite
and stern and convincing with his words, and those words
fall in between numbers that add up to about a quartermillion dollars worth of cattle.
Fifteen years ago, E.B. Harris was preparing
for a sale. He lists all the items he’ll sell by taking out ads
in the local newspapers. He got a call about a hay rake.
The man wanted to buy the rake, but he couldn’t attend
the sale. So the man gave Harris a dollar figure he was
willing to pay, and Harris assigned a member of his staff to
conduct the man’s bidding.
The man was George Upton, and he got the hay rake.
Fifteen years later, that same hay rake sits in a field
outside the George P. Upton Arena, ready to be sold again.
The cattle sale is complete, and the local 4-H club sold
400 hot dogs in 30 minutes for lunch. Harris heads out
to sell the equipment. A member of his staff drives the
auctioneering truck into the field, with a three-person
cab on the bed. The cab has a sound system with enough
power to announce a football game at any stadium in the
country. And it has a slogan on the back of it: “Jus Bid One
Following behind the truck is a black SUV. George
Upton rides in the passenger’s seat while his daughter,
Erica grew up on her dad’s farm. She remembers
driving that old Massey Ferguson. She remembers the hay
rake. She now works on the North Carolina Agribusiness
Council. Most of what she knows about her dad, most of
what she knows about her upbringing, lies in this field.
“It’s kind of like life and death,” she says. “It’s the cycle.”
The two most noteworthy items are those tractors —
the old Massey Ferguson and the modern-day Case.
Harris leads the sale of the Case, and it brings $28,500.
Upton watches closely from the SUV. The auction truck
drives forward and pulls up beside the Massey Ferguson.
The SUV pulls forward and pulls up beside the auction
truck. Harris hops on the old tractor and cranks it, proving
that it runs. It brings $2,700.
After the sale, Upton meets with Harris to collect the
money. And the retired agricultural extension agent thinks
about which tractor he watched more closely, which sale
he was more interested in — the red one with the airconditioning and all of the modern amenities, or the old
one, the one that helped him start his farm, the one he
hoisted his daughter upon and watched her learn to drive,
136 Our State October 2012
the tractor that gave him his farm life 40 years ago?
Which sale did he watch more closely?
Upton doesn’t need long to decide.
“The big, red one,” he says, laughing.
Sentimental doesn’t always win.
A little more than a month after the Clinton
sale, on the first Sunday in August, Harris invites the people
closest to him over for a picnic underneath tall, white oak
shade trees at his home. About 200 people show up each year.
He serves barbecue pork, beef, and goat. Guests fill
another two tables with sides — deviled eggs, potato salad,
Before the meal, Harris takes the microphone, wearing
a suit with a button-down shirt made in China, and he
honors the veterans and leads the pledge of allegiance. A
friend leads the prayer, thanking God for the sunshine and
the rain, and then everybody eats.
Harris doesn’t touch a plate. He walks from table to
table, and for two hours, he talks. He’s not selling a thing
today, just playing host.
Detweiler, the world-champion auctioneer, brings his
wife. All of Harris’s farm hands are here. Harris’s son,
30-year-old Shane, with a downward-growing red mustache and an upwardgrowing reputation in the auctioneering business, helps shake hands, too.
Shane is Harris’s only child. He’ll take over the farm and auctioneering
business one day. It won’t go to anybody else.
In the distance, to the west, beyond the white oaks and the cookout, is one
of Harris’s many cow pastures. A bull is grunting. Beyond that, farther west,
a stand of trees. Beyond that, another cow pasture of Harris’s. Beyond that, a
timber field he planted. Beyond that, corn. Beyond that, farther west, the rest
It’s on his mind, that land out there. That drought in the Midwest has grown
worse in the past month. Corn, which was $6 a bushel the week of the Clinton
sale in late June, is now $8 a bushel in early August.
The price of feed is up throughout the world, and fewer farmers are
So Harris, who has an abundance of feed products on his sprawling farm,
has decided to do something he hasn’t done in 40 years of farming: He won’t
sell his own calves this year. He’ll keep them through the winter, feeding them
for another year, growing them an extra 300 to 400 pounds, until next summer.
Then, he believes, he hopes, and he prays, the Midwest will have a resurgent
corn crop, and farmers around the world will buy feed at cheaper prices, and
they’ll buy more cows to feed. And Harris will have cows to sell them. He’s
built a career on an extraordinary ability to foresee how one thing determines
the value of another, and he’s anticipating a change next year out West, beyond
those fields, beyond this drought.
He’s betting that today’s sunshine will bring tomorrow’s rain.
Michael Graff is the writer-at-large for Our State magazine. His most recent story was
“Hazel” (August 2012).
On Sundays, Harris takes a break. He
might fix the fence or count the cows in his
pastures in Warrenton. Even on his day off,
Harris chooses to farm.
138 Our State October 2012