Lambtastic Farms: Giving Alberta lamb a household name
Anyone who pays close attention to menus at finer dining restaurants in Calgary has probably seen the words “Lambtastic Farms” listed next to a lamb chop dish or two. The Vulcan, Alberta-based farm has become a bit of a superstar over the years, creating a farm-to-table product that rivals some of the ranch-specific beef brands as far as recognizability goes. Beef may still rule in Alberta, but Lambtastic’s Ray and Nancy Nolan are slowly converting discerning Alberta meat-eaters into loyal lamb lovers.
Even though they’re partners in both business and life, Ray and Nancy didn’t meet in the world of agriculture — the couple both left their respective childhood homes in Ireland and Alberta to take on the world of fine dining. After completing professional cooking programs, they both ended up in London, cooking at the very prestigious Dorchester Hotel.
Eventually the Nolans decided they wanted to settle down and have a family — not something that’s particularly conducive to restaurant life — and since both had grown up in farming families, raising food seemed like a viable option. Their experiences in the world of fine dining had highlighted the restaurant industry’s demand for high-quality farm-fresh food.
Since Ray has an older brother running his family farm, setting up shop in Ireland wasn’t an option. Luckily, Nancy’s parents were preparing to step back from their own farming operation, so the pair headed to Vulcan and set up Lambtastic Farms in 2012. Nancy’s family spent their lives raising beef and grain, but Ray’s livestock background was in sheep and lamb, so he had a pretty good handle on those animals. The Nolans also saw a gap in the market when it came to the direct market farming of Alberta lamb, and liked the lifestyle that lamb production could offer them.
“Lamb is something that I've always liked,” Ray says. “Especially with a young family, it’s a little easier to manage with kids around. You’re not having your kids out there getting mowed down by a cow.”
Both Nolans knew that they wanted to raise their lambs ethically and hormone-free, to feed them healthy food, and to process them at the optimal age to create a product that local chefs would clamour to get into their kitchens. By buying directly from the farm, restaurants know that they’ll get consistently high-quality meat, while still supporting a local business and giving customers a legitimate farm-to-table experience. Calgary restaurants like Yellow Door Bistro, River Cafe, The Guild, and many others have all been customers, and the Nolans are happy to be the top choice of some very respected chefs. They hope that those chefs’ skills will inspire diners who may not always reach for lamb in their home kitchens.
“Chefs were crying out for local beef, so why not local lamb?” Ray says. “Restaurants were our go-to in the beginning. We didn't really do much retail at the start because we wanted to be the number one supplier for restaurants. It was a big goal of ours to get into higher end restaurants and make our name that way.”
That Lambtastic name was well established going into the pandemic. But restaurant activity has obviously slowed over the last few years, so Lambtastic is keen to become a known quantity with home cooks as well. Since many Albertans didn’t grow up eating lamb in the same way they do beef (or worse, have been put off sheep completely thanks to poorly prepared mutton), the Nolans try to make things easy for customers by providing recipes on their website and also offer easy-to-use products like lamb sausages, lamb burgers, and pre-made lamb ravioli, as well as fully cooked braised lamb shanks and lamb jerky for customers who might not be quite ready to invest in and cook up a rack of lamb or a full leg of lamb. Once those customers are hooked, Lambtastic can sell them anything from lamb neck to entire lambs broken down into individual cuts.
“We’ve tried to make it more approachable,” Ray says. “Not everybody wants a rack of lamb. Our sausages are more approachable. Getting my kids to eat lamb is probably tougher than it should be, but if we cook the ravioli the kids are eating all of it.”
While federal regulations make it tricky for small farms to get their meat into major grocery chains, Lambtastic’s meat is available in some independent grocery stores and through services like Spud, True Local, and Best of Calgary Foods. Most importantly though, the farm sells directly through its lambtasticfarms.com website and delivers to urban centres all over Alberta.
“We’ve really made it easier for people to eat lamb,” Ray says. “Really, that’s all we want: for more people in Alberta to eat lamb.”