Escape to Eastern Ontario Featuring Jacob Murray of Topsy Farms

In this episode of the Escape to Eastern Ontario Podcast, we’re talking to Jake Murray from Topsy farms on Amherst Island. Farm life may be quiet but it is never boring. Jake is here to talk about Topsy’s colorful story and some of the exciting events that they’re sharing with the public this season.

Jacob: So yeah, Topsy farm started in 1972 as a hippie commune and it’s been a wonderful open and engaged place ever since. It’s a spot that welcomes freaks and hairy beasts of all sorts and makes no judgement. And it’s just it’s a kind of a magical realm where you know we accept each other’s faults failings and foibles and kind of build each other up. And we’re definitely stronger than our parts.

Jaeson: Yeah that’s really awesome. I was especially taken by a picture you guys posted recently. I think the year was 1971 and shows all the original founders there in varying stages of undress and dress. A couple of them are shirtless and just hanging out by the farm there kind of shows the spirit of the place there when it first got going.

Jacob: Yeah that’s one of my favorite pictures and it’s the barn is still there and we’re actually thinking about recreating that picture with the people who are here now. Some of the original members my dad included, is still here and a lot of the people in that photograph are sort of close family friends who come and go. And I think we’ll always have a special connection to this place.

Jaeson: I would love to interview your dad because he sounds just like Peter Zosky from CBC. I don’t know if you remember Peter Zosky, chef who said…

Jacob: Yeah I remember and he’s gotten grumpy in his old age. You’d be a great interviewer.

Jacob: There you go. So when they moved out to the island whose idea was that and what’s the story behind that?

Jacob: Well my dad was one of the like the I guess he was the pivotal member and I’m not sure exactly how the first few met but I know that they were you know it was a mix of Canadians who were sort of fed up and disenchanted with the way our society was heading. But from the capitalist standpoint, they came from their own successful careers. My dad for example, was an engineer. And there were a few Americans who were trying to avoid the draft in Vietnam and or breaking the law to come up to Canada and they just they found this piece of land and started at as an organic farm. And there were already a couple of people here on the islands who sort of fit into that I don’t know, that philosophy, that mentality, that mindset and they just you know they started with a small nucleus and then expand it from there and I can’t remember exactly how many were at the height but it was you know maybe 20, 30 members. Just you know there was like one house. And then there was a second house and people came and went and drifted in and drifted away and it sounds like it was quite a magical time.

Jaeson: That’s amazing. And so how did it, when did it settle down into the kind of family unit that you have there now?

Jacob: I think the Commune disbanded in the later 70s maybe 77 and a few of the people who were from the commune days, that was my dad Ian, my mom Sally, Randy, Chris Kennedy, Don Tub, they stayed and they decided to take the organic farm and go a little bit more serious in the agriculture route. And so they started with some sheep because Chris Kennedy one of the founders, he was an oxford-educated shepherd who wanted to find land but England is a really expensive place to buy farmland. And so he traveled around into the world, Canada was one of his last stops and he stayed here because the food was the best. Now, Don another one of the founders, they found him under the table after a particularly good party and he stayed at Versailles. He inhabits the third floor of the farmhouse and was a staple of my childhood. You know Jason, having the hippie roots here and growing up around that was such a valuable experience. I didn’t just have one set of parents like my mom and my dad which is you know any child would consider them fortunate but I had other role models who are also family. Like Chris taught me machines, Don taught me stereos and to appreciate music, and Randy she showed me a bed you know like the gardens and food like how to how to cook and prepare food. She was an amazing cook, still is. And it’s I’m so grateful they’ve made me the person that I am today.

Jaeson: Yeah, I was just reading your Instagram would we call it your biography there, and I was struck by the the different things that you’ve got yourself involved with. The stone wall building for instance. You’re in a band. And you’re a shepherd by trade. Are you not?

Jacob: Yeah, I apprenticed with Chris for a few years who is now just retired and it’s actually my brother Kyle who is taking over the formal shepherding role. I am taking the marketing and management of the guest experience and I know that this podcast it’s towards like that the tourism and experience in Eastern Ontario. And that’s a thing that we are moving into and trying to be in an open place where people can come and you know see the water and sit on the beach and get their clothes smelling like campfire, brush their hair on the trees. We want to be that place where you can come from the city and just unwind and get on the ferry and have that Zen experience.

