Up on the Hilltops: The Allen Farm Story
by Alexanda Bullen Coutts
If you’ve ever driven along South Road in Chilmark, chances are you’ve been rewarded with any number of rural roadside attractions: peek-a-boo glimpses of the sparkling south shore coast, rambling stone walls, a family of wild turkeys stubbornly ignoring all pedestrian rules. But perhaps the most beloved of living landmarks are the sheep at the Allen Farm, grazing in groups on the south side pasture, enjoying their own private vista of hilltops, sky, and sea.
Though sheep are in her blood, Clarissa Allen never dreamed of running the family farm. “I never gave it one thought,” she said recently, when we met in the timber-framed farmhouse put up by her ancestors in the late 18th century. “I was going to grad school, I’d been to college. I knew I had to take care of the farm, but I hadn’t figured it all out.”
After Clarissa’s father died in 1965, she started to think more seriously about what to do with the land she grew up on, 100 acres of mostly overgrown pasture. But it wasn’t until she met her future husband that a life in farming began to seem like a real possibility.
Mitchell Posin came to the Island in 1975 with a friend to build houses for the summer. He grew up in Brooklyn, and had trained there in stables fitting horseshoes. “I didn’t have a great family life so I found solace in the stables,” Mitchell said. “I shoveled shit. I was a much better shit-shoveller than a rider, but I’m pretty good with horses. I thought I was going to live in New England, doing barnyard shoeing and race tracks.”
At the end of the summer, one of Clarissa’s horses needed a new shoe, and Mitchell was called in to help. Sud- denly, he knew that all of those hours apprenticing in the stables hadn’t been to prepare him for the race tracks, after all. “I met Clarissa and that was it,” he said with a smile. “I took one look at that horse and I said, ‘I’m in.’”
The horse may have been an easy fix, but Clarissa took more convinc- ing. “She was a harder sell,” Mitchell laughed, admitting the early arrange- ment was part love-at-first-sight, part classic Vineyard-shuffle convenience. As the summer came to an end, Mitchell was in search of new accommodations. “I was building houses, living in tents,” he said. “I needed a place to live, a shop to build in…”
“I had all of those things,” Clarissa recalled.
Soon, the couple was dreaming of ways to make the farm work, together. “This place was really cumbersome. It became clear that I had to pay attention to it,” Clarissa said, alluding to financial problems and the complexities of managing a farm on her own. “All of a sudden everything became totally apparent.”
Dating back to 1762, the Allen Farm (now called the Allen Farm Sheep & Wool Company) has been in the sheep business since the very beginning, except for a brief period coinciding with Clarissa’s youth. “In 1955 there was a big blizzard that came on very quickly and without warning,” Clarissa said. “We lost a lot of our sheep—they got buried in snow, it was just gruesome. We didn’t go back to having a big herd of sheep after that.”
But when Clarissa and Mitchell decided to try their hands at farming in earnest, they knew they needed to raise animals for finished product. Sheep, with the potential for both meat and woolens, were a natural fit, and after a brief foray into goats (“There wasn’t much of a market for goat’s meat,” Clarissa said) they decided to bring back the animals that had grazed the Allen Farm for centuries.
Economically, sheep made sense. “We knew we had to find some way that whatever we made we would sell ourselves,” Clarissa said. By the early 1980s they had narrowed their focus to meat and blankets, both of which they planned to sell in a shop, then just a front room of their house. Clarissa and some friends started learning how to weave. They bought looms and read books. Soon, the Allen Farm blankets were hot commodities around the Island, joined by sweaters, shawls, and the staple of every up-Island man’s wardrobe, the Allen Farm vest.
Daily duties at the Allen Farm go beyond caring for the sheep: there are horses and chickens to feed, gardens to tend, fences to build, vendor orders to place for the shop. But the farm calendar turns on big sheep events— lambing in spring, shearing in early summer, and slaughtering at the end of the year—and it’s during these times that the rhythms of the farm are most closely aligned with the life cycles of the animals who call it home.
