For Mitchell Posin, who runs the Allen Sheep and Wool Company with his wife Clarissa Allen, the most exciting thing on the farm right now is compost.
“This compost tea has really got my juices flowing,” said the farmer, a stone-hard hand resting on the 50-gallon plastic drum he uses in his barn to brew the solution. One barrel is enough to fertilize an acre of land.
“In the space of a single period at the end of a sentence, there are 500,000 bacteria in this. You’re talking little critters,” Mr. Posin enthused.
Before the tea, Mr. Posin would have to bring in a tractor load of fertilizer from off-Island just to cover a single acre.
“My whole thing now is to shrink my carbon footprint,” he said. “The next thing is I want a windmill and I want to age my own meat.”
Though its owners may balk at the phrase, the Allen farm business model is a fine example of vertical integration, since the vast majority of production and distribution for the business takes place on site.
Woolen sweaters, jackets and vests are produced on a six-foot loom on the second floor of a multi-purpose building. Along with the beef, lamb and chicken raised in the fields, they are sold direct to the consumer from a tiny store in the center of the property. The couple sells to some Vineyard restaurants but never leave the value added after purchase to other retailers.
At a ceremony starting at 5:30 p.m. today at the West Tisbury Grange Hall, Mr. Posin and Ms. Allen will receive the Island Creative Living Award. In its 25th year and established in memory of the late Ruth Bogan, a much-loved Vineyarder, the annual award recognizes members of the Vineyard community who embody the spirit of Island living.
“A typical day? There isn’t one, that’s what our lives are like here,” said Ms. Allen who, wrangling the days’ last shoppers in the store, sent instructions to her husband to close up the windows against an approaching storm. While battening down the hatches, Mr. Posin said:
“What we do here is try and keep a farm in the family.”
Before he was a farmer, Mr. Posin was a self-described hippie from Brooklyn who worked construction. When he came to the Vineyard for a building job in 1975, he met Ms. Allen, who was considering a post-graduate course in Boston at the time. They stayed here instead deciding to resurrect the farmland that had been in her family for 12 generations.
In the process of clearing the land the couple discovered the ruins of a mile of stone wall originally constructed by Ms. Allen’s ancestors which they rebuilt entirely. Of the 100 acres of land, Mr. Posin estimates that 75 to 80 acres is in use today, with some of the rest given over to conservation.
They spun a cottage industry out of the wool they produced and fed the sheep on grass because that was what was there.
“Meanwhile grass-fed meat became a big thing,” he said. “Form followed function.”
Every structure on the farm has been built by Mr. Posin himself — from the main house, greenhouse, barn and store to the three-story multi-use building in the middle, itself a striking example of form and use. On the ground floor is the workshop Mr. Posin uses to maintain the other buildings. On the second there is the loom, an office and a living area used by the family when they rent out the main house in the summer months.
The main building has a root cellar, used to store food without refrigeration. Outside, the plastic-sheeted greenhouse gets enough light through the winter to grow vegetables without electrical heat.
There has never been more than a handful of staff at the farm including Ms. Allen and Mr. Posin. But as Mr. Posin explains, nature is on the payroll too; goats helped clear the land in the 1970s, chewing through miles of grass and livestock keep it manageable today through rotational grazing. For years Mr. Posin has cultivated night-crawlers.
“I have worms nurturing each inch of land out there,” he said. “The trick is working with nature — new age, low tech. That’s our thing, always thinking creatively.” He credits the imagination of the stream of intrigued customers who pass through the farm every day for their constant innovation. They attend meetings of Northeast Growers and Ecological Landscape Associations, where small communities of farmers discuss the latest methods. And they bring their experience to several volunteer positions in Chilmark town government.
But if it was possible to work the land without the people, Mr. Posin would opt for somewhere even quieter than rural Chilmark.
“I’d rather be a mountain man in Montana [some days],” he said, looking out at the rain teeming down outside his barn. “In a way I just want to make meat for my family the best way possible for them. When a piece of land catches you, you don’t need anyone else.”
The Creative Living Award is sponsored by the Permanent Endowment Fund of Martha’s Vineyard. The Permanent Endowment Fund is the Vineyard’s community foundation. Last year, the Endowment awarded more than $152,000 in grants to 58 nonprofits and supported 59 Island students with almost $158,000 in scholarships. The award ceremony today begins at 5:30 p.m. in the Grange Hall. All are welcome.