The Infamous History of Topsy Farms
Alice, Bill, David, Ian and Randi purchased the farm on the northwest corner of Amherst Island on December 31st, 1971. Seeking a different lifestyle, we formed a commune called Headlands Community.
We planned to tear down the old barn to build a geodesic dome, move in, sell the farmhouse, and pay off the mortgage.
Then the head of the municipal government visited us to find out what we were up to. He sadly shook his head when he heard about our plans to take down the barn. He expressed disbelief that we would destroy such a good barn and casually mentioned that he had a few heifers he’d maybe consider selling to us.
That was how Topsy history began. We got into farming – a slippery slope as it turned out. The heifers needed hay, so we bought some machinery, did some fencing, put lots of hay into the barn and got more cattle to eat the hay. We bought some goats to have healthy milk for our children; and we also bought chickens, pigs, and sheep. Huge gardens were next and we built a big root cellar.
We worked hard; we played hard.
There were great times with great meals, great parties and interesting people. And we had disagreements – lots of them. On June 30, 1975, we officially disbanded the commune. This was done amicably – quite an accomplishment – and most of us are still good friends. Three of the commune members and a friend arranged to buy the farm operation from the other members.
Everyone was eventually repaid.
The next few years were very difficult for those who stayed on the farm. We did a lot of paid labour on the mainland, construction work, candle-making, and custom farm work on the Island to pay down debts while continuing to develop the farm.
In 1977, our bank manager advised us that we couldn’t keep losing money on both beef and sheep and that we had better concentrate on one. The sheep seemed more promising so we sold the cattle and ended up getting more for the hay that would have fed them than we got for the cows themselves. It was a hard thing to see them go, as they were good cows, each with a unique personality.
We had purchased our first sheep in the summer of 1974 – 50 ewes from Manitoulin Island. The sheep flock gradually increased to 1100 breeding ewes at the end of 2017.
Other animals presently on the farm are 2 Highland heifer calves, 2 pet lambs and 6 sheep guardian dogs.
Most of our lambs are sold via the Ontario Stock Yards where our reputation for top quality is well established. We have also built a market of private meat sales to about 300 customers.
The rule of thumb when we first got sheep was that the annual wool clip would pay for the flock’s medical expenses. In the following years, the wool did not even cover our shearing costs. A family trip to PEI in 1995 by Ian, Sally and the boys, to visit Ian’s family, resulted in the first Topsy wool being shipped to the mill we still use today. In 1996, we received the first blankets and yarn.
In 2005, an old ice house/workshop on the farm was renovated to be our on-site retail outlet – the Wool Shed. This was its 4th incarnation after Candle-making shop, repair shop (tractors didn’t fit) and Music Room.
We have steadily increased the sales of pure wool and related, all-Canadian products through craft shows, online marketing, and on-site Wool Shed. Our yarn and other wool products are also available in several retail stores. Wool Shed sales, online and on farm, have now overtaken sheep sales. We’ve learned how to use social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Fortunately for us, the municipality undertook to improve our road and bought this building. That helped us build a new Wool Shed and we re-cycled the old building into an office and shipping/receiving facility.
Three partners have retired, and our three adult children plus two close friends work here now in early 2019. Topsy history enters a new chapter.
We have reduced the size of the flock to about 600 breeding sheep.
Now we put more emphasis on Ag Tourism and Connect to the Land experiences.
We are expanding our tradition of making people welcome, and demonstrating how to care for the animals and the land, with respect.
Since its birth, the Wool Shed has steadily increased our farm-gate business and has become an Island destination for tourists and locals alike. People enjoy the level of personal contact with us and with the animals whose wool creates the products they love.