When my 3-year-old and I were invited to the Allen Farm to meet the newest, youngest members of the herd last spring, I imagined a pastoral scene: rolling green hills dotted with day-old balls of fluff, proud ewes doting nearby.
But as we strolled along the winding dirt roads, up to the back pasture and through a swinging gate, it took little more than a glance to know that this would be no oil-painting idyll. Instead, Clarissa and Mitchell’s son Nathaniel (“Ned”) and his wife, Kaila, were in a constant state of motion, darting back and forth between clusters of willful sheep, and armed with cans of spray paint.
I squeezed my daughter’s hand, carefully sidestepping a rightfully suspicious ram, as we walked over to say hello.
Kaila explained that each ewe and her offspring were in the process of being tagged with a small painted number, which helps the Allen-Posins keep track of who belongs to whom, and determine how the ewes are breeding year to year.
Easier said than done, perhaps. My daughter and I watched wide-eyed as Kaila, a petite, 30-year-old woman, chased a 200-pound ewe and wrapped her in a firm hug, while Ned raced over to dash off a quick double-digit.
Worried that we might get caught in the fray, Kaila led us to a large, plastic-covered shelter at one end of the pasture.
Inside, the ewes had each been given their own cozy birthing nook, a livestock maternity ward at maximum occupancy. Many of the ewes were still inside, lounging or nursing, and Kaila pointed out the lanky lambs, awkwardly testing their legs.
Lambing is a busy time on the farm. Each April, the herd nearly doubles in size (last year 39 ewes begat 55 lambs), with the ewes giving birth to between one and three babies apiece.
As lambing season approaches (Ned is generally able to predict delivery dates by calculating the ewe’s gestation period, dating back to the time when the farm’s one ram—busy guy— is introduced to the flock the previous fall) the ewes are moved to the farm’s back fields, where they are semi-contained but still able to graze freely.
In the days before the lambs arrive, the ewes are “flushed,” or fed plentifully, which is thought to decrease stress.
With nearly 40 pregnant ewes, being on-call as a lamb obstetrician may seem a daunting task. But the ewes know what they’re doing. “We pretty much let them do their thing,” Ned said.
Still, every four hours, day or night, he monitors their progress, checking for breech presentations—lambs born feet-first—and other signs of distress.
Once the lambs are born, more frequent checks are made to ensure that they’ve been able to latch on to their mothers, feed, and stand up within the first hour.
Lambs that appear weak, unable to stand on their own or get enough nourishment are often taken back to the farmhouse, where some human stand-in, usually Clarissa, will attempt to nurse them back to health.
“She’s the lambulance,” Ned joked later, and Kaila quickly agreed, adding: “I’ve walked into the house to find a lamb in the sink, having a warm bath, or covered in blankets.”
Through trial and error, they’ve discovered that body temperature is a critical indicator of a sickly lamb’s chances of survival; blow dryers and heat lamps are tricks of the trade.
Lambs that aren’t able to get milk from their mothers are bottle-fed expressed milk, with powdered formula occasionally added to the mix.
Each season generally sees at least one bottle-fed lamb, which, if it survives, will spend much of the spring indoors before rejoining the herd. These lambs typically become temporary farm mascots, and are most often given names. Some names are sweet and sentimental: Dandelion, Midge, and Teacup; others, like Chop and Stew, are more practically prophetic.
In May, the farm schedules a visit from Andy Rice, a professional sheep shearer who travels to the Vineyard each spring from Vermont. In his 60s, the visiting sheep stylist is something of a legend, making stops from Mermaid Farm to the Farm Institute to tame flocks Island-wide. With a skilled hand, Andy takes his shears to every full-grown sheep on the farm, removing each fleece intact. “It’s an art form,” Mitchell explained, while Clarissa added: “An amateur would hack it up to pieces.”
After the sheep are shorn, the fleeces are stuffed into giant plastic containers. Andy, Clarissa and Mitch take turns climbing inside to stomp the pillowing piles down. “It’s my exercise for the year,” Clarissa joked.
