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No More Livelihood: Tobacco Auctions' Last Call

In North Carolina, tobacco auctions were once festive occasions, where the smell of money competed with the scent of newly dried tobacco leaves. But those days are over. And once-busy auctioneers like Gregg Goins and Steve Nelms are left trying to adapt to what's next.

Goins and Nelms took part in an auction tradition that stretches back for generations. But modern farmers aren't bringing their crops to market in droves anymore. The pair talked about the once-booming tobacco business during a visit to a mobile StoryCorps booth parked at an old tobacco factory in Durham, N.C.

In the heyday of the 1970s, when both men had steady work, tobacco auctions were formal, traditional affairs. Coats and ties were common. Goins and Nelms have seen competitors come and go, traveling on the tobacco-auction circuit through the agricultural South.

When the farming business started changing, and policies for higher taxes and smoking bans went into effect, both men knew their lives would change, too. But they're surprised it has happened so quickly.

"We lost a lifestyle," Goins says.

"We really did," Nelms agrees. "Plus, we lost a job."

"No income," says Goins.

And although Nelms and Goins are aware of the ills of smoking -- both have relatives who have died of cancer or related complications -- they also know the tobacco industry has been good to them.

"I have enjoyed it," Nelms says.

"This has been my life for 35 years," says Goins. "Or was."

StoryCorps is the oral history project traveling the country collecting stories of everyday America. The interviews are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. And excerpts are played on Morning Edition each Friday.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.