We applied for Green Tourism Canada Certification this winter.
A branch of Green Tourism International, Green Tourism Canada promotes ecotourism by :
• Encouraging tourist-oriented organizations to examine and improve their carbon footprint.
• Helping eco-minded travelers locate and choose their destinations.
The Canadian organization, http://www.greentourismcanada.ca/, is determined to create a sustainable industry that welcomes visitors across the country.
Topsy Farms worked with Green Tourism Canada for a few months, supplying initial data, participating in telephone interviews, then providing documentary and photographic proof of claims.
There were 5 required criteria:
• Sustainability commitment
• Risk management standards especially regarding disposal of toxic substances
• That we know and evaluate our energy consumption, waste disposal, water use, and money spending patterns
• That we establish a Green Policy regarding environmental, economic and social issues
• Creation of a Green Management file, documenting problems and solutions
There are 140 possible measurements of strengths and problems, but the evaluator applied only about 60 appropriate ones to Topsy Farms. We were scored 0 – 5 on each to be evaluated for Green Canada Tourism certification.
The interviewer was supportive and encouraging. The 5 to 6 hours of interviews by phone were both stimulating and exhausting, with a free flow of information both ways.
The staff at Green Tourism Canada was impressed by many things already happening at Topsy Farms:
- commitment to permaculture with the land
- efforts to assist Syrian refugees, First Nations healing, local schools
- support of our local community, including the donation of a lambskin to each Island newborn; producing the Amherst Island newspaper, The Beacon, for over 30 years; participation in First Response since inception; gathering fresh food from Island gardens for Kingston shelters
- welcome extended to the public to visit our shearing and foster lamb operations, educating families about eco-farming practices
- recycling materials used on the farm; repurposing others. (One example: 7 miles of wood retrieved from a derelict grain elevator we took down built the second floor of our barn – now our shearing floor.)
- support of our environment with gardens, Monarch Way Station certification, raising bees and producing honey, mulching with belly wool.
- no chemicals at all are used in the production of our roving, yarn and blankets.
We learned a great deal about ourselves as well as developing ideas for improvement.
We were fascinated by the exercise of drawing a geographical chart, showing where our money was spent in 2016. The pie chart summarizes our proud results. Topsy paid 72% of last year’s goods and services within Ontario, mainly locally. Only 5% was spent outside Canada and we hope to reduce that!
We received a report suggesting areas of vulnerability, making practical recommendations, and stimulating new ideas.
We are proud to announce…
On Earth Day, Topsy Farms was awarded the Gold Classification for Green Tourism Canada.
It is the highest possible standard that a tourism business can receive regarding ecological sustainability.
Of 110 businesses classified in Canada, Topsy Farms is the FIRST farm – one of a very few agribusinesses including vineyards – to receive Green Tourism Canada Certification.
We are deeply gratified that our efforts, our values have been acknowledged. Our wool products are the most sustainable, environmentally friendly anywhere.
We can also clearly see new ways to improve our practices to be even more ecologically friendly.
Do walk or cycle this pathway with us.
Most of our 41 summers farming on Amherst Island have been dry. The summers of 2008-2011 were a pleasant exception – no Islanders could remember 3 green summers in a row and 4 in a row still seem miraculous.
For us, the driest summer was in 1988. We had to buy some poor quality hay and quite a bit of grain to get the sheep flock through to the next spring.
It was a near squeak that year to pay the bills.
Once again this year we have had a tough spring/early summer with high temperatures and very little moisture. The August rains enjoyed by some have managed to miss us almost entirely. But we are in quite a bit better position than we were in 1988.
Our equipment isn’t quite so ancient and is less prone to breaking down when urgently needed. Hay can be made more quickly. We now have the equipment and experience to make baleage early in the Ontario growing season which enables us to harvest good quality forage while encouraging re-growth for pasture, and at least slightly reduce our dependence on increasingly expensive grain. The sheep are rotated from pasture to pasture. We try always to trim the completed pastures to remove plants that the sheep didn’t eat. (We don’t want the least favourite to reseed, coming to dominate the pasture.)
Christopher, wrapping a baleage bale.
High soil quality helps the farm through drought.
We roll the hay out in the fall and winter, spreading it on the ground. That is the most efficient way for all sheep to have equal access to the fresh hay. It also leaves tiny hay fragments which, combined with the sheep droppings, increase the organic matter in the soil. We have less manure to spread as we now use the barns less, but still stockpile the barnyard gleanings and spread on the fields when we can. This increases the ’tilth’ of the earth, draws earthworms (which add their own castings) and other small organisms, which helps hold moisture if we do get any rain. The first year we unrolled hay on poor pasture, we could clearly see the green stripes in the ground, where the more lush grasses were growing thanks to the increased organic matter.
