STELLA — Farms in the agri-tourism business are relieved they survived 2020 and its many lockdown restrictions. One farm operation had a stellar year.
Topsy Farms, a hippy-founded cooperative farming venture started back in the 1970s, had a great year with increased sales of lamb meat and wool products, including hats, blankets and throws, said current owner Jake Murray.
Born and raised on the Amherst Island sheep farm, west of Kingston and at the edge of a great abyss that is Lake Ontario, Murray said agri-tourism has been part of the business since day one. “I’m 39 and I remember my first job, leading tours going through the lambing barn,” back in the 1980s. “So now in 2020 we’re meeting the kids of people who visited as kids.”
At least, that was the plan. They had a whole whack of activities lined up: every week a new collection of kayaking tours, foraging for plants workshops, high-end farm-to-fork dinners and entertainment for the little ones. Then, of course, COVID-19 hit, and that all came crashing down.
Not ones to sit on their hands or their laurels, the farmers (Jake runs the farm with his two siblings) had time on their hands and began looking for ways to help the community. They set to work with what they had: thousands of metric tonnes of processed manure for compost, piles of topsoil and ready access to lumber.
Inspired by victory gardens grown during the World Wars, Topsy Farms volunteered to plant victory gardens for the local community and sent out the invitation through social media. The island’s population is about 400.
Equipment manufacturer Kubota caught wind of the plan and decided to help out, loaning the farm a utility tractor, UTV, tractor with bucket, skid steer and dump trailer. Topsy Farms went from plans to build five gardens to 20 in one month. This alongside lambing season to boot. They’d check on the sheep (they have between 400 and 500) in the morning, go to people’s homes and build garden frames for a few hours, then come back and check back in on the flock. “We’re just now catching our breath from March. It was a hell of a run.”
The farm turned into a garden-building powerhouse. The farm also struck a deal with a local greenhouse to offer plants at a discount for urban and suburban people wanting to start their own small home gardens. The gardens they built and filled with compost and topsoil in the spring wrapped up harvest last month. Half of what people grew went to a local food bank.
The equipment loan gave Topsy Farms a chance to make an upgrade of its own, Murray said. He built a walking trail from the farm’s retail store into its 100-acres of bush. “It was cost-prohibitive to hire a contractor. But because we had the equipment we were able to do the work in-house.”
It wasn’t all volunteer hours keeping them busy. The farm business was thriving. One of the first farms to go online (their online store launched in the 1990s), customers were buying direct from the on-farm store , online, or from eight different local stores, four separate online retailers and a half-dozen other stores across Canada.
Years of marketing and engaging with the community paved the path, Murray said. The farm has a small social media empire, with content on its website, Facebook page, Instagram and on YouTube. “So as people are following our journey online, they’re invested in what we’re doing and want to help.”
Now that Christmas sales are upon them, Murray said that people were choosing the farm over other options. If it were a choice between ordering something on Amazon as a gift or a blanket from Topsy, “they were choosing Topsy.”
And that’s all a direct result of making themselves known, something Murray couldn’t encourage farmers enough to take advantage of. “Don’t be afraid to let people know you exist. Find ways to tell your story in your words. Instagram and Facebook are free. Get a teenager at home to start a TikTok. For the first time in history, farmers can reach people who buy their products directly.”
The 21st century offers an incredible opportunity, he said. “We as farmers have to get away from our natural inclination to be tucked away.”
Or as Murray more succinctly put it: “To save the family farm, we have to share it.”