Topsy Farms of Amherst Island By Joanne Cooney

Published March 1, 2019

Joanne Cooney

After a quick ferry ride over to Amherst Island, on Lake Ontario, 10km West of Kingston, and a little drive down some country roads you just look for the signs for “The Wool Shed”.

“Topsy Farms” has been in a constant state of growth and evolution since its original inception in Dec 1971 when it originally started as a commune. Like all good farming stories, they never start as planned and they never go where expected.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sally Bowen, (one of the original founders,) who, now in her 70’s, still plays a critical role in the day to day operations and future planning of the Topsy Farm story.  Sally is quick to give credit to her family and team who are out there day-to-day making the magic happen.  Her husband, Ian Murray, who is 75 is still working 10-hour days, 7 days a week. Sally says, “It’s a family plus two friends operation”.   Their youngest son, Kyle, has recently become the new shepherd to their flock of (almost 1,000) sheep because their previous shepherd, Christopher Kennedy, with over 45 years’ experience with them, finally decided to retire and pass the flock over.

After a few years the farm transitioned from cows and sheep to just sheep. The Topsy Farm sheep are always on pasture, as their farming philosophy is based on permaculture.  They respect the land, the flow of the water, the quality of the soil, the needs of the animals and they learn from it.  Their philosophy is to work with land rather than impose a theory on it.

As an example, in the wintertime, they will unroll a hay bale where the sheep are. The sheep line up along the hay strip to eat.  The sheep’s manure is then naturally spread, and the hay is eaten fresh every day from the core of the bale. The earth worms and microorganisms in the soil are fed as well and come springtime, the grass is greener along the strip where the hay bale was spread from the micro nutrients from sheep manure.

The animals at Topsy Farms live outdoors year-round and are provided with wind shelter and a barn they can go to if they wish. Topsy Farm has always had a very open-door policy for the public since the start and has never had a complaint.

As farming and consumer habits and technology change, so must the farmer.  Topsy Farms is jumping on board with the new trends of eco-tourism.  The future of Topsy Farms, led by Sally and Ian’s other son Jacob, is to gradually transition from a sheep farm with a few activities to an outdoor environmentally focused education experience, that is also a sheep farm. Their daughter Leah is hugely involved in leading the accounting and office into the 21st century.

For example, for the past 6-7 years they have invited people to come nurture baby lambs. All their lambs are born in the pasture, but they will bring in the weakest and smallest lambs for bottle feeding and invite the public to assist in caring for them.  It’s both therapeutic for people, with the Topsy Team having seen people burst into tears as they bottle feed a baby lamb and just “let go” and is also helpful for the lambs as they need that special contact since they are not with their momma. The ‘Therapy Lambs’ was not set-up on purpose, but over time the program has attracted people going through chemo treatment, tough times, along with the visually or hearing impaired, and the interaction is just amazing to experience. “Nurture Baby Lambs” appeals to a wide variety of families too.

The team at Topsy Farms is incredibly creative and have produced a variety of programs and activities to appeal to a diverse demographic of people.   Some of these activities include, Official Bird Count day where 58 Snowy Owls were spotted. On the Family Day weekend, they set-up a scavenger hunt where participants will have to identify trees, hear ten different birds, identify different stones and do a labour of Hercules.

Topsy Farms has also hosted the dry-stone festival, where 92 wallers and their families from five different countries came to build magnificent walls on their property using all stones from the Topsy Farm land, cleared by previous farmers.  https://topsyfarms.com/environmentally-conscious-farming/dry-stone-wall

Jake will teach safety practices for firearms to 10-16 year-olds, while other members of the Topsy Team will run workshops on winter foraging, how to plant for bees and butterflies, host guided Silent Spiritual Walks, and “Meet the Bees” and “Mucking and the Marsh” activities.

There’s really something for everyone at Topsy Farms.  If foraging out in the forest isn’t for you, you can observe sheep shearing from the mezzanine in the barn, virtually adopt a baby lamb, or rent their Authentic Mongolian yurt for a night or weekend or keep an eye on their website for the possibility of upcoming “Lamb Yoga”.

Even with all the changes on the farm, they are still selling products.  They do private lamb sales and make deliveries once a year to Ottawa and Toronto. They sell live on Toronto market, but are transitioning more to wool, as it is an increasing financial success

Their raw wool is shipped to Prince Edward Island and the finished products come back to them at Topsy Farm for them to sell.  They are the largest seller of Canadian wool blankets in Canada. They are again hiring knitters, with their best knitter being a young lady in her 80’s out of Montreal.

The Topsy Team is innovative, creative and relies on a strong network of people working together. Sally compliments her butchers as they will help with exchanging their wool products – a challenge because of their Island location. This all supports the philosophy of the original commune of being very resourceful.  “You make do, never spend money unnecessarily, so as not to pass on the costs to the consumer” says Sally, “Our great butchers, The Pig and Olive, enable that”.

As we end our conversation, I ask Sally how she feels about the future of Topsy Farms and she says “I’m both excited and terrified. Change is hard, with age it becomes harder to rise to the excitement of something new, but I am thrilled to bits that the family is all working together.”

To plan your visit or to learn more, be sure to check out Topsy Farms at www.topsyfarms.com, call them at (613)389-3444, 888-287-3157, or email at: info@topsyfarms.com.

Or just drop in for a visit at 14775 Front Road Stella, ON K0H 2S0 CA.

They’ve always had a very open-door policy and as their website says, “If we are home and awake, we are open”.

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