Jaeson: That’s something that unless you’ve had that experience um my wife and I go to will file in fairly frequently and I’ve naturally been to Amherst Island a couple of times but until you’ve taken a ferry across to one of these islands on the St. Lawrence Seaway and stepped off you don’t kind of appreciate the striking difference there is between the mainland and these islands that are just a short skip away.

Jacob: Yeah, there’s a saying that: “we’re all here because we’re not all there” like nobody lives on an island by accident and you know there is a in the in the way that Topsy was a wonderful collection of freaks and weirdos. Islanders and I think that goes for all Islanders, Islanders in general are just a different sort of people. You choose to give up certain comforts of society in order to gain a tighter community. I think that’s the best way I can articulate that.

Jaeson: It’s something that needs to be experienced. It’s kind of hard to explain, eh?

Jacob: Yeah, it is. But I would like to share that experience. And being a place of open acceptance is something that the farm has always been. One of my first Jobs was giving tours to people in the lament barn like I was five, six years old I was showing people from the city you know how lambs are born and teaching them how to pet a lamb or feed on a bottling. We’re now meeting the kids of those kids and man oh man that is that is a really good life. And I want to keep that going.

Jaeson: So that reminds me that I wanted to ask you about the adopt a lamb program. First of all, how many sheep do you have on the farm these days?

Jacob: Right now we have somewhere in the 650-700 sheep range, somewhere in that neighborhood. We’re gonna very soon do the shearing and so we’ll have an exact count.

Jaeson: Right, so you’re not even sure?

Jacob: You can keep counting. No well you fall asleep when you try to calculate.

Jaeson: That’s fantastic. And so, what’s this adopt a lamb exactly?

Jacob: So what this started as, is every year there are going to be lambs who can’t be taken care of by their mom. That’s just a fact of nature and because they’re out in the fields but they’re born on pasture. They grow up on pasture. If they spend their lives on the grass and under the trees but it can be uh you know it can be a tough existence and so if there’s a lamb that isn’t being fed without human intervention it’s going to die. And so we don’t want that, so we take it from the field and bring it home. And then train it on the bottle. We use the stubby beer bottles with rubber nipple and milk replacer formula so you you’ve can’t feed these lambs from the time they’re born and they they think that your mom. So they follow you around and they know that they know your voice. Oh man, it’s one of the sweetest things. And so it’s always been kind of a hassle even though it’s a wonderful experience, it’s a lot of work and it costs a lot of money and it’s a lot of human hours invested in that. And so it’s always been one of those things on the farm that we did but you know you don’t really get anything back from aside from knowing that you’ve done a good job which is not nothing but the TD Bank can’t be paid with that. So the adopt a Foster Lamb idea started with the idea of how do we take this thing that is a financial loss and try to at least have it breakeven? And so what we started doing was putting it out there to our network, “would you like to pay a small fee and in return you get to be the one who names a particular lamb.” And you get a little backstory about it, where it came from maybe how old its mom was, and then and you can come and have private time with your baby and feed it and learn how to take care of it. The lamb stays on the farm but that experience becomes a shared experience. And so I think people get a lot of value out of that. There’s a lot of therapy that goes into saving a Lambs life because you’re using love. You’re saving its life with love and that is an equal exchange because I don’t know about you Jason but I certainly have my ups and downs, and you can’t be in a bad mood when you’re holding a little baby lamb and giving it a bottle and holding it.

Jaeson: The one time I came out to visit, hang out with Sally there she had a couple of lambs in the yard there just pinned in and yeah you’re absolutely right one of my favorite pictures there from the trip was just feeding the lamb. It’s an experience you can’t forget. I asked her if I could take it home and she said absolutely not. I remember the name – she called him “adventure lamb”.

Jacob: Oh yeah I remember adventure lamb. That was right around the time when we were starting that program and I think that was it was one of my son’s that named an adventure lamb because it kept jumping off the pad. It must have been an Aries, it was kind of wild. Yeah that’s an example of a thing that we can do with the space and the knowledge that we have in a new creative way. And that’s how we save the farm Jason. You’ve heard the expression “you bet the farm”? Well recently we’ve done that, our head Shepherds retired, Don who I told you about the guy under the table after the party? He’s been in London Ontario for the last few years taking care of an elderly parent and so Topsy farms point one is kind of over and we are in a transition where me and my brother Kyle, my sister Leah and our best friend Will and Kaylee Graham are taking a leadership role. So my mom Sally and my daddy and are still involved but the younger generation are starting to make some of these hard decisions and take on the responsibilities of running a very big sheep farm on the west end of an island where you get hammered by snow and rain and the Lambs don’t care if you’re tired and if the tractor breaks, you’re carrying a by hand. And that’s a reality that we are coming to fully appreciate.

