It's 5 a.m. The sky is still dark, and the temperature is below freezing on this early January morning. Even so, Joel Holstad has already spent the past 30 minutes at an auction, looking at an assortment of combines, tractors and disks for his 300-acre farm. Holstad isn't lamenting the cold weather, however. In fact, he's snug in his home office, thanks to eBay, a buying-and-selling tool farmers are increasingly using.

Since 2001, Holstad, of Forest Lake, MN, has used eBay to buy a $9,000 tractor for $5,000, a serviceable $3,000-4,000 combine for $1,000 and a $5,000 bucket truck for $3,000. He estimates he buys about seven agricultural items every month, spending just under $10,000 annually.

“I've saved about 40-50% by buying on eBay, but the bigger savings, which just can't be calculated, is time,” says Holstad, whose acreage is split between Minnesota and Iowa. “I have four kids, and I want to be with them, not running from auction to auction.”

Like Holstad, more farmers across the country are turning to the Internet, and particularly to eBay, to buy and sell machinery, parts and attachments, as well as farm and livestock supplies, books, manuals and vintage equipment.

“Agriculture is a major category for us,” says Ben Hanna, senior category manager of farm for eBay. “It's become a $32 million business with 160% growth in the past year.”

Hanna says 11,000 agricultural items are for sale on eBay at any given time. Tractors and corresponding parts are the most popular items. In fact, 260 pieces of machinery and equipment are sold per day in eBay's farm category.

Hanna contributes the huge increase in farmer interest in eBay to a number of factors. “They like the auction atmosphere and that they can reach beyond their local market,” he says. Plus, computers and the Internet are standard tools on the farm these days, with about 70% of farmers using both, according to USDA figures.

Holstad says farmers with computers will find that buying and selling via eBay is a straightforward process. “Once I got over my initial fear, I realized that eBay is a pretty liberating tool,” he says.

Holstad recommends that farmers first learn how to use eBay by buying small, inexpensive items. “Buy a T-shirt and some other little things so you learn the mechanics and get comfortable with it,” he suggests. “The process of buying a combine is no different from buying an oil filter.”

To start the process, all users must sign in on www.eBay.com with an identification code and a password, much like they would with any other Web site. From there they can go anywhere on the site to review items for sale and place bids.

Some common sense precautions help ensure a positive buying experience, Hanna says. “Read the description of each item carefully,” he advises. “Look at the pictures. Check any available feedback on the seller, and then e-mail any questions you might have.”

Rick Rinehardt also encourages farmers to first consider sellers' reputations and check out Seller Information links included near the item's description. Potential buyers can get percentage readings of positive and/or negative feedback from previous buyers — and view feedback comments.

“We're rated 100% satisfaction,” says Rinehardt, eBay coordinator for Corriher Implement Company, Newton, NC. “We go the extra mile to make sure people are satisfied with their purchases from us.”

Corriher began selling implements via eBay two years ago. Rinehardt says the company has about 100 items on the site at any given time, ranging from toy pedal tractors to $28,000 backhoes. “I sold four of those in one week,” he says. “Before that, I hadn't sold any. You just never know what is going to interest people.”

Rinehardt tries to think like a buyer when he writes a detailed description for each piece of equipment the company puts on eBay. He also provides a variety of pictures. If there are any flaws in an item, he discloses what they are.

“We'll take a picture of the flaw and put it on the site. We're honest and straightforward with people,” he says. “We want to be known as reputable and keep people's business.”

Hanna says most sellers have the same business philosophy and there is little for farmers to fear if caution is used. “It's a very safe marketplace,” he says. “Fewer than 1/100 of 1% of the items auctioned are fraudulent.”

Holstad adds, “If you're not sure, ask lots of questions and get a phone number so you can talk to them (sellers). If they're selling a tractor, they'll want to tell you about it. They want the contact with you. It's usually pretty easy to tell if someone's honest.”

Shipping is easy, too, Holstad says. Initially, he called a long-haul trucking company to see what the shipping cost would be to move an item from point A to point B. Now, he estimates his shipping costs based on about 70¢/mile. To help ensure the best shipping price, Holstad encourages farmers to give their selected trucking companies 7-10 days to deliver the item. He welcomes any questions about the process and can be contacted at holstad2000@yahoo.com.

In fact, Holstad has more contact with other farmers now than he did before he began using eBay. “One of the problems out here with farms getting larger is that there has been diminishing contact with other growers,” he explains. “eBay has helped solve that. I've met a lot of people and I've learned a lot. It's been a good experience.”