“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
“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
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.)
“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
by Meghan Balogh, Napanee Guide Newspaper
A short ferry ride from Millhaven has the potential to transport you to another world.
On Amherst Island, a 16-by-seven kilometre piece of land in Lake Ontario, life moves by at a different pace.
The rolling farmland on the edge of the water is dotted with houses and small farms, and you can feel the sense of community that binds the island’s little population of 450.
That sense of community can be found in a more tightly-knit group of shareholders a few kilometres east of the ferry dock on Topsy Farms, a multi-family-run endeavour that brings together a group of people interested in a different way of life.
Topsy Farms is one of two large sheep operations that can be found on Amherst Island. In fact, once lambing season is over, the island’s human population is outnumbered by sheep 12 to one, or more.
In the early 1970s, five original owners purchased the island property that is Topsy Farms today. They were joined by friends interested in communal living.
The commune didn’t last, and some original shareholders moved on and were bought out and replaced by the five people who own and operate the sheep farm today.
Those five include Ian Murray and Sally Bowen, Christopher Kennedy and his wife Dianne, and Don Tubb.
Each shareholder brings their own skills to the farm, Ian and Sally running the marketing end of things while Christopher lends his expert knowledge of flock management. Don is a skilled photographer.
Today, Topsy Farms is home to the five shareholders and their family members, including Ian and Sally’s sons Jacob and Kyle Murray, and Jacob’s wife and two sons.
It’s also home to a flock of 1,100 breeding ewes, multiple rams, and seven guardian dogs.
In May and June, the ewes will begin their lambing process out in the hundreds of acres of pasture that Topsy Farms owns or rents, adding more than 1,000 new lambs to the flock to be raised mostly for the lamb meat market.
Everyone pitches in with the daily chores, from feeding sheep to fixing machinery, checking fences, assisting the flock with lambing, and maintaining the barns, paddocks and pastures that house the livestock. Sally is a green thumb and oversees five gardens. She also co-ordinates knitters and does some knitting herself to fill The Wool Shed, the farm’s on-site shop, with homemade wool products for sale to the public.
Sally lives with Lyme Disease and has to get her sustenance via feeding tube, but this has not dampened her enthusiasm for rural living.
The Wool Shed also features other Canadian-made products including sheepskins, yarn, bedding, apparel, and more. Most items are also sold on line.
“It just felt like an environment in which people supported and cared for each other and were trying to do something good,” says Sally of her initial attraction to the idea of a farm owned and operated by families together, on a small island in eastern Ontario. Sally grew up in Toronto.
“It’s been a whole lot of hard work and not a lot of money, but the fact that all three of our children, Ian’s daughter and our two boys, have had enough education to move elsewhere and experience the wider world they’ve all chosen to come back.
There’s a sense of community and wholeness about this world that is difficult to create nowadays.”
The sons, Jacob and Kyle, have returned to more thoroughly learn the business so that one day they can carry on the farm. But it can be a woolly way of life.
“What it really comes down to is that if me and Jake are ever going to take the place over we’ve got a hell of a lot to learn,” says Kyle, 28. “You can’t help but learn by being here, but you really need to actively try with things like fixing tractors, or making breeding selection choices.
“It’s a weird thing having a species sort of enslaved, but we’ve got a nice symbiotic relationship where we treat them as well as we can and they sustain us. I like it here, to put it simply. It’s a better life than most. It’s not an easy life, but it’s closer to nature and more wholesome.”
Jacob and his wife decided to return to the farm when their first child was born. Now they have two boys, ages seven and four, and would not want them growing up anywhere else.
He wants to make a life out of sheep farming, just like his parents have done.
“It’s a good way for kids to grow up,” says Jacob. “It’s a very pure way of living, but not easy. So the struggle is how do you do it and not be poor.”
The struggle is a reality that everyone at Topsy Farms has had to come to terms with, especially after a government-mandated cull that took their flock from 1,400 down to 670 animals in 2008 after a sheep tested positive for scrapie. It hit them hard, but they are are nearing their original numbers again.
But the ins and outs of farming can never be depended upon to run smoothly all of the time, and while Kyle and Jacob are doggedly determined to keep farming sheep, they understand it will never be easy sailing.
“It helps because my brother and I have grown up here, we know what we’re getting into, we know the sacrifice that it is,” says Jacob. “And it is like a sacrifice. Essentially it’s like joining the clergy or becoming a nun. You’re taking a vow of poverty, for the betterment of others in a lot of ways. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of it.”
The commitment of time, effort, and sweat equity are never more apparent than at shearing time on Topsy Farms. This past weekend three hired shearers and all farm hands worked dawn until dusk for three days, shearing the entire flock’s year’s worth of wool, “skirting” the fleeces and removing the worst parts to head to Woolgrowers in Carleton Place, and the top quality portions to MacAusland’s Woolen Mills on Prince Edward Island.
Despite the hard work, Jacob says there are moments that make it all worthwhile.
“Being out in the field at seven in the morning, when the mist is just coming off, and looking over the lake,” he says, describing one of those moments. “And just knowing that this land is ours and we’ve made it better. I just can’t imagine this land, this place being in the hands of anyone else.”