“I just cooked our first leg of lamb from Topsy Farms. It was absolutely perfect -a tender and delicious texture. You guys really know what you’re doing.
Sally – I used Jamie Oliver’s recipe (mostly, I rarely follow recipe perfectly). My English-Canadian in-laws are 2.5 days home from a month in China and were absolutely delighted by it. It was more than big enough for 5, so now I’m sitting down to find a leftover lamb stew recipe. I’m one happy Mama when I get 2 meals out of one cooking event! ”
Alysha Dominico, Tangible Words, Bancroft, ON, December, 2014
“Picked up the Canadian wool blankets at the post office about an hour ago, they are, well what can I say – Fabulous!”
“Picked up the Canadian wool blankets at the post office about an hour ago, they are, well what can I say: Fabulous! I went out on a limb by ordering from so far away, but absolutely no regrets.
My wife was worried that they would itch, I do not know if I will get to use them – she loves them already! They appear to be extremely well made, and I could not be happier. I am sure they will keep us warm during the cold Alberta winter nights.
The service from Topsy Farms is wonderful.”
(Then Bill placed an order for 4 more Canadian wool blankets and 2 throws.)
– Bill, Alberta, January, 2015
“I’m just about to fall in to bed but couldn’t without letting you know I got the mukluks and they are just wonderful! They are so comfy and warm and I love the colour combo. Knowing that the mukluks were made by hand with local wool makes them even more beautiful. I’ve never had slippers that I loved wearing barefoot so much! I normally wear socks within my slippers but this is bliss. Thank you so much.”
– Tara, Gananoque, ON, January, 2015
“It is so obvious that you are working with a yarn product that is really natural–you can see it, you can smell it, you can feel it”
“It is so obvious that you are working with a yarn product that is really natural–you can see it, you can smell it, you can feel it, sometimes you even find the odd bit of barn in there! Since we try to support local it’s nice to be able to use yarn made close to home–there is very little that is local in yarn stores and they are typically much more heavily processed. My dad is an islander and the island is a very special place for me, so using this yarn really imbues the knitting process with meaning. Now I just have to cross my fingers that these don’t get thrown in the dryer by mistake and get all felted up!”
– Jenna, Kingston, January, 2015
“My Canadian wool blanket came today, opened it up and wow! I have it on the couch now, it’s amazing how big it is and how good it looks! Can’t wait to show my girlfriend. My mum wants a blanket as well now…”
– Glenn, Kelowna, BC, January, 2015
“We love our new natural wool throw! Our intention is to purchase three queen wool blankets for our kids in the future. Many thanks for the container of wool wash too!”
– Syd and Cathy, Allenford, ON, January, 2015
“Here is a picture of one of your sheepskins (which I love) that made it all the way to Colorado with me. My partner loves how the sheepskin keeps his feet warm when changing in the morning.”
– Tracey, Colorado, January 2015
The Wool Shed at Topsy Farms is our at home outlet store for beautiful pure wool and sheepskin products.
It hasn’t always been so. It appears to be just a scruffy farm outbuilding, built far too close to the road by today’s standards. However you can’t tell its heart or history by its faded covering.
The Wool Shed was built about a century ago with a double purpose.The south portion was designed to store great blocks of ice, cut by hand from the lake, and stored with layers of sawdust helping to insulate. That supply was vital as the only source of refrigeration in those days. The north portion of the small structure was the milk house, used for cooling the cows’ production of the day, destined to be picked up by horse and wagon or cutter, to be delivered to one of the Island cheese factories.
Two generations of the Eve’s family lived here for many years, planting the huge black spruce trees. (Our older son now lives in the bungalow built next door for retiring mom/grandmother ‘Peachy’.) They had electricity by then; still used the milk house portion for awhile, but eventually the shed was just used for storage.
When Topsy’s first group arrived at the recently abandoned farm, the shed became a crammed storehouse, then a much-needed tractor repair workshop. Some of the machinery couldn’t fit in, but the tools and mechanic/farmer were sheltered.
When the commune amicably dissolved, former members were repaid, and the impoverished remainder were fed one winter, by the candle production housed in the Shed.
Once our new workshop was built, the Shed became a music centre for our younger son and others. It sheltered a drum set and speakers, providing some privacy for teenagers. The budding musicians traveled from high school in Napanee, made glorious noisy experiments, with sufficient autonomy (but not too much) from the older generation.
University years enabled yet another evolution. Four coats of high quality primer and two more paint coats covered most of the music group’s wall ‘creative writing’, and the Wool Shed evolved to its present glorious new life.
It is open any day, all year (please phone first).
About 1200 sheep are shorn annually – the fleece being one of the most renewable resources that could exist. It is transformed in P.E.I. to a high quality, all-Canadian wool made into blankets and throws, yarn, wool, and many hand-crafted products.
The Wool Shed has the largest variety and inventory of pure wool Canadian blankets and throws in Canada.
Visitors love the feel of our sheepskins, either trimmed ‘medical’ skins or luxurious ‘shaggies’. Lambskins are also available: smaller, softer, and ideal for new born babies, or the seat of a chair. Also available is unbleached cotton-stuffed wool bedding, pillows, mattress pads and comforters. These will give you an experience of sleeping on a cloud – or the next best thing. Many hand-crafted items are available from Topsy Farms only by visiting the Wool Shed – you’ll find it worth it. For outing information, see http://topsyfarms.com/uncategorized/great-outing-amherst-island-day-weekend
The heart of this old building beats strongly.
