Martock Glen Farm is the kind of operation the small-is-beautiful, eat-local urban set rhapsodizes about.
The rolling hills, apple orchards, and a virtual Noahs Ark of exotic animals at the central Nova Scotia farm make for a picturesque setting. Its a bit like Old MacDonalds farmonly with emus, elk and yaks. That, along with the high quality of its meat, has everyone from trendy Halifax chefs to the local Slow Food chapter singing the praises of Wayne Oulton and his father Mike.
Which is great, but the question is: Does this small-scale, old-fashioned type of farming really pay off?
Wayne Oulton says it does.
We dont pay ourselves too much income, but it makes a living for us and theres an awful lot of perks we get from the farm, he says. And its better than raising 100,000 pigs a year and losing money on every one.
The Old MacDonald era ended long ago when farmers decided you make more money by specializing in one or two things, using the latest technology, and getting bigger. Oulton, and others like him, are working the other side of the ledgergetting paid more by catering to consumers diverse tastes.
The fiscal framework of such operations isnt always easy to see, but Oulton pays close attention to the fundamentals.
First: Have a core business. For the Oultons, thats the meat shop started 29 years ago by Mike. It routinely attracts 200 customers from nearby Windsor and even a few from Halifax, 60 kilometres away, on any given Saturday.
My fathers decision to start the meat shop and cut out the middleman was really critical for us, says Wayne. Store prices dont fluctuate a whole lot, while commodity prices go up and down, sometimes by the hour it seems. So the store allows us to operate on a smaller scale and still make money.
Second: Keep up with the consumer, whose preferences are always changing. Oulton constantly quizzes his customers about what they like in the shop, and whatd they like to see.
You find out a lot when you get it directly from the horses mouth, so to speak, he says. Sometimes the ideas come right out of the blue. Maybe they recently saw a cooking show that featured quail or bison meat, and theyll say to me, You know, Id like to try that.
Third: Diversify. Oulton breaks his operation into three enterprise groupsbeef cattle, sheep, and the 15 species of exotic livestock he raises. Each has to be profitable, which is why Oulton didnt start raising emus until after the initial craze had passed and prices for breeding pairs had come back to earth.
Fourth, fifth, and sixth: Do your homework, start small and see if it works.
I started in quail after restaurants told me they were having trouble getting it, says Oulton. So I tried a few to figure out what my cost of production would be and if I could make money. You pretty well have to sell at the price that other stores are charging, although sometimes you can get a little a bit more because yours is a local product.
Oulton also wants to know who his competitors are.
Before I got into deer, I looked at the market, and it turns out that Canada only produces 20 per cent of the venison it consumes. For beef or pork, its the oppositewe only consume about 20 per cent and export the rest. So it seemed to me there was a market opportunity there.
Sometimes, he gets lucky. After he started raising quail for meat, he found there was a market for quail eggs. Even though a dozen of them are barely enough for a hungry mans omelette, theyre currently a hot item in high-end restaurants and fetch $4 a carton.
Now if the mere mention of $4-a-dozen eggs has you calculating how much you could make if you had few thousand quail hens, youve missed the point here.
If quail eggs go out of style, then therell likely be a special on stewing quail at Oultons Meats. But by then maybe yak meat will be hot again (right now, hes down to one breeding pair). Theres always something coming into fashion.
And dont confuse fashion with fundamentals. The foundation of Martock Glen Farm is a well-thought-out and executed business model, and one that Oulton says is not unique to his farm.
I know several families in our area that are taking an approach that is somewhat the same as what were doing, he says. I know one family that has 10 sows and 50 cows. You can ask, How the heck do they do it? But they do. That family has put three kids through university, so Id say its working.
(Glenn Cheater is editor of the Canadian Farm Manager, the newsletter of the Canadian Farm Business Management Council. The newsletter as well as archived columns from this series can be found in the News Desk section at www.farmcentre.com)