Toni Barton is up to her elbows in it in more ways than one.

Key points:

  • Former financier Toni Barton swapped life in New York City for sheep farming in rural Victoria
  • She invented a world-first: lamb bacon, using previously discarded offcuts
  • The product has found success in the Middle Eastern market, but COVID-19 has hampered exports 

It’s the middle of a frosty, bitterly cold night in a damp sheep paddock, where dozens of ewes are in the throes of birthing.

She hasn’t a clue about farming, let alone sheep, but has an entire flock relying on her midwifery skills.

At this junction, she could be forgiven for thinking that trading her Manolo Blahniks for work boots and sheep dung wasn’t such a bright idea.

But fast-forward five years and not only has this former Wall Street financier taught herself to the finer skills of grazing, she’s also turned her astute eye for the share market into a multi-million-dollar invention.

From waste product to world first

The 40-year-old professional traded in her Manhattan life in 2008, purchasing a block of land at Nulla Vale, 100 kilometres from Melbourne, and a flock of specialist sheep after her 96-year-old grandfather spotted some going in the paper.

A woman with a blonde plait, wearing jeans, a blue shirt and a wide-brimmed hat, stands in front of a fence and smiles.

Toni says she would never go back to her old life.(

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“You can imagine how that first phone call went with the breeder to buy some, having no idea about stock or what my farm size [was], the capacity or anything like that,” Ms Barton said.

She set about learning to crutch, shear and birth sheep, and run a farm with some assistance from kindly neighbours.

After she’d got the basics down pat, she was forced to cast a critical eye on the rusted-on practices of some fellow farmers, and realised she didn’t want to go with the flock.

Ms Barton started processing all her own 100 per cent grass-fed meat and sold directly to consumers at markets, wasting nothing.

Sheep stand together in a pen.

Ms Barton taught herself sheep farming from scratch, with some help from her neighbours.(

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It was a profitable move, resulting in three times the value she would have got selling through the normal saleyards.

But another stroke of genius would see her business expand into her territory.

“I said to my butcher when he gave me these long, rib-looking things, ‘What are these?’ and he said, ‘They’re lamb bellies,'” she said.

She was told they were used for nothing but dog food. With her entrepreneurial mind ticking over; she knew with every lamb she was throwing out two to three kilograms of belly.

“It did feel wrong, they were more valuable than that.”

A wooden chopping board with a large knife, pieces of meat and a sprig of rosemary.

The bacon is made from lamb bellies, usually a waste product.(

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She turned to a friend and barbecue master, who started playing around with the cut, curing the meat and turning it from an inedible offcut into lamb bacon.

“The world ‘Lacon’ just slipped out before I’d even thought about it,” Ms Barton said.

Cracking the Middle East

Overnight, the alleged “dog food” would become a cash cow.

It looked like Toni Barton had carved out niche market with an alternative for the pork-averse Islamic palate.

She employed a specialist advisor, Abi Shareef, who helped her to make contacts and crack into the Middle East.

“This market is complicated,” the Egyptian-born trade advisor said. 

“You need to understand the culture. Every day they eat meat; they are so passionate about lamb.”

A trip abroad saw her secure $7 million in orders from Saudi Arabia, including 70 luxury hotels and supermarkets, last February.

But on the return flight, COVID-19 unleashed its mighty hell and a pandemic-sized halt proceeded.

“I had to let my staff go; it was very, very tough,” Ms Barton said.

“There have been times I have been taken to my absolute knees, but giving up would mean giving up … this beautiful relationship with nature.

Two woman sit on the hood of an ATV looking out to the sunset.

Ms Barton’s fledgling business was all but shuttered by the pandemic.(

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Post-pandemic progress

Fast forward 12 months in a factory just outside of Melbourne, Ms Barton is finalising labels and double-checking measures for halal certification, as she prepares a large order for Kuwait.

A woman wearing jeans, a blue shirt, and a hat, holds pliers to a fence wire.

Ms Barton says she’s come a long way since first beginning her farming journey.(

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As the world slowly resumes trade and freight becomes more accessible, she has managed to scrape back some of that business and start exporting again.

Unable to sit idle, she also used the lockdown to develop new products, including pastramis, hams, and more flavours of bacon.

Five years after making the dramatic sea change, she agrees she’s come a long way from newbie farmer.

“I feel like you have to have a sense of purpose when you are doing anything, and I probably didn’t know what that really meant when I was following my corporate career,” she said.

“It gets you out of bed at 5:00am, and it makes you work and makes you figure out everything you need to figure out when you need to do it. And you just never ever give up.”

Watch Movin’ To The Country on ABCTV at 7.30pm on Friday, or stream on iview.

Farmer creates world-first lamb bacon from unwanted offcuts
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