Life Sketches by Terry Berkson: A silo salesman striking with a sledgehammer

Life Sketches by Terry Berkson:
A silo salesman striking
with a sledgehammer

Over the years, Paul Sarafin had come to believe that silos were like barometers. “When the economic weather for farming was good they went up” he says. “And when it was bad, they often came down, sold secondhand to someone looking for a buy.”

Sarafin, 78, lives near Richfield Springs, and had been in the silo business for almost 50 years.

At first, he built them for the now terminated Harder Silo Company out of Glens Falls, but after several years of wrestling with the heavy hoops and staves, he was promoted to salesman. In past years, because of hard times, it had become more and more difficult for Sarafin to make a sale. He said a farmer who already had the bill collectors on his back was more than reluctant to go into hock for an average $25,000 concrete stave silo.

But back then a silo was the only solution for a rainy summer when a farmer couldn’t string a couple of sunny days together to dry out hay to be stored in the mow. Bailed and stored too wet, hay can heat up from evaporation, resulting in spontaneous combustion and a barn fire. Similar to a canning jar, a silo would preserve grass or corn even when they were not pre-dried, thus enabling a farmer to deal with a wet summer like the one we are experiencing this year.

For several years, the sales competition had been so fierce Sarafin considered it a near miracle when he sold one of his silos, which could be distinguished from other brands by the alternating red to plain blocks at the top. His sales pitch was that he had no pitch, just a homespun, direct but patient approach. “Sometimes I’d visit a farm six or seven times thinking I was softening a farmer up only to find a competitor’s silo standing against the barn the next time I’d show,” Sarafin said. To make matters worse, the handsome cylindrical structures were now being replaced by bunkers covered with tarps and old tires or silage bags laid upon the land in aesthetic compromise.

Years ago, with one son in college and the other about to be married, Sarafin was under extra financial pressure. Often, to ensure a sale, he’d offer perks like free hardware or repairs to another existing silo. It was late in the season and he thought he was going to lose a sale outside of Sharon Springs, so he offered to demolish John Burr’s old, worn-out 50-foot silo for free. That sealed the deal.

Normally the demolition would incur some out-of-pocket expenses to purchase dynamite or to rent a bulldozer, but to cut costs, Sarafin used a unique approach which required one simple tool, a sledgehammer.

“I knew how to build them strong and I knew how to make them weak,” he says. But silos don’t fall like trees and even though the salesman had done this job several times before, the outcome was still unpredictable and dangerous. The many tons of concrete could fall back onto the barn, or worse, catch and crush him as he scrambled to get clear. “Unlike trees that creak and groan before they fall,” Sarafin says, “silos let loose all at once.”

So, with his sons’ tuition and wedding bells in the back of his mind and a flimsy cable anchoring the top of the silo to a tractor, Sarafin went to work loosening the bottom support hoops. Then he began to break out the concrete staves with the sledgehammer as Burr and his family looked on. When Sarafin had broken out more than an 8-foot hole in the silo wall, it didn’t even quiver. He was banking on the whole thing falling towards the section he was demolishing. After several minutes of hammering he stopped to look up at the top. He seemed a little nervous. There was no sign of movement.

Sarafin began ham-mering again, the heavy blows echoing inside the silo. He broke out several more feet of staves and then suddenly threw the hammer to the side. The immense structure leaned towards the cut, pulverizing concrete and making it explode under the shifting weight. Sarafin bolted as the silo let loose and fell in a thunderous heap.

When the dust cleared, it revealed a benign pile of rubble.

“How’d you know it was going to fall just then?” Burr asked.

“Tuition,” Sarafin said as sweat ran down his face.

“You mean intuition,” Burr replied.

“Yeah, that, too.”

10Later, the silo slayer said this was the last silo he would demolish with a sledgehammer, but then he had said the same thing two silos before and new expenses were bound to be coming soon.
After Harder went out of business, Sarafin worked at a foam packing plant in Fort Plain and freelanced at silo repair and supply during off-time and on weekends. When asked if he saw himself as some kind of modern day hero, Sarafin, now retired and wintering in Florida, smiled and said simply, “I put bread on the table.”

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