In a world where most transactions are completed electronically, there are still a few businesses that run on a face-to-face conversation and the simplicity of a handshake, one of which is Brussels Livestock (Brussels). The Ontario-based division of Gamble & Rogers Ltd. (Gamble & Rogers) has been helping regional farmers get the most for their livestock in the ever-changing cattle industry since 1953.
“Every customer we work with has a different way they want to be handled – there’s no cookie cutter business here, everything is done on a very personal level,” says Mark Ferraro, new owner of Brussels. “We’re building not only relationships with farmers, but friendships because they’re turning to us with their year’s work and putting trust and confidence in us to do right by them.”
An ever-evolving industry
As Mark quickly realized in assuming ownership, the only constant in the cattle industry is change, but Brussels continues to focus on what’s best for its farmer customers. According to the Beef Farmers of Ontario Association, the province now has an estimated 19,000 beef farmers and the cattle auction stands as a long-running tradition in Ontario.
If there’s anyone who knows the ins and outs of the business its Leonard “Len” Gamble, once owner and now sales manager of Brussels. Len has been a livestock commission agent since 1953, working for the Toronto Stockyards for nearly 38 years under Gamble & Rogers.
“I purchased Brussels in 1990 and just recently sold the company about a year and a half ago,” Len details. “I’ve seen many ups and downs, highs and lows in the industry over the years, but this is the highest cattle market I’ve ever seen.”
According to Len, the few who remain in the business now are making more than ever due to decreased volume and high prices for cattle. “The small farmer has disappeared because land prices in Ontario are so high, ranging from $18,000 to $20,000 an acre,” explains Len. “More has shifted to western Canada, including meat packing. There used to be 65 packing plants, now there are only three or four. About 80 percent of our cattle now go to U.S.-owned packing plants.”
Mark goes on to explain that government regulations have put a considerable strain on the industry. “There’s only about 18 livestock markets left in Ontario,” he continues. “When I was a kid there were maybe 80.” According to Mark, there is a reason for such a decline.
“Producers are nervous to come here with the influx of regulations,” he adds. “We have been working to reach a happy medium between government officials and our customers. The people making the regulations haven’t grown up on a farm – they don’t understand the business.”
Despite red tape and regulations, Mark says Brussels has managed to hold its own in a strengthened cattle market. “There’s a great deal of positivity in what’s left of the farming community,” he reveals. “For many years, farmers were on the depressed side, unhappy with the returns they were seeing on their cattle, but lately the market is doing extremely well and they’re making a good profit.”
Mark says he’s fortunate to have entered the business in such favourable conditions with the well-established relationships Len created over the years. “Len still helps out my sons and I with sales and consulting, working with older customers he’s had for 30 to 40 years,” reveals Mark. “He’s seen it all and so did his father and grandfather before him.”
When Mark took over a little over a year ago, he picked up where Len left off, maintaining current relationships and building new ones with his own connections. “We decided to move our family to Mount Forest to be closer to Brussels,” notes Mark. “You’ve got to go where the business is.”
Today, Brussels employs 20 individuals and the company runs three weekly sales Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. “There are about 170,000-head of cattle that go through here,” adds Len. “We do some specials on Saturdays and Mondays, but the regular schedule keeps us pretty busy.”
Brussels ramps up with extra sales in the spring and fall, also hosting the Huron County Cattlemen’s Vaccinated Calves and Yearling Sales, as well as the Huron County 4H show. “We also show veal calves and lamb,” adds Mark. “Provincially speaking, we’re a mid-sized auction.”
But Mark is looking to expand on Brussels’ current services. “My background is in machinery and sales,” he says. “A couple of times a year, we host a consignment sale. We allow farmers to bring in machinery and equipment they’re no longer using and we sell it for them. Building on this is one of our goals.”
At the end of the day, it’s about doing right by farmers and helping to capitalize on respective investments. Mark recalls a moment that he says makes the long hours he puts in every week worthwhile. “I had a woman come up and thank me; she shook my hand and gave me a hug and said, ‘That’s the most money my husband and I ever got for cattle in our lives,’” recounts Mark. “Now, I can’t take credit for the good market, but I know we do our best to make sure the buyers are here so farmers can get the most for their work.”
In one of the most favourable markets the cattle industry has seen in years, Brussels Livestock continues to support farmers’ interests first.