While there are machines that can do the same work, “spa shearing” affords secondary benefits: the lanolin naturally produced by sheep as a form of insulation is good for human skin, too. “And it shines your shoes at the sametime,”Clarissasaid.
For years the Allen Farm has used a fifth-generation wool broker, who ferries the fleece to various off-Island facilities where it is scoured, carded, then spun.
Some of the wool is then shipped directly to manufacturing houses, where it is woven into blankets and vests.
The rest returns to the farm, some in skeins to be sold in the shop, and some on cones, to be used on the loom by a resident weaver.
Clarissa fondly remembers a time when more of the manufacturing was done locally. “For 12 years we knit really beautiful sweaters here,” Clarissa recalled of the days when she was joined by other Island weavers and designers, some of whom—Marlene DiStefano, Valerie Beggs—have gone on to careers in fashion.
But with the time it took to create each piece, hand knitting wasn’t sustainable long-term. “People have to do it because they love to do it,” she said.
Now, she’s looking into knitting machines, a more cost-effective way to bring some of the manufacturing process and sense of creative community to the farm once again. “I really long for that to come back.”
Come fall on the farm, energies turn to preparing for the next phase of production.
At summer’s end, the sheep are separated: ram lambs graze the south side of the farm, while ewes and ewe lambs are moved elsewhere, to protect against inbreeding.
The sheep are grazed rotationally, and every component of their daily diet—where they’re eating, what they’re eating, how much they’re eating—is carefully monitored, and thought to play a major role in the quality of the meat that the Allen Farm produces.
As fall turns to winter, Ned and Mitchell take stock of the new herd, determining which of the lambs will be sent to slaughter.
The farm keeps only ewes, and of the female lambs, careful calculations are made based on size and wool quality, as well as the strength and health of the herd overall.
In December, Ned delivers the ram lambs and chosen females in two trips to Adams Farm, a Temple Grandin-designed slaughterhouse in Athol, Mass. It’s a two-hour drive each way, and for a time the Allen-Posins and other Island meat farmers were optimistic that a proposed slaughterhouse at West Tisbury’s Thimble Farm would become a reality.
Now, they’re not convinced. “There isn’t a workforce, or the space,” Clarissa lamented. But the Allen-Posins are hopeful that a new facility proposed by the Southeast Massachusetts Livestock Association (SEMALA) in Westport, Mass., will eventually mean less travel time for both farmers and sheep.
After the meat is hung and aged at the slaughterhouse, it’s delivered back to the Island, vacuum-sealed, freezer-packed and ready for sale and distribution.
Since the early 1990s, there has been constant demand from local chefs for Allen Farm lamb. “Michael Brisson at l’etoile was the first to say ‘I want a rack of lamb,’” Clarissa recalled. Up until then, the family would arrange to sell the animals “on the hoof,” delivering whole sheep to friends and neighbors who asked.
What’s most important to Clarissa and her family is the ability to take care of the people who have been visiting the Allen Farm from the beginning, stopping by after a day at the beach to say hello and see what’s in the freezer. And while she’s grateful for the “tremendous support” the farm has received from local restaurants, Clarissa is mindful each season to ensure that she holds on to enough meat for the people who have come to rely on it, year after year.
On any given summer afternoon, the farm is abuzz with visitors, milling about the shop or the farmhouse, kids kneeling down to pet this year’s lamb mascot while their parents plan for dinner.
“People are used to coming here and picking up meat themselves every summer,” Clarissa said. “They want their rack of lamb for the grill.”
It’s a loyalty shared by Ned and Kaila, the next generation of sheep farmers poised to continue the cycle of grazing and lambing, shearing and slaughtering. And while the eye is always on the end result – the wool and meat of each year’s operation – the farm is about more than just push- ing a product. Farming is a way of life and a central part of the Allen family for generations past, present and future – with a little luck, and a lot of hardworking sheep.