Don unrolling hay to newly shorn sheep, early spring
Last year was a good year – we harvested as much hay as possible and were able to build up a surplus – called ‘drought hay’ – which we are already feeding during the weaning process (5 large round bales/day plus supplement). Last year we made over 1700 round bales and didn’t start feeding until November; this year, we were able to make just over 1100 bales, and have had to start feeding during the summer. That is a big difference.
Ian loading bales onto wagons for transport
Consequently, culling animals that are not productive for the farm is a much higher priority this year. A first year ewe-lamb who didn’t get pregnant is unfortunately sent to market. Older ewes unable to raise lambs once more would normally be culled in the fall, but this year, they are going in the summer. We just can’t feed them.
Tough decisions. We need to enhance the core of our flock, feeding them well, rather than giving everyone skimpy rations.
So, now our soil is improved. Our techniques are improved. Equipment is in better shape. We just need to perfect our rain dance techniques.
How many disparaging phrases have you heard about sheep? “Led like sheep to the slaughter”; “The black sheep of the family”; “A wolf in sheep’s clothing”…
“Not fair” says our shepherd Christopher, and we agree.
Sheep’s instinct to herd is their protection.
Lacking speed, teeth or claws, hiding in a group is smart. It follows that when shepherds want them to go into a pen or through a narrow gate, the sheep understandably feel less safe, and simply don’t want the same thing the people do. That does not mean they are dumb.
They are individuals. A stranger looking at a flock might think they are all alike, but those of us close to the animals can clearly see their personal characteristics. There are mothers more skilled than others; confident leaders and obedient followers; ones who know the guardian dogs are to be obeyed fast while others are mavericks; the steeplechase jumpers who challenge all fences…
Some breeds have certain predictable traits. A black-faced Suffolk ewe or lamb will be more calm and steady, whereas a lamb bred by a Border Cheviot will be feisty, almost high strung, with great ‘survivability’ skills.
Personalities vary also. We fostered twins from one hour old, and one was far more skilled than the other at finding the food source. It was first born, probably by just a few minutes, and was more playful and clearly the leader of the two.
Lambs being fostered have a high learning curve. Their instincts say to go under a warm belly and feel for a firm warm teat, then drink milk of a certain flavour. When they are fostered, they have to learn quickly to seek a hard black rubber nipple up high, with reconstituted powdered milk that doesn’t taste quite right. A lamb who has been with a ewe for a few days will initially say ‘ptooey’ to the taste. However, survival instincts rule, and usually by the second feeding they will move toward not away from the person with the bottle, thumping energetically at knees, seeking food.
Our two older foster lambs know “go for a walk” and “into your pen”. (They like the first.) I started to save the last bit of milk in the bottle to reinforce the latter directive. After one repeat they knew what to expect, and now enter eagerly.
The next time you hear someone disparage sheep, do challenge it. Come and visit Topsy Farms and see for yourself.
Our sheep stay outside all year.
They are actually their healthiest in the cold weather – no flies, and internal parasites are not an issue. Not to mention, wool is both an excellent insulator and wool also dries out quickly, which is good for the sheep and excellent for our made in Canada wool blankets. We roll out large round bales of hay and silage every day for them. There are always a few days above freezing when there is a bit of mud but it’s not usually a problem. It is different when warmer weather arrives.
The frost coming out of the ground in late winter or early spring is the best of times and the worst of times. The best is the hope of spring in the air: warmth; frogs revving up; ducks and geese on the lake; snakes coming out of the ground; clothes on the line. The worst is the MUD. The time when the ground softens as the ground water turns from solid to liquid is always a problem. Until the ground is too soft, the feeding tractor carries a bale on the front and the back. The distance from where the hay is stored to where it is unrolled can be up to 600 ft. Feeding 6 bales a day and carrying 2 at a time takes a while. With soft ground, we can’t carry a bale on the front without getting stuck; so 3 trips becomes 6 trips. All the ruts have to be levelled out when the ground dries enough or the haying equipment takes a beating. The frost coming out also means that it is harder to find dry areas in which to unroll the hay.
When the serious mud arrives and the fields are mostly wet, it is time to move the sheep to a drier field much nearer hay so there’ll be fewer ruts. So, on March 18th, it was time to move the mature flock from their wintering grounds on Lot 64 back to the home farm – Field 4-2. Christopher, Don, Nathan, Michael and Ian on 3 ATVs herded the sheep on the Lot 4 laneway through the woods and 4 fields to the field where they will stay until the pastures have grown enough for them to start grazing.