Jaeson: That reminds me of one of the questions that I had actually. So living on the island and being in a farming environment, there’s obviously going to be some things that happened that could only happen on Amherst Island in that situation can you give me an example of something like that?

Jacob: Well, I think I’m like I’m drawing a blank for specifics but I’ll tell you that like fairies break down and the center will not hold and things fall apart and when you’re trying to coordinate workshops and events, we had a dry stone wall festival a few years ago when we had the like the baby fairy and so we were scrambling to buy almost hand-carry a hundred tons of stone across on this little boat in the middle of the night with a local backhoe guy you know doing runs. He would start at 11:00 when the traffic stopped he would be taking these pallets of stone across the well. And then you know we rented one of the island bail cruise ships to ferry people back and forth during the festival. So because there wasn’t enough room on the little replacement ferry. So on an island you have to adapt, you have to play jazz with life. There’s no formula, there’s no manual for this. You’re making it up as you go along and it can be dull on a farm Jason. It can be dreadfully dull but it is never boring

Jaeson: Well that’s awesome. So this baby ferry, this is just a backup ferry that you guys have it Amherst Island?

Jacob: It’s the Quinte loyalist. It’s one of the two ferries that run between Adolphus town and Picton. And so when the Island Ferry is down, they take ours and we take a little mini barge from Picton. And it is what would be a kind word, it’s insufficient for the community’s needs. No it’s not really. Sometimes the government no it’s not. And luckily, we’re getting a brand-new ferry Wolff islands. Getting a brand-new ferry there’s gonna be some of the only electric ferries I think in North America and maybe they’re cutting edge in the world. So it’s gonna recharge every time it docks, it’s gonna be fast, it’s gonna be sleek, it’s gonna be quiet and we’re really excited we got a you know new docks being made. MTO is constructing Docs and so Amherst Island is right on this little right on this cusp of we know, change is about to happen. We just don’t know what its gonna look like.

Jaeson: So, what kind of new things have developed on the farm that visitors can experience now that you guys are transitioning in?

Jacob: So specifically this year we’ve bought and installed a Mongolian yurt. So one of our first things is to have you know people stay in small groups couples or small groups that you know that like as a family for either a day or a weekend or for the summer if they wanted to rent it the whole time and then from there they can access the six kilometers of woodland trails that we’ve cleared over the years going out and collecting dead firewood. And then you know they’ve got they have the beaches and the canoes, paddle board you know all the things that are part of them like the main area of the farm including the pet lambs and the two highland cows that we just got who are wonderful pets and will eat from your hand and love to be scratched under their chins. And Jason as this goes forward like we’re just dipping our toes into this and we’re gonna learn a lot of lessons this year. And we’re gonna learn what people want and maybe what they don’t want. And we’re really open to ideas. You know, does a person want to go out and shadow us while we do farm work? Do they want to come and help? I don’t know the answer to that. Are people gonna want to have sort of guided experiences? Or if they’re gonna want to be left alone? We’re not sure but we are really open and we’re really engaged in finding answers to those questions and we’d love to pull in all of the other stuff that Amherst Island has to offer. There’s many incredible artists and we have a wonderful restaurant and general store. And you know the museam, cultural center and the radio station and all of these things are like untapped resources. And I think that the community as a whole and benefits as Topsy does well the community will do well. There’s a very symbiotic relationship here

Jaeson: In my experience has been that the Fairy Jammers Island also doubles as a time machine. The minute you step off, you feel like 30 years in the past.

Jacob: You are not wrong there. When you like there’s the blacksmith’s shop right in the middle of the village, it still says W perhaps blacksmith. And you know it’s…

Jaeson: not put on it that’s a functional working blacksmith

Jacob: It’s the shop is the actual blacksmith has moved from that location just a little bit up the road but there is a blacksmith in our village. The mechanic George works barefoot and is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. There is a community of characters here and you don’t have to be here long before you realize that.

Jaeson: It’s fantastic. So what kind of things do the people need to know about Amherst Island before they come for a visit?