“Yesterday I grilled a leg of lamb, deboned, on my Webber charcoal bbq. I pulled it showing 155 degrees internal, and stood it for 20 mins or so. The rare piece was wrapped and skewered inside the butterfly underneath it.
Marinaded 8 hrs with olive oil, garlic, dried oregano, fresh rosemary, fresh ground pepper and coarse sea salt. Grilled off-heat at about 425 deg maybe an hour and a half.
When I sliced it, it looked like something out of a foody magazine. Now, in all honesty, I’m pretty good on this grill, however, all credit has to go to your lamb- the most exquisite meat I have truly ever tasted. My son cut his with his fork. My English ma was speechless (that in itself says a lot). I could not believe how good this was, and what a treat it was to prepare and cook something so delicious at Christmas.
I look forward to many other dishes with your amazing lamb.”
– Paul, Kingston, ON, December, 2014
“Just wanted to let you know that the correct size sheepskin mittens arrived in today’s post along with the shipping refund of $12. The mittens are perfect.
Thank you for the prompt turnaround service and appreciate your refunding the original shipping charge. I will be happy to recommend you to others looking for a similar item.”
– Janet, ON, December, 2014
“This year, I took my synthetic down comforter out of the closet to put on my bed for winter and noticed a terrible smell coming from it. My comforter was off-gassing STILL after almost 10 years of use. I decided it was time to look for a natural alternative. I had read about wool and knew that it is naturally flame retardant and that it keeps your body comfortable throughout the night and does not overheat you. I searched for weeks to find an online store to purchase a natural wool blanket from that would be free of chemicals and dyes. I finally found the website for Topsy Farms, located in Ontario, Canada! When I called to ask about their blankets, the owners could not have been more pleasant and helpful. I ordered 2 queen sized natural wool blankets and much to my surprise, they were at my door within days of placing the order. The blankets are gorgeous! I ordered natural tweed and natural with a gray stripe. My son took the tweed blanket and has been sleeping much more comfortably with it on his bed. My husband and I have the natural blanket and can feel the difference wool makes—no more sweating at night.
I don’t always take the time to endorse the people and products that I enjoy, but I feel it is important to support the people at Topsy Farms. They are hard-working, honest people who deliver a beautiful natural wool blanket without the chemicals. I would highly recommend their natural wool blankets for a wonderful night’s sleep!”
– Jan, Chicago, U.S.A., December, 2014
“I bought a black and gray cloche and am LOVING it and wanted to let you know that I have received multiple compliments on it (5 and counting) in the short time I have been wearing it daily and am happy to tell them I bought it from you and Topsy Farms.”
– Jen, Kingston, ON, December, 2014
“Well as it turns out there were NINE ribs in the rack lamb roast… And it was fantastic. Unbelievable.”
– Allan, Toronto, ON, December, 2014
There is an adventurous path that pure wool travels, from the sheeps’ backs to a knitter’s hands and needles. Many hands are involved.
On shearing day at the barn, one of our Topsy farmers encourages the sheep up a ramp to the upstairs shearing area, where another farmer moves the sheep from a large pen to individual shearer’s pens. A shearer takes the sheep from the holding pen, skillfully and carefully removes the ewe’s pure wool coat within 2 minutes and hussles the startlingly white shorn sheep out the swing door to an outside corral.
One of our team of 10 helpers or ‘roustabouts’ picks up that fleece in such a way that enables him/her to fling it in the air, to float down on the ‘skirting table’. Other ‘rousies’ work around the perimeter of that table, removing bits of fecal matter and chaff, then roll the fleece into a ball and drops it into an 8 foot burlap bag, clamped to a frame in the floor.
It is packed very firmly with ‘foot power’ with other fleeces, then eventually sewn in (with a wicked 4 inch needle and baler twine). That bag is hoisted with a pulley and manpower, then rolled and stacked with other bags.
Our pure wool yarn comes from happy healthy sheep, raised ethically.
That makes 7 pairs of hands, minimum, handling the fleece so far.
At least 3 people maneuver the bags, weighing about 160 pounds, onto a waiting farm wagon, and stack them with others for the trip across the ferry from Amherst Island. (Large trucks cannot fit our boat, so we have to schlep the wool bags by hand and farm equipment.)
On the mainland, a waiting transport trailer is loaded with the wool bags – 4 men haul and roll them into the trailer.
At least 4 sets of hands have helped this transition.
Upon arrival in Prince Edward Island, strong arms and hands again unload the wool bags. Two people open the bags, lug the wool onto scales to be weighed, then grade the wool quality. Someone else manually picks through the wool before washing to remove any large impurities, then another hauls it onto a 70 ft “wash train” where only soap is used.
The pure wool is hypoallergenic. It has not been stripped with detergent or other chemicals.
If the pure wool is to be dyed into one of our more than 20 vibrant or subtle colours it is weighed for the appropriate amount. It goes straight to the dryer if it is being processed naturally.
Topsy Farms pure wool roving and yarn has 4 entirely natural colours.
Yet another set of hands transports it into a packer which presses the dried, cleaned wool into a bale. That bale is manually transported to yet another picking room. There the wool is blended before carding. One person puts it into the carding machine. Another person takes spools from carding machine to spinning frame where it is spun and strengthened.
