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Turning Topsy right side up

What happens when a hippie commune learns that some strategic business skills could help it thrive?

Ian Murray and Sally Bowen of Topsy Farms on Amherst Island, Ont.

When Topsy Farms started in 1971, the goal was simple. How could it need a complex business plan? Starting with five hippies, they were creating a commune on Amherst Island, just offshore in Lake Ontario west of Kingston.

The goal was clear too — become a self-sustaining community, secluded from the outside world, a place to build something meaningful and to raise children. What could be easier? Or harder?

So maybe they didn’t exactly know what they were doing, and maybe they didn’t really appreciate Amherst Island is known for its hard clay soil and limestone underbelly, but almost inconceivably, what this group started 50 years ago has become a thriving, sophisticated farm, still motivated by its original values.

In fact, in 2021, Topsy Farms has largely reached the vision set out by its founders. Though all the original members except one (Ian Murray) have now left, and the commune has disbanded, Topsy remains a self-sustaining community that the Murray family, now in its third generation on the farm, still embraces.

While the original goal was never financial, Topsy Farms has become profitable. It has bought out most shareholders and has tapped into and developed a vibrant niche market.

The hippies have studied their visitor base and they’ve crafted an impressive online presence that attracts visitors to their farm, drives their online sales, and helps them to gain impressive loyalty.

Hmmm… sounds like the hippies got good at business.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. There were skills to be acquired along the way, mistakes to be made, hardships to be faced, and a passion driving it all.

Along the Lake Ontario shore, Topsy is close to Kingston and yet a world apart. photo: Bridges

In the beginning

“We never would have accomplished what we did if we’d followed any sort of business plan,” says Ian Murray.

Perhaps this anecdote describes it best. It’s about how the group fell “accidentally” into farming, because the group did have a germ of a plan from the very start. They had pooled their resources to form the commune and get a mortgage on the farm, with its house and barn, and their thinking was that if they could sell the house, and then knock down the barn and replace it with a geodesic dome, they could take a big chunk out of their mortgage and have their own Eden on earth.

Soon after the five arrived, though, a car pulled in the lane and a local government rep got out, curious to see what these hippies were on about. They met, they talked, but when the hippies pointed to the barn and explained their plan to tear it down, he paused.

In quiet rural fashion, the rep said what a shame and a waste it would be to tear down such a good barn. By the end of the visit, he was even suggesting they save the barn and maybe buy a few of his heifers to put in it. And thus their careers as farmers began.

That also launched what the group says was its slippery slope into farming, because when the heifers arrived, they needed hay, which they decided they should grow, and the hay needed machinery, and the cattle needed fencing. And as the original five brought their young families, they added goats and sheep, and pigs, plus lots of vegetable ground that meant they also needed a big root cellar.

In short, the farm got more and more complex, but not necessarily more and more profitable.

Full of dreams, the commune gets started in 1971. (Ian Murray is second from right in bottom photo) photo: Creative Nest Films

Ian Murray, a civil engineer by trade, took on off-site construction jobs to keep some cash flowing, and he kept the farm’s books to stay afloat, but he looks back now and admits those first days were a struggle.

Things did feel like they might work out, though, and in early 1972, the group formalized into Amherst Island Organic Farming.

But there were challenges, too, including people challenges. With all the stresses they had to deal with, including the issue of endurance for Ian, for example, devoting long hours to the farm, followed by full days on the mainland doing construction jobs, it’s perhaps no surprise the strains began to show.

In June 1975, after three and a half years, the commune was formally dissolved, fortunately peacefully.

But their troubles didn’t all disappear. Instead, in some ways it got even tougher. Commodity prices turned volatile, like in 1977 when beef prices plummeted, and it added to the strain of getting a new farm off the ground.

That year, their bank manager told the remaining partners that they needed to find a way to staunch their losses. They would need to find a way out of the red, and he had a suggestion. It was time to choose. Either raise cattle or expand with sheep? They had to choose one or the other.

Wool prices fell, but a customer-centred strategy thrived. photo: Tara vanLeerdam

With beef worth so little, the decision eventually became easy. The cows were sold off, and it proved a good choice. The farm made more money selling their hay to a neighbouring farmer than they did off their herd. They picked a path and forged ahead.

In the first couple of years, Topsy’s communal lifestyle attracted a number of people to the farm. One of them was Christopher Kennedy, a renowned English shepherd. He brought with him a MA in agriculture, an understanding of how to work with sheep, and a desire to live in a communal setting.

Kennedy’s arrival helped the farm decide to buy its first 50 sheep and to grow from there. Over his time at Topsy, he worked with the staff to grow the flock into the province’s second-largest and, at one time, the largest supplier of lambs to the Ontario Stock Yard.

