The precious acres of Topsy Farms | Kingston Whig Standard

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I first visited Topsy Farms on the west end of Amherst Island last spring with a friend who volunteers in the farm gardens. There I met the extraordinary Sally Bowen, a very genuine, kind woman who has been gardening, tending sheep and raising her family on this farm for over 40 years. He is connected to a permanent nasojejunal tube that requires him to lie in bed every afternoon on liquid formula (no food), which has been a part of his life for 24 years since he nearly died from tick-borne disease. before. But that doesn’t stop Sally from living an expansive and connected life close to nature, surrounded by her gardens, her community and her tribe.

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Her pollinator gardening experience and dedication to providing the right conditions for bees, monarch and black swallowtail butterflies, bees and beetles to flourish was of particular interest to me and drew me to the nectar as one of those bees.

You know that many insect populations are declining, especially bees. A significant decrease in their number in the last few years is a serious threat to our food chain. We depend on insects to pollinate the plants we eat and break down waste in the forest floor. As is often the case, we are once again the authors of our own misfortune: pesticide use, habitat loss and climate change have led to a 40 percent decline in insect populations over the past decade.

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I have returned to Topsy Farms to volunteer several times since that first visit – and to bask in the bright warmth of Sally’s fierce intelligence and learn more about my new passion: pollinator gardening. The Topsy Farms clan greets me every time, offering me kindness and laughter, duck eggs and spontaneous hugs as I clear stubborn weeds, hill potatoes, or move soil and compost…bloom.

But no matter how friendly the tribe, no matter how big the pollinators and vegetable gardens, the average farm is struggling to survive these tough times.

Topsy Farms has survived and even thrived by reinventing itself several times since seven hippies bought the original 350 acres in 1972 and created a commune. At its peak, the farm had 1,200 breeding ewes and about 2,000 lambs selling meat and wool. But the economics of the farm required a shift to wool production as well as processing, and in 1996 they began retailing from the old ice house, now the charming Wood Shed. An amazing variety of high quality Canadian wool products are produced, including beautiful blankets available on the farm and online.

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Ian Murray, Sally’s husband of nearly 50 years, is the last remaining member of the original group still living and working on the farm. Ian and Sally decided that their three children – Leah, Jake and Kyle – wanted something more than farm life before they chose their life path. So they all left the island to travel, work or study at university, but each returned with their partners and children and slowly took over the vision and responsibility for the farm.

One of the most significant and creative changes at Topsy has taken place in the last five years, as it has reduced sheep farming, shifted to “eco-ethical, sustainable agriculture” and expanded learning-experiential events open to the public. The farm has developed a number of exciting partnerships, including one with Kubota Canada and another with Blue Marble Learning Scene. Kubota Canada supported the construction of 20 “Victory Gardens” in 30 days among Islanders during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and recently supported the publication of a delightful children’s book, Devlin Saves the Lamb. Blue Marble Learning Scene is a new organization that provides nature activities, some of which take place on the farm.

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Topsy’s extensive and well-researched coyote conservation efforts are especially impressive given how many tender (and expensive!) baby lambs and sheep they’ve killed over the years. By keeping the known coyote pack intact, a “logger pack” develops that keeps other intruders out. Electric fences and territorial odor cues such as human hair and urine make pastures undesirable. These, along with motion sensor lights, tapes attached to fences, and a predator eye — a flashing LED light that moves frequently — help the guardian pack learn the rules and respect the farm’s boundaries.

Coyote conservation efforts also include a 700-meter linear forest “re-establishment” project. Hundreds of berry, nut and deciduous trees and shrubs have been planted to increase the wildlife influx of moles, field mice and other small animals that contribute to the natural coyote diet. The results have been amazing: no cuts in the lambing season in the last two years and a significant reduction in deaths throughout the year.

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But back to my first study of pollinating gardens. Sally continues to learn about pollinators and now teaches others after many years of gardening. He uses a butterfly cage the size of a large breadbox to feed and water butterfly larvae at various stages of development; and in gardens, monarchs and swallowtails fly from flower to flower, and bees carry the precious pollen needed for plant reproduction and the survival of most fruits and vegetables on our planet.

Urban sprawl has resulted in the loss of 319 hectares of Ontario farmland every day over the past five years, but the Topsy Farms clan is determined to keep its precious 350 hectares, which are now worth their weight in gold. From the time I’ve spent with these amazing people, I imagine they’ll thrive … and we’ll all be better for their efforts.

Susan Young, a mindfulness coach and facilitator, leads programs for individuals and groups. Contact her at

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