He’s “that guy” You know “the lamb guy”…

He’s “that guy”.

You know, “the lamb guy”.

Image courtesy Wood’n’Hart’s Twitter.

Most people don’t know Bill Wood’s name, but they sure know him and his wares. Wood has been a staple at the old Halifax Farmer’s Market on Hollis Street for almost twenty years. People know him by his smile as much as they know him by his produce. His farm, Wood’n’Hart produces some of the most acclaimed lamb in Nova Scotia. His client list includes Fid, Chives, The Wooden Monkey and Brooklyn Warehouse. Passable sat down with Bill to talk about how he got into farming, selling cuts that “nobody wanted”, how lamb has changed, and what he’s up to these days.

How did you get into farming?

I grew up on a dairy farm in Ontario and my family have been dairy farmers since 1710, when my family came to Ontario. Neighbours of ours had sheep, they ran 800 ewes. I always liked seeing the sheep in the field. In 1966, I was in 4-H and I bought five sheep that I got from out west. They ran in a straw bar for the winter, ate their way through it, and in 1967, I showed sheep at the Royal Winter Fair.

I moved [to Nova Scotia] in 1988.

Why did you move here?

My wife is from here, but I had been here ten years before that working for a company and I fell in love with the province then. I would’ve moved then, but the ex-wife wouldn’t move then. But I got here, one way or another. (laughs)

Where does the name Wood’N’Hart come from?

My last name is Wood and my wife’s maiden name was Hartland, so we just shortened up.

What are some of the issues and pitfalls around rearing sheep?

Everybody thinks you can just throw them outside and they’ll look after themselves, but they’re just like a dairy cow – as long as they have lots to eat, good feed, they basically will. But when you don’t have feed for them, they’ll get out and get sick. As long as they’re well cared for, you won’t have too many problems.

What do you feed them?

They get whole corn, whole oats, little bit of bran and I’m in the process of getting dried distillers grain and hay. This year we’re starting into silage.

How do you think silage will affect your product?

There should be no difference. There is a young lad up from us that feeds it to his sheep, and his lambs have been no difference in taste, and they’ll be cheaper to feed, because I will be able to feed them 3 pounds of haylage, and 1 pound of grain to equal the grain.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Why did you decide to stay at the site of the old Halifax Farmers Market and not move to the Seaport Market?*

I went to some financial planners and I showed them all the information we had been given and they looked at it and they did some figurin’ and they said don’t touch it because it would cost me double to go down to the new ones and it could cost me triple in a couple years. There’s no point getting’ in a hole you can’t get out of when you’re 60.

And I’ve only lost maybe 3 customers. And I think I’ll see them back, but I’ve [also] gained other customers. And [so far] there’s no one at the new one with fresh lamb. No, there’s a couple of frozen. Basically, everyone wants fresh, they don’t want frozen, and I don’t blame them. I don’t like mine frozen.

So how’s it been for you business wise ?

We’re at the same volume at this time last year. They only thing I am down in sales is pepperoni and sausages. But the rest of the restaurants have come in and chipped in and helped me make a go of it. Places like Local Source are carrying some of our products.

How did you develop these relationships with all these chefs across the city?

(Laughs) I don’t know.

They just came to you?

Basically. Dennis [Johnston from Fid] came to me, and he asked me if I could supply him, and I said no. But I could’ve, but I didn’t feel confident enough at the time. And then five years ago when the hype started about the market moving, business started picking up. Dennis and then Michael Smith started buying shanks from me, and then slowly from there, it started picking up. I soon started to become more confident about what I’m doing. One day, Craig [Flinn] from Chives came by and told me he wished other people would line stuff up in the showcase like I did. People like that telling you things like that and people stopping to talk. It makes you feel good about what you do.

Have people come up to you and told you that they’ve had your products in restaurants?

Yeah, and they’ve always been happy.

How many products do you sell?

I have about twenty different things., with all the cuts. The chops, the legs, cut into different ways smoked like hams,, jerky, pepperoni, two different kinds of sausages, and meat pies from Local source and stew and the ground. It’s funny you know, the cuts that nobody else can sell are the cuts that I can sell. Like Craig takes the boned shoulders, and he’s won awards with them. It’s a cut that nobody wanted at one time and now people are thinking about it. Lamb now is different then when our parents ate it.