Another pair of hands removes the wool to the twister table which is set up to produce different sizes of yarn (2 ply or 3 ply). Bobbins are filled by the machine, then a worker puts those bobbins onto a “skeiner”, where the wool is made into 4 oz skeins. Each skein is twisted and finished by hand. They are put in feed bags and carried upstairs, where they are bundled into 8 pound parcels, then wrapped. (Someone of course has to complete the book work).
A truck driver lugs the Topsy Farms order for the skeins of wool away from MacAusland’s Woolen Mills where it has been handled by 18 – 20 pair of hands.
4 to 5 people at Canada Post handle the packaged bundle of yarn as it is received, sorted, loaded on and off a truck and delivered to Bath Post Office. Two people load it onto a van to deliver to us on Amherst Island. The transport has involved 6 – 7 pairs of hands.
Back at our farm, the skeins of yarn are individually labelled, counted, bagged, and added to the inventory. (We store them in bins in the unused shearing area.)
The pure wool has ‘come home’.
When the Wool Shed inventory for a particular dye lot of yarn gets low, someone gets it from the barn, notes the inventory change and stashes it in its cubby for retail sale. Come to the Wool Shed, to purchase a 113 gram, or 1/4 pound skein of pure lanolin-enriched wool for $8. We also offer pure wool in roving or pencil roving.
From sheep, via about 40 pairs of hands, to your needles.
“As former farmers we know how much work goes into a great piece of meat. Your lamb is tender, succulent, and flavourful. Perfect.”
– Jean and Ray, Bath, ON, November, 2014
“I just wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying the cozy mattress pad, duvet, and pillow. I’m now all set for whatever ‘Old Man Winter’ decides to dish out to us all!”
– Janet, Ottawa, ON, November, 2014
“I love my new wool slippers (aka mukluks)! They are SO comfy! How is the wool part made? It’s not like it’s knit, so what’s the process? The footie part is so soft and lovely….I’m just sitting here watching TV and wiggling my toes and totally enjoying them…they’re warm but not hot, which is the best, as my feet are already warm all the time, but they are very happy. Open-mouthed smile.”
– Janet, Vancouver, BC, November, 2014
(Meredith placed an order for a wedding gift to be sent to the US, requesting we include farm-based info. We sent a brief history, a sheep photo, a wood cedar chip and a brochure linking to our Topsy website and she responded: “I was looking for a wool blanket for my cousin’s wedding and originally was going to give her a Hudson Bay blanket, but they don’t ship to the US. So, I found you through a Google search and I think I wound up making the better choice.” (The Bay no longer makes their wool blankets in Canada.)
– Meredith, October, 2014
There are so many reasons why people enjoy a great outing to Amherst Island. It’s beautiful, with bountiful nature and water on all sides. It is a warm community, with an ‘old-fashioned’ feeling of people mutually supportive and closely interacting. There are many stimulating, interesting events taking place, places to go, a choice of accommodation, places to eat, public parks by water with picnic benches, and peaceful beaches. And there is a multitude of birds and animals.
The Island is very easy to access from Highway 401, points east or west, or for a day trip locally. It is about 2 hours from Ottawa to the ferry dock; 2 1/2 from Toronto; 1/2 hr from Kingston. See contact us for details or call us at 888 287-3157.
In the privately owned Owl Woods,
chickadees will perch on your head or hand to feed.
The public is given free access, asked to be respectful, and offered treats of sighting new species. The Ontario Field Naturalists own a good stretch of shoreline where many other bird species may be seen. As we are on a main flight path, we’ve had some unusual avian visitors all over the island. Photographers abound.
It is a fine cyclist destination also, with miles of shore road with limited traffic beyond the occasional tractor in working season.
Other creatures may be visited. Percheron wagon rides may be booked while thoroughbred trotters watch curiously from fields. We’ve several beef farms and one active dairy farm where one can see young calves in spring. The only known ‘cow count’ spotters in Ontario went out by horse wagon last year, gently spoofing our birders. We’ve had llamas and donkeys and goats. One of our neighbours even has a pet, litter-box trained, pig – named Kevin Bacon. The Island has free-range pigs too.
For a great outing experience, visitors may bottle feed and cuddle tamed foster lambs at Topsy Farms
all spring and summer. Later, the bigger galoots still enjoy an ear scratch in autumn. Contacting firstname.lastname@example.org will guarantee your being on a mailing list for invitations to shearing, to foster lambing and other specially planned events. See http://topsyfarms.com/seasons/family-outings-to-visit-lambs
Summer events pile one atop another. Canada Day is celebrated with a wonderfully wacky parade followed by games, strawberry shortcake and truly impressive fireworks. We have Fish Fries, and Spring and New Year’s Dances and others ‘just because’. Our Island museum recently had its first annual Island Fiesta, a day of over 20 workshops offered by a wide variety of talented Islanders. The St. Paul’s Garden Party is an annual joyful event, with renowned A.I. pie for sale by the slice or whole and many ’boutiques’ and events. The Wooly Bully race along the shoreline in August, http://www.amherstisland.on.ca/WoolyBully/ includes a 1 k for kids, as well as 5 or 10k distances. The Fall Festival, once a 4-H event, is still rooted in the rural active farm tradition. A Parade of Lights heralds Christmas, as does the ecumenical carol service.
