Hands down, there’s no business David Saretsky would rather be in than the beef business and there’s nobody in the beef business he admires more than his father, Tony. However, the dream of following in his father’s footsteps hasn’t blinded him to new opportunities as the family business, Cantriex Livestock International, evolves through changing times.
“Ever since I was a kid I always wanted to be like Dad,” Saretsky says. “I went with him looking at cattle, meeting people, loading trucks, worked in our feedlot, calved cows and at 17 was a buyer under Dad’s licence. I didn’t realize it at the time but learning from such a wide and diverse range of experiences was a huge advantage to ensure my career in the industry.”
There was a bleak span when Saretsky did have second thoughts about his future in the beef business. He was studying economics at Lethbridge University in 2003 when the Canadian industry was sideswiped by the discovery of BSE in Canada.
“I saw my father’s life work go down the drain. His business that had exported more than 200,000 head of cattle per year for almost two decades and his own cattle inventory instantly crumbled. I knew right then that I’d never be able to rebuild the business my father had because times had changed,” he says.
The family stayed the course raising cattle on the farm located between Ponoka and Lacombe, Alta., order buying and negotiating price and basis contracts for clients in the domestic market. Over time, Cantriex regained traction in export markets and had success in Russia and Kazakhstan exporting live cattle, semen and embryos, but shipping cattle globally has been difficult in recent years of record-high domestic cattle prices.
Contacts made through business relationships along the way led from his start in sourcing natural cattle for two of Canada’s largest natural beef brands to his current position as director of cattle operations for One Earth Farms, sourcing and managing natural and organic cattle exclusively for the company.
To be honest, he says he wasn’t even sure exactly what natural cattle were in 2009, when Alberta-based Heritage Angus Beef (HAB) approached one of Cantriex’s longtime clients, William Hofer at Pine Haven Colony, Wetaskiwin, Alta., about getting involved with the HAB value chain. Soon Saretsky was sourcing natural calves for a second HAB producer, Jason Hagel of Swalwell, Alta., as well as feedlots associated with other natural and organic programs. Today, Cantriex is one of the HAB ranch families and recently switched from cow-calf to grassing yearlings for One Earth.
Mike Beretta of Beretta Farms near Toronto was next to approach Sartesky about finding western cattle for the farm’s organic and natural foods value chain. Around the same time, One Earth called about buying cows and marketing natural calves from its program.
As Saretsky’s story unfolds, One Earth launched in 2009 by Sprott Natural Resources investment company headquartered at Toronto, acquired Beretta Farms in February, 2013. Under Mike Beretta’s leadership as CEO, One Earth dissolved its cropping division on the Prairies and changed its strategy from becoming “Canada’s largest, most efficient operating farm” to becoming a “fully integrated farm-to-fork company with the goal of creating value through healthy food experiences.”
Looking for a brand presence in Western Canada, One Earth has since acquired Chinook Organics/Diamond Willow Organics, Heritage Angus Beef (HAB) as well as Canadian Premium Meats at Lacombe, Alta., which custom processes beef for both brands.
Canadian Premium Meats is a federally registered, European Union-approved custom meat-packing, -processing and -packaging plant that has been third-party certified to organic and halal standards. Saretsky says it was important to acquire both Heritage Angus and Canadian Premium at the same time in the November 2014 deal because Heritage cattle account for half the plant’s volume and 100 per cent of its beef export sales carry the Heritage Angus brand.
With the purchase of these three entities, he says, One Earth has become the largest vertically integrated, natural beef program in Canada involving 9,000 cows on former Diamond Willow and HAB partnering ranches in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario and upwards of 20,000 calves raised under certified natural protocols each year. The calves are finished at several Alberta feedlots including Cattleland Feedyards at Strathmore, which has developed expertise in finishing natural cattle.
“Natural beef is still a niche market, but it’s been growing for the past five or six years and will continue to grow,” Sartesky says. “Now you’ll see a portion of beef counters with natural and organic beef even in smaller communities. It’s not big numbers like commodity cattle, but natural cattle are more challenging to source and it takes more time and attention to detail.”
In his position with One Earth he has had the privilege of escorting high-profile tour groups and customers from Canada, Europe, China and elsewhere through the associated ranches and feedlots to meet the families that produce their beef.
“As a beef producer, it’s personally rewarding to see families whether it’s at a restaurant or buying beef at retail, enjoying the food you produced,” he adds.
The same month that One Earth was closing its natural beef merger, the Saretskys purchased the Stockman’s Assistance Corp. of Saskatoon from Bob and Marj Blacklock. The company finances cattle purchases for clients across Western Canada.
“We (were) grateful for their offer because it was quite an opportunity with such a strong portfolio,” says Saretsky.
David is managing director, Tony is president and David’s brother Phil has already doubled the size of the portfolio since taking over the administration of the program.
“Phil has a good understanding of the program and customers’ needs and has been able to solve some issues for clients. It has been very rewarding to have a part in helping clients grow their operations and has opened other doors for us because we are always meeting new people,” says Saretsky.
“I’ve been able to work with so many good people along the way and they’ve all been my mentors. It’s a great learning experience just to see how others manage through certain situations. There’s always something to take away.”