Topsy Farms: a legacy of love

Ian Murray and Sally Bowen of Topsy Farms. Submitted photo.

Favourite places — we all have them.

Some places make you feel a little bit better when you’re there: more relaxed, more connected, more free to be yourself, maybe even more alive. Sometimes we share that place with special people. For many people in Ontario, Topsy Farms on Amherst Island is one of those places.

The story of Topsy Farms began on New Year’s Eve, 1971. A group of hippies purchased a farm on the northwest corner of Amherst Island, intending to form ‘Headlands Community,’ a commune for like-minded people who sought respite from conventional middle-class society’s materialism and repression.

Half a century later, a section of the Topsy Farms website called ‘The Infamous History of Topsy Farms’ tells the tale. The community members intended to tear down the old barn, sell the farmhouse, and pay off the mortgage. They also wanted to build and move into a geodesic dome on the property.

Guardian dogs and their flock. Photo submitted.

The website narrative puts it this way: “Then the head of the municipal government visited us to find out what we were up to. He sadly shook his head when he heard about our plans to take down the barn. He expressed disbelief that we would destroy such a good barn and casually mentioned that he had a few heifers he’d maybe consider selling to us.”

The heifers ended up staying, and the hippies got into farming in a big way. They learned that farming is not a job but a lifestyle and vocation.

The farm continued long after the commune disbanded, with three of the original hippie owners and a friend buying out the others. There were lean years and immense amounts of hard work, but reading their story, one comes away with a sense of overwhelming love and generosity of spirit.

Eventually three of the partners retired, and the next generation of farmers took over the farm with their patriarch, Ian (one of the originals), and his wife, Sally. Wool became the product of choice at Topsy Farms along the way. Along with beautiful pastures for the sheep came guardian dogs, dry stone walls, lovely gardens, bees, honey, and the idea that all of this goodness might be worth sharing with a broader audience.

Topsy’s Wool Shed had become an Amherst Island destination for tourists and locals alike, and with agrotourism in its infancy, they decided to open their farm gates: “expanding our tradition of making people welcome and demonstrating how to care for the animals and the land with respect.”

One of Topsy Farms’ biggest fans, Dan Hendry, explains, “Topsy has been an amazing part of our family memories, from hiking the open trails, visiting the sheep, dogs, and cows, feeding the lambs, talking gardening with Sally, and shopping at the Wool Shed. My wife even learned to knit because she wanted to use the beautiful wool they make and sell. Topsy is part of our family routines every season. Many families from all over Ontario feel the same.”

Topsy Farms has become a touchstone of sorts.

“Ian and his family have shared their lives in full colour through their social media presence,” Hendry says. “They share the ups and downs of life on an island and life on a farm. They hold nothing back and often give us all a moment of reflection and introspection.”

In a social media reflection, Joanne McBay calls Topsy Farms “my virtual farm since I moved back to the city.”

Sally and others post their daily activities to social media, and Hendry observes that these posts, “like those in the fencing around the farm, have helped to hold people up and keep them connected throughout the pandemic. They connected everyone to the farm… and back to the community that Ian has built.”

Perhaps it was not the commune they intended, but it has become a community built around their love and care for nature, animals, family, and friends. And those who go there (or who observe this place and its people through the miracle of social media) often find that Topsy Farms becomes a favourite place, a homecoming spot, where peace and community can always be found.

“Topsy’s story is inspiring,” writes Stacey Hammond. “They’ve touched many lives over the years. Every day, they uplift and inspire people with good, old-fashioned hard work and wisdom while striving to take care of and share their little piece of paradise on Amherst Island.”

Recently, Sally shared the sad news that Ian is dying. Cancer is cruel.  

“When the announcement came that Ian was ill,” says Hendry, “we all hung our heads a little lower because we know that Ian (and his entire family) has been offering more than experiences at his farm; he has offered us all a piece of his community.”

Ian: an example of what Topsy Farms describes on social media as “nontoxic masculinity.” Submitted photo.

Not only this, but Ian has set a standard for what it means to be a good person. Topsy Farms’ social media account presents “the Topsy men” as an example of “nontoxic masculinity.” In a poetic piece by Sally, she describes Ian and the others as follows:

No one-upmanship
No controlling others
No emotional manipulation
Just quiet, steady, strength;
Leaf warriors…
…masculinity does not have to be a despised thing;
The world just needs better role models.

Hendry says he was struck by this post about Ian — whom he has had a chance to meet on occasion during visits to the farm — and that he is inspired by “seeing how kind [Ian] is and what they’re doing… just how open and raw and real they are, and they’ve always been, and they share their hardships of the farm and the good things and the beauty.”

“It’s a very open, public place… You can go and visit and wander… My wife and I and our daughter go over there every year, multiple times, and just walk,” Hendry shares. “Once you hit the ferry, and you get on the other side… it’s a different world. It’s always nice at the end of the road: I know that they’re there, and somebody’s saying ‘hi ‘to you.”

According to most, that sense of warmth and welcome, that “different world,” is Ian’s world. “Kind.” “Wise.” “Caring.” “Planning.” “Accepting.” All these words come up repeatedly in online descriptions of the co-founder of Topsy Farms.

Hendry wanted to give back to the man and the family who’ve given him his favourite place. “A social barn raising,” he calls it, that “will help Ian see how many people in Kingston and beyond… want to support Topsy Farms and Ian, as a thank you for gifting all of us great family memories and experiences.” And so he is donating a Topsy Farms wool blanket as a raffle prize – the very same famous blanket that appeared on the TV series ‘The Last of Us’ with Pedro Pascal last year.

This blanket will go to one person who donates to a GoFundMe that Stacey Hammond has started to help support the family during Ian’s last month. So far, the funds raised have allowed Ian to be cared for on the island.

After all, Amherst Island, Topsy Farms, his loving wife, and family are Ian’s place.

This past weekend, Ian and Sally marked 47 years of marriage, underscoring a section of ‘The Topsy Men’ poem which offers another glimpse into the life and love they’ve shared:

In our marriage vows,
Ian said:
‘I will be here when you return from wherever you choose to travel.’
I love the man.

Submitted image.

Editor’s note: Ian Murray passed away at home, surrounded by his family, on Friday, Apr. 26, 2024. His full obituary, including details on a planned Celebration of Life, can be read here.

3 thoughts on “Topsy Farms: a legacy of love

  • Thank you for sharing Topsy’s legacy of love. This is human kind at its best. Written by an exceptional journalist.

  • Thank you so much for articulating what so many of us have been feeling about Ian’s illness.

Leave a Reply

You cannot copy content from this page, please share the link instead!