It was a beautiful morning and everything went as well as we could have hoped. The only wrinkle in this operation was the sheep moving off the laneway to avoid a large puddle of water – sheep do not like to get their feet wet.
Story and photos by Ian
Topsy Farms produces beautiful washable wool products including sheepskins, six point wool blankets, wool for knitting and felting, and some of the finest local lamb in Ontario.
One of our survival secrets at Topsy Farms is that we don’t purchase new and efficient – and expensive – farm equipment.
We make do and recycle the old.
That translates to all the workers, but especially Christopher who has most machinery know-how, spending hours and hours patching and rebuilding and scavenging parts to eke out ‘just one more year’. One cost of that is occasional breakdowns during haying season, and the frantic rush for repairs and parts. (They never break in winter.)
We are now officially retiring two very-well used machines – the oldest of our old farm equipment. Every bit will be recycled. The combine was purchased from an elderly neighbour. Garnet and his father bought it new in 1950, and was state of the art at the time. We traded hay baling for it years ago. But our shallow-soil sheep pasture just isn’t good grain -growing soil, and we’ve seldom been able to harvest a decent crop. We tried to give this combine away two years ago, but its 10 foot width and the ferry limitations and distance and hauling costs meant it was too expensive as a free gift.
Our first round baler did wondrous service. Ian remembers it arrived when I showed up, over 30 years ago. (I’m not sure which was the most noteworthy event.) We kept it going at least 5 years after it was pretty much worn out. We also wanted to switch to a machine that could use net wrap (that we recycle) on our hay bales. It is well adapted for making silage bales also. The old baler has been retired for awhile now. We salvaged parts we might be able to reuse including the PTO drive train, springs, tongue, wheels, stub axles, and the hydraulic cylinders.
So, we ordered a dumpster, which has a width of 8 feet, to accommodate both – plus other metal flotsam. One form of honourable retirement: every bit will be recycled, and will generate at least a little welcome cash.
An oxyacetylene torch was used to cut parts off the combine so it could fit, and two tractors manoevered it into position then pushed it in with almost 2 inches to spare on each side. Later, Kyle positioned, pushed and lifted to somersault the baler in front of the combine. Nice fit. Ian had first salvaged the grain-storage bin from the combine with the intention of using it in his new, improved hen house (to protect the grain from scavengers).
The processes for tidying up activities on the farm are a bit different from in your home. However, as everywhere, it feels good to have storage space increased and clutter reduced.
Ian took a van load of our products to the Queens Farmers Market at Queen’s University in Kingston. This once-a-month market was requested by some students last fall and has been pretty successful. We were invited to set up a booth for the January event and did ok. The 2 things Ian learned in January were: make sure people know that we can take Mastercard and VISA; and there quite a few young people knitting. So this time Ian put up the charge card signage and brought lots of yarn. Sold 42 skeins of yarn and made 3 credit card sales. All the natural – white, brown, light grey and dark grey – were bought. Three young women, representing a group called “No Sweat” as in no more sweat shops, bought the last of the natural yarn. They intend to learn some knitting skills for empathic reasons, I think. It was nice change from sitting on a tractor and rolling out hay. Don got to do all the chores so he had a busy morning.
Amherst Island is, I’ve been told, the most drought prone area of Ontario. It can be very frustrating in the summer; standing in a parched field watching the clouds open up on the mainland to the north of us. Or to see the large cloud banks to the south of the lake soaking the aptly named Watertown in New York State. It’s not so bad in the winter though as we seldom have more than a foot of snow on the ground. This allows us to keep our sheep outside all winter.
We roll hay out on pasture and hay fields and that creates a rich mulch for the next growing season. It also means that we do not have huge quantities of manure to move in warmer weather when there are lots of other things to do. The sheep are able to stand a lot of cold provided they are well fed and can find shelter from the wind behind bushes, trees and rocks. They are healthier in the cold weather as the various tiny critters that harm sheep are inactive.
The dogs do not seem to mind the cold much either although some of the older dogs usually find a sheltered spot to rest in. The bitch that we bought from a ranch in Colorado whelped 7 puppies last month. They are now quite active and are solid little fur coated barrels. We hope 4 of them will find good homes in working environments – we won’t sell them otherwise. Three more dogs will bring our total guard dog numbers up to 15. There are also 2 Border Collies and 3 pet dogs on the farm – lots of dog food required.