The farm, on the northwest corner of Amherst Island, was bought on December 31, 1971. The purchasers were 5 people who, seeking a different lifestyle, formed a commune called Headlands Community. Our original plan was to use wood from the old farm barn to build a geodesic dome. The farmhouse would be sold when we all moved into the dome and the money used to pay off the mortgage. And 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. So, that was how we got into farming – a slippery slope as it turned out.
The heifers would need 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. We put in huge gardens, and built a big root cellar. We worked hard; we played hard. They were great times with great meals, great parties and interesting people. And we had disagreements – lots of them. And on June 30, 1975, we officially disbanded the commune. This was done amicably – quite an accomplishment considering some of the animosity that had developed over time – and most of us are still good friends. Three of the commune members and a friend made arrangements to buy the farm operation from the other members. Some land was sold to other members and promissory notes were given to cover all debts.
The next few years were very difficult for those who stayed on the farm. It was necessary to do a lot of paid labour on the mainland; construction work 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 or the other. The sheep looked to be 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 let go of that piece of our history, as they were good cows, each with a unique personality.
We bought our first sheep in the summer of 1974 – 50 ewes from Manitoulin Island. The sheep flock has gradually increased year by year. In the spring of 2012 we had about 1400 lambs from 800 mature ewes and 300 yearlings – all born on pasture. We buy top quality purebred rams to reinforce characteristics we seek in our ewes and lambs: good mothering, healthy vitality, good meat formation, high milk production, quality wool. Our most prominent flock genetics are currently North Country Cheviot and Suffolk with contributions from several other breeds. We plan to continue this slow flock expansion as we improve our management and marketing skills. Most of our lambs enter the Toronto market via the Ontario Stock Yards at Cookstown where our reputation for top quality is well established. We have also worked diligently to build a market of private lamb sales to customers in Kingston, Ottawa, Toronto and the surrounding area. Customers purchase whole, half or best cuts of half lamb by order, from early November through late February. We also supply several local butchers with lamb (see retail links).
The rule of thumb when we first got sheep was that the wool clip (the amount of wool that comes from shearing) would pay for the flock’s medical expenses. In the following years, the wool clip did not even cover our shearing costs. A family trip out east, by Ian, Sally and the boys, to visit Ian’s family, in 1995, resulted in the first Topsy wool being shipped to the mill we still use today. It linked our lives to his early family history. In 1996, we received the first blankets and yarn made from our own wool. More wool was shipped in 1997 & 1998, with some blankets and yarn being sold to friends, relatives and neighbours. A more serious effort to market wool products began in 1999, with some sales through a store on Amherst Island and 2 craft shows. This marketing effort was expanded in 2000, with professionally developed brochures, a web site, an 888 phone number, several craft shows, 2 sheep dog trials, and several retail outlets.
Over time, we have increased our line of goods – some still only available in the Wool Shed. We’ve learned some interesting lessons since then, and this newly revised web site is our latest response. In 2005, an old ice house/workshop on the farm was renovated by our son’s Turvy General Contracting company, to be our on-site retail outlet. Since its birth, the Wool Shed has steadily increased our farm-gate business and has become an Island destination for tourists and locals alike. We enjoy the level of personal contact that this affords us with our customers, and we invite anyone in the area to contact us to arrange a visit, especially in the springtime when we have a few ewes and lambs in our front yard, and hundreds in the nearby fields. Our yarn and other wool products are also available in several retail stores – see retail store linkages.