Music is a vital part of our existence. The Waterside Summer Series www.watersidemusic.ca/ brings top caliber classical performers to the beautiful setting of St. Paul’s Church. The Emerald Music Festival http://www.emeraldmusicfestival.com/ in August provides informal camping facilities and an impressive lineup of Bluegrass, Country and Celtic music performers for a 3 day event. The older generation of Islanders grew up learning to dance with an Island band; we now have a group called The Islanders that performs at many big gatherings.
There are places of interest to visit. Topsy Farm’s Wool Shed http://topsyfarms.com/wool-shed
has the largest selection of pure wool blankets in eastern Ontario
as well as many sheepskin and other products hand-crafted of wool, as well as marvelous supplies for weaving, knitting and felting with wool. One of our venerable former stores has a new life. The Neilson’s Store Museum has professionally designed displays of our history, hosts Back Room Talks monthly on a wide range of topics, and houses our Weasel and Easel quality shop for hand created products. Artist Shirley Miller has recently published a book of her work, and welcomes visitors to the gallery in her home. She teaches painting to many eager students.
An additional service from Islanders to Islanders and visitors alike is the Internet Café, where expert computer assistance is available for a toonie donation.
Stella’s Café is a joyful informative oasis for visitors and hungry farmers alike, with some food locally sourced. Boaters who use our safe, deep harbours and fine public docks dine there. The owners fill their space with history and present day places of interest to visit, people to see, and a Friday night feast and singalong.
For a small population (about 450) our service groups abound. Visitors may enjoy the Women’s Institute bake sales on long weekends; the Amherst Island Men’s Society-sponsored weekly market; the Recreation Committee food, available at many events that pays for our Canada Day fireworks; the three churches services and wonderful feasts and bake sales. The Emergency First Response Team train intensively to provide quality support in an emergency ensuring safety for all.
Honouring our history, the W.I. trained volunteers in Irish traditional stone wall building. The group beautifully restored 5 walls. In Sept. 2014, the first of several planned weekend stone wall building workshops took place. In September, 2015 a Dry Stone Wall International Festival will happen.
CJAI, www.cjai.ca/ our local radio from a barn, features a vivid range of programming. It operates 24 hours/day, staffed entirely by volunteers. The Island Beacon, http://www.amherstisland.on.ca/Beacon/index.htm a monthly newsletter published by Topsy Farms, has been in production for over 40 years, bringing good news and sad news (but not bad news) to Islanders. Both are excellent sources for additional interesting activities for visitors.
A couple of things to remember if you are visiting: trust the ferry crew, they are skilled at their job. Have a wonderful time exploring but please – wave back to us.
Needle Felting Kits
Each Needle Felting Kit Includes:
- 1.5 ounces of washed and carded wool,
natural white and dark grey
- 2 – 38 gauge triangular needles
- 1 high density foam pad
- 1 wooden skewer
Cost is $15.00 plus tax and mailing
For more information, or to order, please contact:
- (613) 389-3444
Coloured wool is available in 12 colours;
$2.00 an ounce
Introduction to Needle Felting
Topsy Farms, outside the Wool Shed 14775 Front Road, Amherst Island, ON
Sat. Aug. 23 10:15 am -11:45 am $20 adults, $15 teens
(10 year old minimum – the needles are very sharp)
Needle felting uses a barbed needle which causes wool fibres to bind or fuse together. It is easy to learn and fun to do. You’ll be introduced to the shapes and methods needed to create many small figures.
Supplies provided (foam pad, two needles and wool) are yours to keep.
Create a small bird by the end of the workshop.
Taught by Lynn Wyminga of www.lynnslids.com
TO REGISTER, CALL TOPSY FARMS: 613 389-3444
for needle felting kits see http://store.topsyfarms.com/index.php?route=product/category&path=96_106_110
“I just wanted to let you know that I got my throw wool blankets yesterday, they are really lovely and I can feel the oil in them which is so good. The natural colours are just right for me. My new throw size wool blanket look wonderful with the natural coloured linen bedding.
Thanks to Sally and Ian for all the email and phone help.”
– Lauren, July, 2014
“Thanks for staying in touch! The throws are on couches and are used daily – wool blankets on the beds – and wool blankets in the tent when camping; could not be more pleased!
Fabulous stuff this wool is!”
– Bill, BC, June, 2014
I’m writing with a shivering lamb on my lap. Soon he will be one of the gang for family outings to visit lambs.
A lamb can lose its mama for many reasons. Triplets may be born, and the ewe may have only enough milk for two. The ewe might seek shelter in a storm, and the stronger lamb, perhaps older by less than half an hour, will stick to her heels and the younger lamb will get lost. Two ewes might lamb close to each other, then later claim all but one of the lambs for their own. Hypothermic conditions aggravate the vitality of the newly born.
So the shepherds check the fields several times a day and bring to the homestead any who are lonely, hungry and very cold. When a foster lamb is first introduced to the warmed reconstituted ‘milk’ it doesn’t taste right; smell right; feel right. Usually the first reaction is either passive resistance, or ptoooey.
Their instinct is to go under a warm ewe’s belly, to find a full but flexible nipple, to bunt hard if necessary to encourage the milk flow, and to sip often. Instead they are offered a powdered ewe’s milk substitute reconstituted with warmed water, a black rubber nipple & a beer bottle (old ‘stubbies’ which fit nicely in the microwave; they are of strong glass so easy to clean).
