AS far as she is aware, Toni Barton is the first person in Australia – and most probably the world – to produce lamb bacon.
Made using belly flaps, the meat is cured, smoked, packaged and eaten – just the same as a traditional piece of bacon.
The difference, however, is that lamb bacon contains no pork – and therein lies the success of Toni’s whirlwind rise to the top of agricultural entrepreneurs.
Now, Toni is at the tip of a potential $2 million iceberg, with her product, LamBacon, recently contracted to supply 1500 supermarkets nationwide.
It has been a whirlwind ride, especially considering that five years ago Toni was like every other urbanite; raised on a dairy farm, she swore the rural life was not for her.
High heels, executive meetings and leadership were part of everyday working in financial services in Manhattan.
Now, Toni is more comfortable in work stained jeans and RM Williams.
“I was on Wall Street when the Global Financial Crisis hit,” she said.
“I saw a lot of things that made me question my sense of purpose.
“Ultimately, I was working for a company that contributed to people’s loss – I didn’t want to do that anymore, I wanted to be a part of something I was proud of.”
Returning to Australia, Toni sought solace in the great outdoors, deciding that a few acres were exactly what was in order.
“I wanted to buy five acres; I wanted a patch of land to grow veggies and live that wholesome kind of life people talk about,” she said.
Instead, her eye was caught by 200 hectares in Nulla Vale, just outside of Lancefield.
“I loved it – but I thought if I’m going to quit my job, I need to be doing something that makes it viable – so I bought 40 Australian White ewes – the Wagyu of sheep – and took the plunge.”
Although she jokes about knowing nothing about sheep in the beginning, Toni has always known that for any farm to survive, it takes work.
Watching her mother and father rise for milking at 4am each day taught her more than how to make a good cup of coffee – it taught her perseverance is best matched with knowledge.
So Toni threw herself into her business, For the love of Lamb.
She spent years learning about healthy soils, rotational grazing and animal husbandry.
She spent months working in a butcher’s room, learning how to process and pack a carcass.
She spent weeks working with her neighbours, watching the way they drafted, handled and raised sheep.
And she spent hours developing a brand that would appeal to the consumer.
“I knew I needed to establish a relationship with my customers; farmers markets are perfect for that,” Toni said.
“For the love of Lamb is a consumer direct model – because my farm is small, I have to make it work harder to meet the investment requirements.
“People want to know where their food comes from, what the story is behind it – there are a lot of consumers who want to know their farmer, but not a lot of farmers who want to know their consumer.”
Able to control the price, the quality and the distribution, Toni was soon processing 45 lambs and selling across nine markets a month.
“That was the beginning of LamBacon – I was, and still am, selling fresh lamb meat at the markets, but I always had left over flaps and belly,” Toni said.
“I’m responsible for the use of the whole carcase, and I was feeding these left-overs to the dogs, which was a waste of my money and my product.”
A chance meeting with American barbecue master, Jon Bell, saw Toni’s first batch of smoked lamb belly – aka LamBacon – produced.
“I took five kilos to my first market, and it sold out, so then I took 10 kilos, then 25,” she said.
That was 18 months ago.
Now, Toni is curing 100 kilos of LamBacon a week, while still visiting farmers markets with For the love of Lamb.
Her rise to success has been swift – in February this year, the Victorian Government sent her to Dubai as part of a trade mission delegation, and last month she was invited to speak at the Telstra Women in Ag Farmworld luncheon.
It has been, to put it lightly, frenetic.
It took five phone calls from the Southern Farmer to catch Toni at a still moment.
First, she was pulling twin lambs, then curing a surprise order, mustering a mob that had broken through a fence and finally, washing down her meat room.
A woman alone on a farm brings to mind images of McLeod’s Daughters, but the reality is somewhat different.
Toni is busy, from the moment she wakes until she finally falls into bed.
“There’s a lot going on, always,” she said.
“There have been times when I’m in tears, convinced I can’t do it all.
“But then I get up, and I do – because when you are a farmer on your own, there’s no choice.”
Although she is running both companies herself, Toni is quick to point out that her success would not have been possible without help.
From her family, who would always listen and be supportive, to the neighbours – who now have a supplier agreement with Toni to help meet her required quota of 500 wethers a year.
“I turned up in this community, and I didn’t know anything about being a sheep farmer – but my neighbour, the Patersons, who are fifth generation farmers, were only too happy to help; they talked about the grass, the weather, the way things grow, business ideas, fixing machinery; mostly sage advice over a glass of wine or two.”
At the end of the day, from New York to Nulla Vale, Toni has found her place in a small town, curing a product Australia can’t get enough of.
“That’s why I’m here, really,” she said.
“Because this is the kind of community that’s nice to belong to, and because I can be a full time farmer on my own, and know that there is always someone who is willing to help if I get stuck.”