In 2008, Toni Barton was a 30-something year-old, high-powered marketing executive working on Wall Street, New York. Today, she’s a 40-something year-old sheep farmer from central Victoria making small goods products from her high-quality, grass fed lambs. It’s a life she wouldn’t change for anything.
In many respects, Toni’s two careers and lifestyles could be more different. Her 17-year career in financial services marketing, which saw her managing entire company divisions and eventually working on Wall Street taught her a lot. But the global financial crisis and collapse of several international companies took its toll and caused her to re-think her life.
“There were announcements that major financial houses were folding, and one day it was announced that AIG [American Insurance Group] had requested a $9 billion bail out from the US government,” she says. “I remember running down Wall Street in my stilletos away from Wall Street Journal journalists who were asking for comment. At that point I thought: ‘now might be a good time to head home.’”
On her return to Australia, Toni took on a marketing role at Family Business Australia, but she craved a different kind of lifestyle.
Her focus became moving to a country town where she could still commute to the city for work, but “relax with a glass of wine by the open fire on the weekends”. She also wanted to learn how to grow her own food. Initially she wanted around five acres, a property size she thought was manageable for a single woman.
“So yeah, I ended up with 200 acres!” she jokes. “I realised quickly that it was a farm and I needed to utilise the land in the way it was intended. I made the decision that I was the custodian of this piece of earth, and that I needed to leave it in a better condition than what I acquired it.”
Soon after acquiring her property, Toni’s elderly grandfather called her and told her about a breeder of Australian White Wagyu lambs in NSW, Graham Gilmore. He had read about Graham in a Weekly Times article and suggested she call him.
“I called Graham from my sports car on St Kilda Road [Melbourne] and he asked how much I knew about sheep. I responded by saying: ‘well I know I like to eat them?,” she said. “I swear at that point I heard the palm of his hand slap his forehead.”
Despite his misgivings, Graham agreed to send 40 impregnated ewes to Toni’s property that were due to lamb within the month. She was forced to learn quickly, and that involved having sheep “pre-natal, post-natal, birthing suite and special care units” set up at her farm in a very short period of time. “There was literally stuff everywhere…chaos!”
Initially, many local farmers were disparaging of Toni’s efforts, telling her she would be bankrupt in less than five years. Toni agrees that if she was competing on a purely price strategy, she would be “dead in the water”. However, she knows to be profitable and sustainable, her product must be priced at three times the value of regular lambs.
“For me, everything is about the animals. If I don’t attend your wedding, it is because I am dealing with an animal welfare issue. It is up to me to ensure they have a good, healthy life,” she says. “It is never just about profit, it is about caring properly for my animals.”
The idea for her unique product, Lamb Bacon, came during a cooking master class she hosted at her property. A local butcher was showing guests how to cut up a lamb carcass and as he picked up the lamb’s flank, he commented: “if it were a pig, this part would become bacon”
“It was a lightbulb moment for me. I yelled out: “you mean ‘lacon?’ I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t wait to see if we could create bacon with our lamb.”.
She sent a flank home that night with a man who knew how to smoke bacon. He retuned soon after with the lamb bacon, which she “instantly fell in love with”.
For the past few years Toni has been selling her products, at farmers’ markets throughout Victoria, high end restaurants, and through her website. In December 2019, the business had a breakthrough when it launched in the Middle East. Toni’s products are halal certified and in high demand in middle eastern countries.
In February she went on a trade mission with the Victorian Government to the Middle East and secured lucrative deals with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qutar and Dubai. The growth would have helped her reinvest in her business and employ her staff fulltime. But within days of her return, Middle Eastern borders closed and the international export business was brought to its knees.
While Terri says she never allow felt sorry for herself, she was disappointed that she was ineligible for any government assistance, such as Job Keeper, as all her staff were emplolyed on a casual basis. Ironically, if the business she had secured in the Middle East had eventuated, she would have received assistance.
“All my overheads basically stayed the same. I still had bills to pay, animals to care for and a farm to run, irrespective of what was happening with the pandemic.”
Toni made a choice during the first Victorian lockdown to invest time and money into product development. In doing so, she created five new products to take to the Middle Eastern market when restrictions ease.
“Before COVID-19 I had one product, now I have seven,” she says. “I had to have something that would get me out of the gate during this time. You can either put your head in the sand and wish for it to go away, or make changes to the way you do things.”
The international aspirations of Toni’s business might change its profitability, but it won’t change its core values, she says. For instance, irrespective or her businesses size, she would always like to have a presence at farmers’markets.
“I started this farm to feed myself, and as it expanded I fed more and more people with my beautiful grass-fed, chemical free lamb. Now I know we feed approximately 1,000 families a week, and that to me is the greatest honour,” she said. “To me that is worth more amount of value than any amount of money could provide.”