But hunger is a wonderful motivator to accept change; to learn new skills.
We encourage family outings to visit lambs and to discover our Wool Shed. In our urban, disconnected world, people like to have a chance to nurture small animals, and to learn about the source of what they purchase. Folks prefer to know that some farms care a great deal about their animals.
It is fun for kids to cuddle and bottle feed a lamb.
After a couple of small feedings the lamb’s natural vitality almost always helps it to revive. Cuddling and insulation help. Soon they join the bouncing 3 or 4 day old lambs in their pen, who yell for food whenever someone passes.
Lambs will follow at heel, gluing to the person who is now the source of all good things.
This Spring the lambs have been a wonderful source of entertainment for family outings to visit lambs.
You are invited to pet and feed the lambs. We will keep two fosters on the farm for the pleasure of visitors during the summer. The others go to small farms who are building their flock by bottle feeding orphans, sometimes on goat’s milk.
The one on my lap is shivering less, and starting to holler for food. Perhaps this year’s Lazarus.
Our Wool Shed which sells natural wool products is in a small, gently aging ice house/milk house. It is almost at the end of a dead-end gravel road, on an Island. Not the ideal location one might think, for drive-by traffic. We’ve been, as one customer said “a well-kept secret”.
But increasingly, we are not only reaching out to our immediate community, but also across the province and to east, west, and north of Canada. We are now beginning to have our wool products appreciated world-wide.
Well before Christmas, two sets of grandparents came to us, seeking gifts. We had reports back that one newborn in Inuvik N.W.T., was thriving on her lambskin, and apparently enjoying the sheepskin-soled booties. Another pair of grandchildren in Iqualuit, Nunavuit, were happy with the child’s sheepskin mitts, lambskin, and a hat with appliquéd truck.
As we struggle to master the intricacies of getting our website ‘talking to Google’, about our wool products, we’ve had requests for bedding, blankets and sheepskins from every province across Canada except, so far, Newfoundland/Labrador.
Yarn has travelled as far as Hawaii (but mailing costs make this rather pricey) and to Alaska. We were fortunate enough to have one of our blankets featured in Canadian Living Magazine; the first couple of response came from Sudbury and from Chicago. Surprising. People from various states, including the deep south, have discovered our wool products, sometimes thanks to the birders who travel here in winter.
Beyond that we’ve mailed to Finland, other places in western Europe, and the British Isles. Often that’s thanks to Island visitors, or students at The Lodge, who come browsing.
We posted Pat Frontini’s lovely hand-woven mohair and Topsy Wool blended throw on Topsy Farms Facebook page. In two days the information was forwarded from Colorado to a friend travelling in Italy who bought it as a birthday gift to herself.
But this latest connection tops them all. One of our pink tweed blankets is having an adventure.
“I’ve received your blanket (in Calgary) and its now keeping me warm while I volunteer on a hospital ship in the Congo. I volunteer with an organization called Mercy Ships, www.mercyships.org the largest NGO hospital ship in the world. We provide free surgery to the forgotten poor in West Africa. The crew is comprised of over 400 volunteers from 35 different nations who raise funds to support themselves in coming onboard to work from anywhere between two weeks to two years.
“I registered my own Canadian NGO called Sterile Processing Education Charitable Trust (www.spectrust.org) which allows me to educate in local hospitals and teach the OR staff on how to improve their sterile technique and reduce post operative infections.
“I come and stay on the ship for 2-3 months at a time and share a small cabin with 3 bunk beds and tiny bathroom for 6 girls. Each time I return I like to bring a few things that make my bunk cozy and remind me of Canada. The Congo is extremely hot right now (feels like 43C) although the air conditioning on the ship is always on high and it feels very cold. My wool blanket has received a lot of attention because of it’s warmth and comfort. It’ll stay on the ship when I return to Canada so that others can enjoy it while I’m away and then it’ll be here for me when I get back.”
We’re humbled, honoured, proud to have our wool products accompany folks on their adventures through life.
Fortunately wool is warm and waterproof. The December ice storm descended on the second day of breeding season. The lamb count next spring will tell us whether the breeding action was affected. We suspect the rams’ footing might have been dicey. Otherwise, the sheep seemed content, with their ice-coated coats clanking like out-of-tune bells.
But the farmers struggled somewhat. Jake set off the first morning with a baseball bat, a bag of kitty litter, and a razor. He needed them all.
The men bashed the rolling doors of the workshop with shovels to remove thick layers of ice that
prevented rolling.The perimeter of the door then had to be excavated. Finally, access to the plugged-in machinery which started, thankfully. Unfortunately the tractors had virtually no traction. A large round bale set on the back was needed but getting up the lane way to the stored hay was tricky. Speed and momentum were necessary to gain access to the bales despite drifting sideways, and pushing a tree and branches out of the way.
Every bale was massively coated in ice on top and sides; difficult to break loose and to lift. Christopher and Jake smashed the ice to get at the recyclable plastic wrapping; Chris used a metal pipe while Jake wielded his baseball bat. Removing the wrap proved a challenge, as the outer layer of hay glued itself to the wrap. The farmers kept lifting and dropping the bale, moving forward and back to get the huge wad of ice, snow, and plastic wrap to separate. This labourious process was repeated with each of the fourteen bales fed that day.
