What was a Kelpie’s prized lamb dinner turned into a winning product for Nulla Vale lamb farmer Toni Barton. This enterprising creator of Lamb Bacon displays all the attributes of a typical entrepreneur. Some would say she is driven. Ideas are explored, problems solved, and opportunities taken. At the core of it all is Toni’s deliberate life-choice, to trade in an international marketing career for that of a hands-on farmer producing good quality meat.
Mondays aren’t Toni’s favourite day. She has a load of lambs to deliver to the abattoir. This is a task that she personally undertakes each week.
‘I take animal welfare seriously and have developed a good relationship with the abattoir in Kyneton,’ she explains. ‘Hardwicks are very good in supporting small producers.’
Another day she didn’t enjoy was discovering twenty dead and injured sheep in the paddock following a dog attack.
‘It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life,’ she confides.
Welcome to the life of a farmer.
After a lot of soul searching, in 2016 Toni gave up her international lifestyle in corporate marketing to reinvent herself as a farmer. In preparation for the transition, she had purchased 60 hectares of prime grazing land at Nulla Vale near Lancefield and converted three big paddocks into 15 smaller ones for rotational grazing. She set it up as a three-tiered business – breeding and selling Australian White stud rams, producing lambs, and selling lamb meat products.
In her first year she processed 16 lambs for meat which was sold to family and friends. The following year it was 30 lambs. Four years on as a full-time farmer, she is processing 600 lambs annually with a profit of over $200 per lamb sold through customer centric distribution channels including online and Farmer’s Markets.
Such has the demand grown for her meat that she is now collaborating with four select sheep farmers who have taken on her breeding rams and share the same farming ethics of grass fed and animal husbandry.
‘One hundred percent grass fed and no chemicals,’ Toni explains. As a result, she has regular cutting and mulching of the paddocks on her long list of chores.
She also makes a point of paying premium prices to her fellow farmers, so they can maintain their sustainable farming practices and avoid the pressures of mass production and grain feeding regimes.
But it was her creation of the iconic Lamb Bacon in 2016 that really put Toni in the public eye, drawing close scrutiny from the Prime Safe authority and, just recently, winning her The Weekly Times Shine Award.
It was a classic problem-solving initiative that resulted in the creation of Lamb Bacon. Toni was perpetually annoyed by the fact that the lamb bellies were not being used. ‘Every Sunday I used to give kilos and kilos of lamb bellies to my neighbours to feed to their kelpies.’
On long road trips she would constantly challenge her brain to think of something new. And she did.
Who would have thought that bacon could be made from anything but pork? Experiments with her American friend and BBQ Pitmaster, Jon, meant that she could road test flavour profiles and cooking techniques.
‘As soon as I tasted it, I knew I was on to something,’ Toni smiles. Samples were shared with regular customers and some high-profile chefs readily endorsed it as a great alternate to traditional bacon made from pork bellies.
Toni fully understood her obligations of food safety and microbiological testing to ensure her duty of care to consumers, but with a new innovative product hitting the market there are many negative attitudes encountered.
‘If I had a dollar for the number of times I’ve heard: “You can’t do that!”
Top of the hurdle list would have to be a sudden directive from the Prime Safe, which regulates Australia’s meat industry, to immediately shut down production and recall all her Lamb Bacon products from sale.
‘I just sat in the paddock in total disbelief,’ Toni admits. She immediately rang her smokehouse instructing them to stop production but the ramifications of recalling hundreds of products already on supermarket shelves was catastrophic.
Moving into problem solving mode, Toni fought back the emotion and focussed on the process. Overnight she read through the Food Standards Act and researched the topic globally. She was able to determine that no one species, ie. pork, was defined as bacon in Australia. In the early hours of the morning she sent a carefully composed email to Prime Safe outlining all of her findings. Much to her relief, a phone call from Prime Safe a few hours later reversed their decision and congratulated Toni on her initiative.
A big part of Toni’s role has been to educate regulators that it is possible to innovate
‘I made sure that alternate bacon options were approved by Prime Safe for the benefit of others in the future, including duck bacon and beef bacon.’ She also ensured that the Australian Meat Industry Council was made aware of the findings. ‘This is the challenge of food innovation, it’s so rare that you are constantly fighting an uphill battle to get the product accepted by industry and regulators.’
Transferring her skills to farming and food production has required considerable research.
An intensive 14 week accelerator program enabled her to become more strategic. As part of her start-up process she set up an advisory board of skilled and experienced professionals to offer her valuable guidance.
Her marketing skills allowed her to set up a website to sell direct to the public and social media to publicise her products. Recruiting quality staff and paying attention to detail have also been crucial.
‘People buy with their eyes so all my products need to be well presented, from the labelling to the pricing. Customers need certainty and it takes at least a year and lots of investment to develop a business and brand profile.’
All Toni’s skills have come to the fore in 2019 as she launches a new enterprise – Barton’s Smallgoods - to export new products to the Middle East and Asia. Rebranding was required in 48 hours as she prepared to fly to Dubai in February to participate in the Worlds largest food conference, Gulfood, as part of the Victorian Government’s Trade Mission. Currently she is commissioning a new smokehouse and packing facility in Geelong, as well as employing staff to run the export business. Already there are considerable orders with shipments scheduled to commence in late April.
‘You don’t plan to be an entrepreneur,’ she reflects. ‘I feel like everything I’ve done in my life has brought me to this moment.’
Toni admits that it can be lonely at times, but so far she has resisted taking on a business partner or a commercial loan. Her number one supporter until her death last year was her mum. She is particularly grateful to her dad who is called upon to do important jobs around the farm and neighbours who are always willing to help out. A Producer Led Innovation grant from Meat & Livestock Australia is providing valuable assistance to research and develop her new export business in return for sharing the outcomes with other red meat producers.
Her days are long and there are multiple decisions to be made while still taking care of the farm.
Until her export enterprise is up and running, Toni doesn’t have any time to work in her vegetable garden or enjoy her sweeping views overlooking Mt William. But she is confident that her efforts will soon be rewarded, and she will be back where she most loves to be.
‘This is why I started and where I want to stay. I want to grow food and give people access to good quality meat.’
READ the second part of this article on Toni’s preparing for export experiences.
KERRY ANDERSON: Founder of the Operation Next Gen program and author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. In 2018 she was named as one of Australia’s Top 50 Regional Agents of Change. READ MORE