MARTOCK, NS - A visit to Oulton's Meats and Martock Glen Agri-zoo is almost like taking a trip back in time.
Driving up Sheep Farm Lane - a long, dusty dirt road located off Highway 14 near Martock - a young boy, prod in hand, navigates cattle down the road to the pasture. He nods in your direction, seemingly appreciative that you slowed down.
To the right, ducks flap their wings while enjoying a dip in the nearby pond. A faint whiff of manure tingles the senses.
Farm hands are occupied cutting wood, driving tractors, tending to the animals sunning themselves.
It's a busy spot, buzzing with activity.
Visitors are encouraged to tour the property, exploring the acres of domesticated and exotic animals on site, before stopping by the meat shop to pick up some freshly-cut meat.
The farm truly provides visitors with a 'from farm to table' experience — something that may be a bit jarring for those unfamiliar with how meat ends up in grocery stores.
Blood splatter smears the white smocks hanging off the employees cutting meat near the front counter. Each piece is cut fresh and to order.
“I think there's a huge disconnect now about where our food comes from — whether it's a carrot, an apple or a chicken,” says Wayne Oulton, taking a rare afternoon break from work.
“There's a disconnect on how it's produced, why it's produced and why it's produced in a certain way.”
Meat cutter Greg Cummins, who has been working in the meat shop for about six years, shares a similar belief.
“What you want is always cut fresh. It's not sitting on a shelf, (and you're not) wondering how long it's been on there,” said Cummins.
Cummins said the agri-zoo is a great component for children as they get to see an animal before it winds up on the dinner table – though not every animal at the zoo becomes dinner.
“It's just an experience being on a farm. You can walk around, see how things are done,” said Cummins.
Where it started
Mike and Diane Oulton started the farm in 1963; the meat shop opened in 1979. The farm was primarily a livestock operation, featuring cattle and sheep.
Their children were taught at a young age about farming, husbandry and good stewardship of the land.
Now with children of his own, Wayne Oulton is proud to continue the tradition.
After high school, he attended the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, which is where he met his future wife, Nicole, then went on to Olds College in Alberta. He went on an international agriculture exchange trip to New Zealand and, in the late 1990s, returned to the family-owned farm to work.
“I guess the highlight is now bringing my family into it,” said Oulton. “I work with my wife. I have five kids that are five to 11. They're all somewhat involved or are around the farm continually all day long. That's the rewarding part — seeing them growing up in the same type of lifestyle when I was a kid.”
His brother, Victor, and his family are also involved with the farm.
In 2007, Wayne and Nicole Oulton were named Atlantic Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2008. The press release announcing the honour noted the couple was very active in various agriculture organizations, such as the Sheep Producers of Nova Scotia, the Hants County Agricultural Society and the Federation of Agriculture: Hants County.
“They produce, process and direct market beef, chicken, turkey and other poultry, as well as deer, other exotics, and sheep under the Martock Glen Farms brand. They also manage 40 acres of apple orchard and 500 acres of woodlot. They have actively partnered with the Slow Food Movement and top chefs in the province, who praise their high-quality product,” the press release stated.
The Oultons are also quite involved with the local 4-H movement.
Catering to customers
Hants West MLA Chuck Porter said he's known the family since he was young. His family, which is distantly related to the Oultons, frequently bought meat there when he was growing up. He still picks up the odd item on occasion.
“You hear about less and less farms, less and less interest with farms, but those like Mike and his family, who are life-long farmers, continue to innovate,” said Porter.
“This unique product that he offers... allows him to stay popular in the market if you will. You've got to be thinking outside; you've got to have a niche to be successful.”
And that niche is the ability to cater to a wide variety of clients.
From the restaurant industry, where Oulton's products can be found on menus such as those at the Old Orchard Inn, Domaine de Grand Pre and the Stubborn Goat, to store shelves, like at Pete's Frootique and Noggins Farm Market, the Martock Glen brand is in high demand.
“Customers choose, indirectly, how all food is produced,” Oulton said.
“If you want to purchase the lowest quality stuff, someone has to produce that for that price. I'm not saying you have to buy the highest priced product in the marketplace either, because I don't always think you're getting value for your dollar."
Rather, there is an alternative.
“There is a middle ground there where you can get food value for your dollar but also support the type of agriculture you feel is good, or you feel is good for our environment or is good for the animals that are being produced," he says.
That's where Oulton's is excelling.
The business offers all the standard meat products plus specialized and exotic cuts. It has a growing retail and wholesale business and is a featured product on menus at several high-end restaurants in Halifax and the Valley.
The farm also caters to religious and cultural groups, including offering halal meat, which is a prescribed method of slaughtering animals per Islamic law.
“It comes with changing markets. We're trying to give what the customer wants. We are becoming a more diverse society all the time,” said Oulton.
His father began offering the religious component decades ago, he added.
“We serve a lot of ethnic groups and each one has their own different style of meat that they want. The Muslims, they want it fresh off the floor,” said Cummins, noting people following the Muslim faith don't consume any pork products.
Chinese clients, however, will often request pig feet, ears and stomachs — items Cummins said usually aren't found on many Nova Scotian supper plates.
Cummins estimates about 80 per cent of the customers come from Halifax.
“It's just a whole different world up here,” said Cummins, who is now adept at cutting everything from wild boar to emus.
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“Basically, our philosophy is we want to grow animals the way we feel they should be grown and live out there lives here or on our neighbours' farm. We also purchase a lot of our products from our neighbours now,” said Oulton.
He said the business has grown so much since it first started that it now purchases products from about 50 farmers located within a 30- to 40-kilometre radius. It also employs upwards of 20 people, compared to the handful employed when he was growing up.
The personable farmer says some products are seasonal, as there are multiple rules and regulations that they must adhere to.
“You can't always meet what the market wants all the time because certain things are seasonal... We may not have lamb consistently year-round, even though we try to. It doesn't necessarily happen that way,” said Oulton.
The same applies to free-range chickens, which are produced in the summertime.
“We have a fresh product for a certain portion of the year and then a frozen product for the rest of the year.”
In addition to the meat store, the working farm has two provincially-inspected abattoirs.
Oulton, who has an interest in all animals, said the government required the farm to become an agri-zoo as the business houses such a variety of exotic animals. The most exotic are the zebras and the lemurs, but the agri-zoo also has kangaroos, monkeys, wild boars, yaks and a host of birds.
“Not all animals that we have here end up being processed,” said Oulton.
“I just have an interest in any type of animal, whether it's domesticated or undomesticated.”
The agri-zoo raises some animals that go on to live in zoos.
“And then we raise another group of exotic animals that are for our meat store — elk, yak, wild boar, emus, llamas,” said Oulton.
His favourite exotic animal to eat is a kangaroo.
Consumers, now more than ever, have the power to dictate how animals are raised and killed, and what businesses they choose to support, Oulton said.
He said he hopes the family business can continue well into the future. It's a sentiment the local MLA also shared.
“It's a long day (working on a farm),” said Porter. “Those guys work hard and it's great to see them being successful. I wish them well for many, many years to come.”
If you go
What: Oulton's Meat Shop and Martock Glen Agri-zoo
Where: 5246 Highway 14, Sheep Farm Lane
When: The farm and meat shop is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. They are closed Sundays as that is reserved for family time.
Contact: For meat shop inquiries, call 902-798-4734. For general inquiries, visit their Facebook page, which is listed as Oulton's Meats and the home of Martock Glen Farm & Agrizoo.