Getting through the first gate was another challenge. All gates between the fields needed to be bashed to move the cedar poles at the bottom that weighs the paige wire down. The baseball bat and shovel continued to be the most frequently needed tools. Even the knotted plastic ropes, normally requiring seconds to undo, were difficult to manage with their thick layers of ice.
Gravity and friction are needed in order to unroll a bale in the field. However, with the ice coating there was no friction so the bales were sliding. Jake had to continually maneouvre back and forth to get the hay to start unrolling. Tires spun as the extra drag caused a loss of traction.
After the first bale was fed, there was not enough traction to get up the lane way to hoist the next. Jake spread his bag of non-clumping kitty litter on the ice. The frozen sand pile under the frozen tarp was no alternative. Driving the tractor at speed up the lane way, slip-sliding sideways, was dicey with parked cars too close.
Freezing rain was constant that morning. Jake’s hood froze into a solid ice helmet. It was rigid, allowing no peripheral vision. He couldn’t rotate his body or head to see anything. Fortunately he was wearing layers, feeling grateful that wool is warm. He dragged one bale for awhile, thinking it was unrolling then discovered it was still a solid lump. The tractor windshields were icing up on 3 sides so he couldn’t see. The squeegee had no effect. He used a razor utility knife to carve a hole in the windshield ice, shaving the window like an old style barber; each opening lasting only 10 – 15 minutes.
Chores should have required about 2 1/2 hrs for 2 people. That day it took easily twice that time – over 5 hours.
Topsy sheep, with their well-insulated wool and lanolin, and their shining armour of ice, continued in breeding mode or peacefully eating among the crystal fields and sheltering hedgerows. Topsy men, however, struggled to achieve this peaceful vision.
This time of year is dominated by two activities on a sheep farm: keeping track of the readiness of each lamb to go to market, and preparing the breeding cycle to start again.
All species yearn to procreate.
Shepherds just learn to manage that urge. We want each lamb to be born in spring on greening pastures, so we have to count back to decide when the boys go in with the girls.
Animals are healthier if they live on pasture year ’round.
Ours live outdoors with the dogs year-round, but of course their food must be supplemented with hay, baleage and sometimes grain and soy beans in the late fall and winter months.
Each week or so the market lambs move through the chutes in the barn where Christopher checks whether each lamb is ‘finished’. He feels along the backbone by the loin to find the ridge not too boney(not ready yet) just perceptible (meat has filled in) but not disappeared (oops, too fatty).
Great lamb comes from healthy happy animals.
We sell yummy lamb to about 300 to private customers from Toronto to Ottawa and to local butchers. Most of our lamb-lovers come from the Kingston area, and they pick up their order of lamb at the Pig and Olive, where ‘Aussi Al’ knows how to cut. A phone call to the farm (613 389-3444/888 287-3157) can get a person all the details.
The rest of the 1000 lambs chosen for market will travel the high seas (across the ferry) by truck and will travel to The Ontario Stockyards north of Toronto where they attract the gourmet butchers and the top prices.
Meanwhile, the cycle must continue. The ewes must be on a steadily improving diet, so their systems decide it’s ok to ovulate more – ‘this is going to be a good year’. The rams (32 of them for about 1300 ewes) must be in top condition, especially their feet which get very tired during breeding. The teaser rams (those with a vasectomy) are now at the starting gate.
Since we also market our wool products, we scramble to prepare booths for pre-Christmas shows, keep track of inventory, knit more items, and try to keep our books organized.
It isn’t a dull time of the year, down on the farm.
Our parents were kids during the Depression, and the examples they set fit right in to today’s philosophy of recycle and reuse and don’t waste.
Sometimes we do that on a fairly large scale. Our men were offered the job of taking down the two story grain elevator in Emerald in exchange for the wood. Since it had been built flat board on flat board (instead of edge on edge) we gleaned something like six MILES of mainly useable boards. We re-floored the second story of our barn, able to reuse most of the wood, and then built a very useful shearing area. Mezzanines were built which immediately filled with ‘stuff that will come in useful someday’. The shearing area is storage for our Wool Shed products 360 days/year, and emptied for shearing for 5 days of shearing.
Our boys learned basic carpentry, being allowed to reuse the broken or too short pieces building tree forts and platforms.
When Jake rebuilt the barn this spring, there was not one significant purchase needed. Virtually everything was scrounged.
A portable saw mill was hired to cut our own logs into boards for our use. It was satisfying to discover how to reuse the off-cuts to make effective compost containment, turning dead plants, weeds and roots into great compost to feed the garden.
A horse-drawn milk wagon became a tow-able warm-up shack for construction (with an old pizza oven for warmth). Parked in our back yard it was reused as a duck brooder, a boys’ clubhouse, then rebuilt into a sauna with scrounged cedar wood lining and another reused wood stove.
Our Wool Shed was once a milk/ice house, then was farm storage, candle production shed, ATV shed, boys’ music room, and now a neat little outlet shop.
One loader tractor is an amalgamation of two elderly tractors. We are now scavenging an ATV and another tractor for parts to reuse.
Scrap bits of metal have been stored for years, then found to be just the thing for some patch job, welded on. The pole for our Purple Martin house was made out of a grain auger tube.
But sometimes we get ridiculous. Each bale of yarn for the Wool Shed is wrapped with double thicknesses of string. For some years, we’ve painstakingly saved those, wrapping them in a knot-filled ball, used for tying newspapers, tomato plants, bundling herbs etc.
