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 https://topsyfarms.com/uncategorized/great-outing-amherst-island-day-weekend
The heart of this old building beats strongly.
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.
“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.”