Jacob: The ferry leaves every hour on the half hour. If you show up at 11:31 on you are waiting an hour that’s number one. It costs $9 to take the ferry you can buy tickets in bulk which drop the cost of $4 but there is no bank machine on the boat, there’s no debit card so bring cash. When you drive around, don’t go fast, take in the scenery. Enjoy the slowing down of this place. People will wave. There’s nothing wrong or weird, they’re just waving because they are showing their respect and saying hello. When Islanders go to the mainland for about three or four minutes driving down the highway we’re waving and then realize that we’re getting dirty looks from everyone. It’s not a thing that you do elsewhere. The sunsets are magical. There are times when I could be in the middle of the busiest day and when that Sun drops below the horizon line it doesn’t matter what you’re doing you are stopping and you are taking that in. And you are remembering that life is not just going from work to home to work to home. That there are moments that need to be relished and appreciated. And living in this place, I’m lucky enough to be reminded of that on a daily basis.

Jaeson: Fantastic. So we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the history of the place, I’d also

like to draw some attention to the unique things you guys are doing with your core product there which of course is wool. First of all my understanding is that a fair bit of your wool is sent to PEI first and then it comes back. How does that work exactly?

Jacob: So the sheep will be shipped this weekend, coming on Easter weekend. We have two of Canada’s fastest best Shearers coming. And so they will pound through the flock that’s the 650 is 700 animals in the two days. Shearers work harder than just anybody else on earth. They burned through the amount of calories that an ultramarathon runner would go through and then they get up and they do it the next day. We take the fleeces and put them in burlap bags. These are by hand, and by hand I mean foot stomps. And they use gravity and human weight to pack the bags. The barn has open to the public so anybody can come and watch. This is a thing that we’re really we’re keen on sharing. It’s because it’s fascinating and it’s frenetic. And I’d liken it to anybody who’s worked in a restaurant, that there are no down moments. If you’ve got time to lean, you got time to sweep and so there’s always chaos but it’s this kind of controlled chaos where you’re never really sure at what moment everything is gonna go to hell. Sometimes the sheep will break out of their pen and just go charging down the middle of the barn and so you know we drop what we’re doing and we take control and put it to the area where it’s supposed to go. And so then those 700 fleeces will be put on a truck and joint with some other Ontario wool which head out to Prince Edward Island to one of the oldest mills in North America and one of the only mills that can do this kind of capacity. And so they take the raw wool and they wash it with gentle soaps in a gentle manner so the fibers aren’t broken. When people think of wool they often think scratchy. Our stuff doesn’t come out like that because you know like the big commercial places we’ll take all these harsh detergents put it in the pot, beat the heck out of it and that all the fibers get broken and that’s what pokes your skin. At the woolen mill we use, it’s all done very slowly and carefully and they leave some of the natural oil in the wool. So it’s really soft. It has this wonderful fragrance and they send us back these gorgeous blankets in all the colors you could imagine. And so we’re really proud to have these in our shop and have our name on this. We feel just as comfortable selling these blankets to our neighbors and our friends as we do to strangers and that’s a business I can get behind. And when somebody says I bought one of your blankets a few years ago, I have high confidence that they’re still going to be happy with that. And Jason, how many things do we buy that can be enjoyed by our grandkids or our grandkids’ grandkids? Like these things will last three, four hundred years. Like my I’ve got a Samsung Galaxy it’s no good and it’s like ten days old, it’s got a crack on the stupid screen. It’s we live in a disposable culture and in the same way that you said you know, coming on ferry is like going back 30 years. Well, buying a blanket from Topsy Farms is a way of connecting to a past that is still there. It’s just a little bit more difficult to find.

Jaeson: Right, so when I was talking to Sally as well she’s mentioning to me some surprising things about how wool blankets are used or wool products are used. Some things that I certainly hadn’t thought of. You care to talk about that a little bit?

Jacob: Well they, it’s naturally fire retardant. So you can use it, you can use it anywhere where there would be an open flame. You could use it as you know, like they have fire blankets in case of emergency. You use it in a clinical setting because there’s no so like with hospitals and things like that. We have rugs that will reduce or eliminate bed sores. The wool is naturally breathes so in the wintertime it’s warm but in the summer it’s cool and you can’t get that with synthetic fabrics at all. Would you share some of the other things that my mom told you about and maybe I can speak to that more directly?

Jaeson: Sure, yeah. No. I understand that you have a thriving market to the Harley Davidson community as well.

Jacob: Oh yeah, great. In that same way that they’re good for preventing bed sores, they are very good from preventing monkey butt on a motorcycle.