Enter Sally and a new generation

In 1978, Sally Bowen came to the farm and quickly became an integral part of the Topsy mix. Married to Ian, Sally quickly began helping the farm grow its private lamb sales.

Sally became integral in the development of the farm’s risk management plan too. When stockyard prices plunged, private lamb sales provided security. It wasn’t just sheep that Sally was passionate about though. She brought an impressive background that has benefited the farm enormously since.

Topsy grew to become Ontario’s second-largest sheep supplier, but now a new direction is taking hold. photo: Erin Leydon

Born in Toronto, Sally had spent time in the Arctic and in Saskatchewan, working with low income Indigenous groups and women facing poverty. When she arrived on the island, she brought with her a strong work ethic and a passion for reducing food waste. She worked tirelessly building up Topsy’s gardens, was integral in building the farm’s social media presence, and also created a crafting group of knitters to create pieces from Topsy’s wool.

Another true switch for Topsy Farms came in the ’90s as Topsy looked to focus more on wool. With wool priced at 2 cents/pound at the time, Ian and Sally pondered how they could market their own wool and do it well enough to make it a true value-add to their meat sales.

They converted an old ice house into a woolshed and began selling beautiful, Canadian-made wool blankets. All the while, they raised three kids on the farm, worked with the other partners, and continued to take off-farm jobs.

Times were tough, but as Ian notes, “Humans weren’t meant for an easy life.”

And yet, three of Ian and Sally’s children have decided to come back to Topsy Farms to live and work. When asked about succession planning, Sally laughs. “There was no plan. We just made sure they left for a while so they knew this is what they wanted. I know a lot of people who feel forced into a certain future and they aren’t happy people.”

And so, another nugget of wisdom and a hint at a business plan is revealed, if not in those exact terms.

Ian (above) and Sally find inspiration by focusing on their customers. photo: Creative Nest Films/Brian Little

As Topsy works away at buying out the remaining three shareholders (two of whom are Sally and Ian who will leave their share to the kids), their son Jacob Murray describes what a slow process it has been, but how lucky they’d been that all of the original partners had the same vision.

Importantly, they’re able to work peacefully together. Regardless of the slog, more lessons were also learned. Jacob notes that now there is a clear succession plan and shareholders’ agreement along with a comprehensive business strategy that has been worked on by legal and business professionals.

The first part of their new business model? Figuring out who their market is.

Topsy had been bringing people to the farm to see sheep shearing demos since the early ’80s but it’s with this next generation that they learned to slow down and explore the value of figuring out who was coming.

Now, Topsy does surveys to discover their customer’s values and to see how the farm can connect with them. As an early adopter, Sally handed over an impressive Instagram and Facebook following to Jacob who now manages the accounts and sees them as integral for helping customers bridge the gap with the farm and their food.

The future is now

Has a touch of business acumen helped the dream succeed? By 2017, Topsy had built its flock to 1,100 ewes.

They had also learned how to implement strategic change, deciding their future would lie in agro-tourism and with what the farm calls “Connect to the Land” experiences.

To get there, the farm would build on digital strategies to expand their customer relations.

In late 2019, Topsy Farms was setting up for their best year yet. Visitors were regularly coming to the farm (it’s worth noting this involves a ferry ride) for experiences like yoga on the farm, sheep shearing demos and to buy wool products.

Enter 2020, and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, they thrived.

With 18 people employed on the farm, not only was Topsy able to keep their staff, they hired more.

With a focus on social media that connects to the customer in real ways, Topsy was able to drive online sales of their yarn and wool blankets simply by telling their story. Knitters bought their wool and shared finished projects on Instagram.

Community gardens built across Amherst Island inspired others to start their gardens using Topsy’s wool pellet fertilizer and again, share the fruits of their labour online. They showed the beautiful parts of farming (adorable highland cows, gorgeous fruitful gardens) but also the bumps and bruises of losing animals, ruined plants and the struggles of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Farmers have taken the boot camp of tough times,” says Jacob, pointing to the struggles of daily farm life. “We’re the leaders of this time and I think farmers are in a really great position to lead people out the other side of this.”

What does the farm-raised son of hippies think? “Farmers are in a great position to lead people,” says Jacob. photo: Erin Leydon

Looking towards the youngest generation (Jacob’s own two sons), it’s easy to see that the work ethic instilled by life on Topsy Farms is there and new ambitions are too.

That blend of hippie values and their respect for business skills continues to grow too.

As Topsy sees 2021 laid out, there are major plans in the works. A re-wilding program will help them recreate ecosystems of native plants on Amherst Island. Community gardens will help Amherst Island build up its own food security. And it will all unfold online as Topsy continues to share their story.

Jacob’s youngest, Michael, is clear-eyed about it. “I want to leave the island for a little like my dad did, but I also want to learn more about things like accounting so I can help to grow our sales. I want to see the farmland stay in the family.”

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