Our depression-era parents would be proud.
The barn at Topsy Farms was built in three stages, starting a long time ago with the most recent work done in the 50’s.
Over the past half century, the concrete foundation at the N-W corner has shifted outwards because of inadequate weight-bearing base and possibly, the pressure of the materials inside, pushing out. The foundation shifting has caused the vertical siding boards to shift too, curving out at the bottom. When the rain comes off the end of the barn roof it soaks the boards which leach the moisture through to the big old hand-hewn wooden beams. As they rot the barn settles more and the process accelerates.
The N-W sides of the barn – toward the prevailing winds – were the worst areas. We needed to do the best job possible; accomplish the most repairs for the least cost, effort and time. In the end, we scrounged virtually all the materials – almost nothing was purchased. “Someday it might come in handy” actually works.
Jacob first tore the worst of the siding off by hand and just studied the damage for a few weeks, contemplating the rot, forming a plan, knowing the look of it would drive his Virgo sensibilities crazy. The timing was good; the end of winter before the lambing pressure ramped up. Still, the work had to be done in fragments of time.
First job was to tackle the concrete foundation repair. Where the cement had cracked and separated, he filled the space with wire mesh and injected concrete with special adhesive properties, mixed in a wheelbarrow. That was all trowelled smooth, to prevent water getting in further.
The beams were next; they needed to be jacked up and repaired. It was a challenge to locate stable points for the jacks inside and out. It was necessary to get the beam high enough to remove the old, rotted material with scraper, chisel, chainsaw and wire brush. These larger gaps were replaced by segments of new/recovered material already in storage – 2 to 3 six foot chunks. The beams less badly eroded were patched by sandwiching in good wood, using metal plates, screws, bolts and ingenuity.
Flashing was next – it is thin metal cut to length, about 8 inches wide, nailed to the top of the beam. That was placed onto the beam, overlapping the top of the concrete foundation to direct the flow of any water/ice outwards.
The siding was all salvaged boards we’d stored when one of our houses changed to metal siding. The old stain had faded to pink so those boards are on inside out. The windows were also reframed and flashed, so they are shaped to actually hold a window.
With reasonable conditions, this repair should extend the life of the barn for another half century.
Of course, there is still work to be done…
Lambing this year resulted in a foster lamb then lots more. At Topsy Farms, our official count was 1457 lambs, born in May and early June to about 1100 ewes. Despite very regular checking of the 6 groupings of birthing ewes, perfect parenting does not always occur.
We often have triplets, and some mamas just can’t raise all 3, especially if they are of very different sizes. Sometimes a ewe ‘loses count’, nurturing the first lamb born and neglecting the second, who becomes weak and hungry. For those and other reasons, the occasional lamb is brought to the house for bottle rearing, becoming a foster lamb.
We had just two for the first couple of days – but one evening six suddenly appeared, the result of a bad mama muddle when some ewes moved to new pastures. We’ve had up to 16 at a time in the outdoor pen.
The foster lambs are bottle fed 4 times a day, with a powdered sheep’s milk formula that approximates ewes’ milk. It takes surprisingly little time for the lambs to learn to come running, blatting and eager, when our grandsons appear with their bottles. Some lambs learn quickly to follow at heel, seeking food and play.
A few foster lambs may be adopted back into the field – our shepherd is good at persuading a ewe that this is the one upon which to dote. The rest stay with us for a few days until strong enough to go to a new home.
We have adoptive families lined up to provide a home for the foster lambs once they are strong and well-established on the bottle. They will raise a small flock, or just keep them well and happy for the summer.
Funny, Caramel and Trina provide wonderful entertainment for young families visiting Topsy Farms and the Wool Shed www.topsyfarms.com Please phone ahead if you can: 613 389-3444/888 287-3157.
We did pregnancy testing for our ‘ewe lambs’, those who were born May, 2012. Among the approximately 1400 lambs born last spring, we chose the 300 best females to be put to the rams in December.
However, we know not all of them have been bred. We want to keep only those females who are pregnant, and to sell the others in time for Greek Orthodox Easter, May 5th. It costs us too much to keep non-productive animals – it doesn’t pay to be coy when the rams arrive.
Our goal is always to produce great quality lamb.
Also it is important for us to cull any lambs that are not bred at one year of age, as those are the genetics we seek. After 38 years of selective culling, we are much closer to achieving the ideal Topsy ewe.
The pregnancy testing process is pretty interesting. We use an ultrasound machine which will emit a different sound when sound waves bounce off amniotic fluid in the uterus. (We have to make sure the lambs have empty bladders so as not to confuse the machine.)
Our shepherd Christopher needs good wand contact on the lamb’s belly so he squirts it with cooking oil. When contact is good he hears a regular beep. The machine emits a continuous note if the amniotic fluid is detected.
Ideally the pregnancy testing is done before 90 days of pregnancy, when the fetus is not yet too large.
Of course there are no guarantees, and we want to keep all who are carrying, so all the lambs which did not show pregnant were retested after two weeks, in hopes of catching others.
The first test showed 225 out of 300 appear to be bred. It took three people 6 hours to complete the first process.
The second pregnancy testing, 2 weeks later found an additional 22, probably bred later.