Jaeson: Awesome. So there’s a lot of information about the many uses for wool and probably I guarantee that you’ll see something on their website that will surprise you. I think doing Topsy has gone from…

Jacob: Oh yeah, you can stick it between your toes, you can use it for like the birds will take it and use it to line their nest, you can use it for insulation in your house. We use the it’s called Belly wool. It’s the stuff that’s not good enough to make the blankets, we use it as a mulch to keep the weeds down. Oh yeah. It’s got so many uses. And Jason it doesn’t fill our ocean with the micro plastics.

Jaeson: Right. So what are those micro plastics?

Jacob: So anytime that you buy like a synthetic blanket or clothes, you know you buy it, it’s brand new, it’s really soft. And then once it’s washed the first time, those synthetic fibers start to break down and they go into the drain. And when it drains into the city system, it goes through the purification process and back into like in anywhere around here. It goes back into the lake but all those what they call micro plastics also get put back into the lake and then fish eat those and then they die. Or birds eat the fish and then the birds die. And so there are countless photos on the internet of fish that are just bloated with what are called micro plastics and all of these come off of blankets and clothing and any textiles that are made with non-natural fiber. You don’t get that from cotton wool.

Jaeson: Right. So it’s a great answer for those who are thinking about moving towards things that first of all don’t end up in a landfill and also don’t harm in the environment with these micro fibers.

Jacob: Oh yeah, it’s like it said it lasts so long. And so anybody who’s concerned about living sustainably should take a good long look at buying wool. It’s not scratchy, not if it’s bought from a place like us. And you’re saving the environment by staring like getting away from petrochemicals and the micro plastics. It’s a renewable resource.

Jaeson: It also sounds like a wonderful opportunity to remind our kids about what a farming environment, if our main concern is its operated like as well get people to think about where their food is

Jacob: Yeah and this is a place where we believe in the things that we say. It’s not just marketing. You know, when we say that we honor the land and the animals on that. It’s not a line. Like we get up in the morning thinking about how do we make the land better and the animals on it healthier and happier. We have this thing called the Sheep happiness index and that means with any given field that they’re in, are they getting shelter there? Is their shade? Those are a good source of fresh water. Are there things that they can scratch their backs on? You know there are a lot of sheep operations and feed mills that keep their animals indoors all the time and it’s very convenient for the farmer but sheep with their heads down eating grass eating green grass is a way that they are in their happiest place. It’s the Sheepness of the Sheep, and that’s what we believe in.

Jaeson: That’s fantastic. Well where can people find out more about you Jake?

Jacob: Okay so Topsy Farms is topsyfarms.com very easy to find. If you’re on any of the socials Twitter: @topsyfarms, Instagram, Facebook, Grindr. We’re on tinder, swipe left or top of fun. We’re that’s what it is right? It’s swipe left, I don’t know. You got two middle-aged guys talking, trying to this is high class audio right here.

Jaeson: There you go, absolutely.

Jacob: But yeah, if you look for us we will be there.

Jaeson: And so right now you have the lambing is going on and pretty soon the shearing is going to start.

Jacob: That’s right, shearing Easter weekend and then lambing will start very soon after. Already there are some early lambs, one of the boys broke out back in October and we are now finding his handiwork. And so there are already baby lambs in the barn yards that people can just they can come and see. These ones are being raised by their moms which we’re very happy about. So these ones can’t be picked up and helped but very soon lambs that you can hold will be here.

Jaeson: And people have to call ahead or what? What’s the arrangement there?

Jacob: Anybody could show up any time. For lambing and shearing we ask that people book you know like in advance for VIP access. Shearing is free, with the lambing and the like the foster lamb interaction there’s a small fee for that I think it’s $20. It just covers the like the extra labor cost because we have to hire people to you know to make sure that the visitors get the right amount of time and that the animals are safe and that the visitors are safe.

Jaeson: Great. Well thanks! Thanks for taking the time to pull back the curtain and tell us about Topsy Farms and its colorful history. And i’d invite anyone who’s interested to visit www.topsyfarms.com and reach out and set up a time to head out an experience Amherst Island.

Jacob: You guys come and visit come Topsy farms. Connect the land. We are here and look forward to welcome you.

Jaeson: Thank you for tuning in to the Escape to Eastern Ontario Podcast. If you live, vacation or work in Eastern Ontario you’re surrounded with amazing destinations, hidden gems, fascinating stories and remarkable opportunities. Subscribe at escapetoeasternontario.com to discover more of the remarkable people, imaginative businesses and unforgettable getaways right in your backyard. I’m Jason Tanner, thanks for listening.