How so?

It gets more grain and is more tender and it’s hung longer. And I think that is the one secret that has made us successful. We have for seven to ten days and it breaks down the enzymes and the meat really gets tender.

Really? Do you get a lot of people asking for mutton?

Very few. Every once in the while I’ll get somebody ask for some, but I myself, try do to one mutton a year for ourselves, and it’ll hang for three weeks, and then we’ll cut it up. It’ll just about start to smell, but then the meat has broken down. You can basically cut it up with a fork. There is a restaurant in Georgia that sells about 40 tonne of mutton a year. It’s just open for dinner or supper and it’s a waiting line to get in every day.

So if I wanted to buy mutton, how easy would it be?

I could probably have it in a couple weeks. I’ve thought about carrying mutton, but it’s another one of those things that I don’t have time for. *laughs *

You mentioned selling various cuts of lamb. How did you start selling lamb belly?

Renée Lavalée. She come to us a year ago this past May, she was doing a meal at Sugar Moon, and she wanted to do something different and she just said, “Is there such a thing as lamb belly?”. So I went home and asked my wife to look it up on the computer, so she spent four hours that Saturday night and she came back with a whole list of stuff, and that’s how we started the bellies and bacon.

How is it selling?

It goes up down, both of them. Jane’s On The Common, they like it on salads.

What’s the strangest ingredient that people have asked for?

(laughs). The heads, with the brains, but we can’t do that by regulations. But that basically. We can sell the head, but not the brains. Testicles. That’s the strangest one (laughs).

Has anyone ever asked for the tails?

No, I’ve never had anyone ask for that. There’s a Persian variety that is prized for the fat in the tail. They kill the lambs real young if I remember correctly.

When you cook lamb, how do you cook it?

We normally do a shoulder roast, we cook it at 325 for about 30 minutes a pound. Sometimes we’ll put a little bit of cheap apricot jam on it. That’s it. Maurizio [from Il Mercato] I’ve been told uses the juice from canned corn.

What do you want people to know about the joys of cooking and eating lamb ?

It doesn’t have that woolly taste from years ago that people remember, like in the war. Then, they would just kill and cook it. Then you got the taste of the wool from when their hands touched the wool, so I think it’s more in people’s minds.

If someone shows up at your counter and says, “I’ve never cooked lamb”, what are you going to suggest to them?

Normally, I suggest a boneless shoulder. It’s just a nice, simple meal. The shoulders are a pound and a half, two pounds, so it’s a nice meal for two people. They are a little bit bigger sometimes, so maybe for three or four people, but I suggest that to start off with, more than anything else. People need to remember that you cook you need to cook it slow. Sure, there are chefs who know how to cook it fast, but they know what they’re doing.

How much longer do you plan on doing this?

Till I die. I don’t wanna give up. I’m gonna see about getting woofers this coming year, and go that way, and I think my son will come home and do a little bit of tractor driving for me, just do a little help doing the little things. There aren’t a lot of retired guys up in our way who want to work.

I grew up north of Toronto, and up there, guys who do a lot of farming read the death notices to get land to rent. They’re paying three to four hundred dollars an acre, just to rent it every year, to grow corn and soybeans. The guys that wanna farm, farm, and the ones that retire, there is always someone there to take their land. And there are young lads starting but…

They need people like you to tell them how to do it.

But agriculture has changed, you can’t do things the way it was. There was never a living in beef cattle in Ontario, or here. The old guys here who had beef cattle always went to the woods in the wintertime and sold firewood, logs or whatever. And people don’t realise that nowadays. They think that they’re in a commodity and that the commodity is going to pay their way, but it’s not there.

You can find Bill at the Historic Halifax Famer’s Market at 1496 Lower Water Street. He’s there every saturday, from 7 until a little bit past noon.  You can also call 902.657.3703. You can also find him on Twitter

* Bill was one of many vendors who decided to stay exclusively at the Historic Halifax Farmers Market.  He even commented about it on this blog in an article we published about the new market in August of last year. You’ll find his comments at the bottom of the article.