by Emily Leeson
In one incarnation or another, Atlantic Stockyards Ltd. near Truro, N.S., has been playing a vital role in the local agricultural economy for 60 years. And in April, just as the livestock auction business marked its 60th anniversary, it changed hands again.
Scott and Natalie Dixon recently bought the business, which is located in Murray Siding, from Sean Firth, who purchased it in 2008. Firth bought the business from the late Frank Berkelaar, who started at the auction barn at 19 years of age when it was first established by the late veterinarian Dr. Brian Nettleton.
In the 1950s, Nettleton and his family immigrated to Canada from the U.K., where Nettleton had worked for veterinarian and writer James Herriot. In fact, Herriot based the character Calum Buchanan on Nettleton.
Nettleton’s sheep flock, which eventually grew to several hundred, began with a spontaneous purchase at auction. Working as a veterinarian on farms in the Truro area, Nettleton grew increasingly concerned that the farmers he visited weren’t getting high enough prices for their livestock. He knew the answer was a local livestock auction business where prices are set by a crowd of buyers, and sellers can be sure the price they receive is the market price.
With a goal of establishing fair prices, Nettleton set up the Truro Livestock Auction – as Atlantic Stockyards Ltd. was first known.
The first sale took place on April 24, 1959 on the Truro Exhibition grounds.
Within the second week of operation, Nettleton hired Berkelaar. Although Berkelaar was initially hired just to help out around the barn, he quickly took an interest in auctioning and the next year he travelled to Mason City, Iowa, to attend auctioneer school.
In 1974, the Nettletons sold the business to Berkelaar and eventually relocated their farm and family to Cape Breton. For the Nettletons, the family adventures didn’t stop. They later joined the non-profit development organization CUSO, and moved to Papua New Guinea. There they promoted a program that encouraged local schools to adopt sheep flocks and teach students animal care and management skills.
Meanwhile, under Berkelaar’s management, the Maritime Cattle Market, as he had renamed the business, expanded and its reputation grew.
Tony Prinsen was hired in 1976 during the auction barn’s heyday. Those days, said Prinsen, the seats were packed. “We had a lot of fun, actually,” he recalled. “We had a lot of buyers come from P.E.I., and it was more like a day out for them. The big sales in the fall and spring went until midnight.”
However, the industry was in for hard times. When BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or Mad cow disease) appeared in Canada in May of 2003, the economic effect on the beef industry was disastrous. Canadian beef exports were banned and producers were hit hard.
“It devastated everything,” said Firth. “It dropped the price of all the beef and dairy cattle. It dropped them to incredibly low levels. Stockyards work on a commission basis, so when the prices drop – when farmers suffer – we suffer as well. And when they prosper, we prosper.”
Berkelaar did everything he could to support the industry, including providing credit to buyers so that cattle prices could be maintained for local producers.
That sort of generosity and community-mindedness was at the core of how Berkelaar did business, said Prinsen. “I think a lot of it was Frank’s personality,” he said. “He treated everybody the same and everybody got a chance. He’d always say, ‘We’ll work it out.’”
And Berkelaar somehow managed to keep the business afloat. He did so even as other sale barns lost the battle. Today, the business is the only one of its kind east of Quebec City.
“It’s an important business,” said Firth. “It’s the only place where livestock farmers can get true price discovery. That’s what it’s really all about.”
In 2008, when Berkelaar was inducted into the Atlantic Agricultural Hall of Fame, then-provincial agriculture minister Brooke Taylor commended his work.
“Mr. Berkelaar is known and respected throughout North America as a businessman who built a successful market,” said Taylor. “He believes that everyone involved in a sale must have a fair return, and worked hard to ensure this objective.”
That same year Firth took over the business. But the industry was still at a low point. Beef farmers were holding onto their herds and waiting for higher prices. According to Firth, the national herd at that point was at a record high, and it took a long time for culled cows to be brought down to a more manageable level that actually indicated true market conditions.
The turnaround took time. But by 2015, the auction barn was experiencing record prices and national beef exports hit $2.2 billion, the second-highest value since 2002.
Firth came into the business with a bachelor of science degree from the former Nova Scotia Agricultural College and 20 years of experience as an extension specialist. During his tenure as owner and manager of the auction barn, Firth brought in many new innovations, including using technology for better livestock traceability.
He also instigated new policies to help producers keep up with what the market was looking for. “Owning a stockyard is the ultimate extension tool,” said Firth. “I talk to farmers every single week, I’m on their farms, I’m dealing directly with what they’re doing, and I’m able to tell them what they can do to make more money.”
That respect for customers – both buyers and sellers – is something Prinsen said has been at the heart of the auction business since the beginning. “I think they really appreciate their customers,” he said.
Today, the auctions still take place on Thursdays, with special feeder sales throughout the year. The sales these days are driven by auctioneers such as Tony Prinsen, Andy Carter, and new owner Scott Dixon. All classes of cattle pass through the ring – everything from bob calves right up to 2,000-pound bulls. Feeder calves (weaned and ready to be fattened at feedlots) make up a big portion of the business, along with culled dairy and beef cows. Sheep and goats are also bought and sold. Livestock comes in from all over the Maritimes.
Since the very beginning, the business has been about filling a community need – offering a central hub for the commerce of local livestock farming and building community in the process.
“The sale barn has made a significant contribution to agriculture, not just in establishing the market, but also to provide a meeting place for farmers to meet and talk,” said Martha Nettleton, Dr. Brian Nettleton’s widow. “Nowadays one can take a photo of what one has for sale and post it on Facebook or online. I suppose one can text back and forth. But going to the sale barn on a Thursday is still a chance to catch up with friends and socialize with others in the industry.”