Just before shipping, all the lambs apparently not pregnant were tipped up on their bottoms to check udders, a third test, which may indicate a few more carrying fetuses that the machine did not detect. We found 3 pretty definite and a couple of other maybe’s.
So they will stay too, and hopefully will contribute their share to the frolic of lambs we anticipate very soon.
(Sorry, barn photos of this process didn’t work well so here are frolic photos by Don Tubb instead.)
I was asked what I’d do if I won the lottery. The answer came readily – I would find life’s balance by continuing to live and work at Topsy Farms.
I can’t imagine living anywhere else. The land, animals, and very air are as much a part of me as my skin and fingernails.
Driving our ATV every morning through the woods doing chores is the best part of my day.
There is utter peace and stillness inside and out. You can’t put a price on that. This small Ontario sheep farm life doesn’t fit into any neat box that any career counselor could understand. I get bored too easily by static routine; I wasn’t designed to sit in an office. Here, every day there is something different:
Today I’m a mechanic, yesterday a vet
The storm is getting closer, 60% chance of getting wet
Tomorrow its construction; repairing the old barn
Everyday is a little different, when you wake up on a farm
I saw a Dodge commercial the other day that featured a Paul Harvey monologue. I dare you to watch that and not want to work the land – it’s a powerful piece.
We are surrounded by the things we fixed the day before. That’s a potent thing, a reason farmers keep getting up and digging out of snowstorms or rebuilding machines that others have discarded.
As my farm apprenticeship continues, I get more independent, picking my own tasks and timing, which increases my ability to lose myself in a job.
There have been no hassles with the generation relations, probably a tribute to them. I feel I am respected as a man now; and for skills learned elsewhere. The older farmers are surprised and amused when I know how to do something they didn’t expect.
However, ultimately I struggle with idea of struggling – a small independent sheep farm will never make a decent return on labour. It makes me wonder, can a small farm be profitable?
Can I find life’s balance on a farm?
Some folks may continue a mindless struggle all the time, working 10 -12 hrs/day and never getting ahead financially. I need to seek a way to balance living and work; to find a better business model that isn’t just dependent on numbers of sheep or blankets sold. I want the mental freedom, life’s balance, of occasionally playing golf or going to a concert. I need not to feel that a dollar spent on myself is a dollar less for the animals.
It’s such a huge commitment. I won’t consider taking on the farm without my brother’s involvement and at the moment the farm can’t afford to pay us both. The decision to become a farmer feels sort of like joining a monastery: giving up most of my worldly possessions for the betterment of mankind. Lots of days I don’t feel that generous.
And yet, I want to raise my boys the way I was raised. There is zen in this as we improve the land and the buildings and the animals and machinery – they improve us.
Jacob Murray is the son of Topsy Farms’ owner, Ian Murray, and was raised on this independent sheep farm on Amherst Island, considered local to Napanee and Kingston, Ontario. Topsy Farms produces beautiful wool products including sheepskins, pure wool blankets, sheepskin mittens, cotton-encased wool bedding, and some of the finest local lamb in Ontario. Natural farming methods without pesticides, growth hormones, chemicals, or animal by-products, produce animals of the highest quality. The lambs, finished with grain, are available for private sale from early November through February.
“Happy to report that I have a pair of mittens from you folks that I’ve worn since I left Queen’s, and I still love them. Now living in Ottawa, I’d love one of your sheep skin rugs for our spare bedroom to coordinate with a gray sofa bed. Do you have one that has some gray in it available?”
– Kathryn, Ottawa, ON, March, 2013
“Just wanted to let you know how much we are enjoying the pasture-raised Ontario lamb. The sausage is to die for, and tomorrow we’re having burgers with pine nuts, herbs and blue cheese…and the dogs are LOVING the organ meat.”
– Janet, Fenlon Falls, ON, February, 2013
“Bonjour Sally, J’ai reçu aujourd’hui un trésor. Votre laine est tellement belle. Je ne sais pas par quel couleur commencer…..”
“Jennifer and I so enjoyed our visit to your delightful little store to buy woollen hats and gloves, and choosing wool from amongst the glorious colours to do our own knitting. And we were so lucky to see the sheep being herded! Topsy Farms is a unique gem of a place and you are such a gracious host! A day to remember and treasure.”
What I love about your Ontario sheep farm operation is the wonderful interaction between all of the family, especially children…”
“What I love about your Ontario sheep farm operation… is the wonderful interaction between all of the family, especially in that it includes the children from such early ages. They will grow up with these wonderful instincts of knowing exactly what to do in each situation … Call it “common sense.” Talk about a “family farm”––… it definitely is priceless.”
“The mattress pad must have arrived shortly after our email exchange. We were at the cottage and very pleased to find the package on our return to the city. Great service!”
“My son chose a skein of yarn for socks as did my daughter. I’ll be busy this winter. Your felted hats are beautiful and very creative.”
“Thank you for the gift of the Eucalan. You know we will take good care of the sheepskin, the lambskin and wool blanket.”
“We were blown away that … you opened up The Wool Shed for us tardy Torontonians, showing up 2 hours after closing. We truly enjoyed … learning more about my favourite “miracle fabric of nature”.
“I love using Topsy Farms wool – the skeins are very generous – you only need 8 skeins to make a man’s sweater – it knits up so smoothly and consistently – the finished product is very professional looking holding it’s shape wear after wear! (It) comes in wonderful colours – I especially like the heathers.”