What does the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society do?

The main room of the Ag Hall is big, flexible, and oozes character and a sense of community — a far cry from a conventional function hall. — File photo by Lynn Christoffers

The Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society was founded in 1859 with a mission to promote the pursuit of agriculture and improve the quality and quantity of livestock and produce on the Vineyard. The annual fair is their largest and best-known event, but the society promotes agriculture in other, quieter ways throughout the year, through their own activities, scholarships, grants, cooperation with other Island groups, and by providing a space for a variety of community and agriculture-related events.

Both the old Agricultural Hall, also known as the Grange Hall, and the new “Ag Hall” are landmarks and centers of community life. Dale McClure, the Society’s president, grew up on a farm in West Tisbury and served as the chair of the building committee for the new hall.

The hall and its grounds are used by many groups. “One of our biggest tenants, use-wise, is the Martha’s Vineyard Horse Council, which is here every Sunday through the summer for a minimal fee,” Mr. McClure says. “Now we have the winter farmers’ market here. I believe that the farmers’ market should be here,” he added referring to the weekly event through summer and early fall that is held at the Grange.

“We support the Spinners and Weavers, who meet once a month,” says Eleanor Neubert, the fair manager and a long-time member of the Agricultural Society. “Home Grown is a group of vegetable and flower growers who meet once a month at the hall. We’re providing a spot for them to get together. We support/cooperate with the Island Grown Initiative. We try to come up with agriculture-related lectures, and some other groups rent the hall for their own lectures on agricultural topics. Last June, we had an intern farmers’ potluck dinner for the young people who work on different farms for the summer. It was a place for them to get together and swap stories about what they’re doing on the different farms.”

Mr. McClure says, “This building is, for all practical purposes, a community center for West Tisbury.”

Money raised at the Fair in August goes towards maintaining the hall and its grounds, but it also supports scholarships for students graduating from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and the Charter School. And for the past six years, Fair funds have also supported an agricultural grant program.

“It’s only $5,000 a year,” Mr. McClure says of the grant program, “but it’s more to help the beginner farmer do things like put up fencing. Last year we gave someone money to build a chicken house. We don’t give people money to buy strawberry plants, it’s more to get a farm up and running.”

The Agricultural Society’s grant money is also going to support a feasibility study for a slaughterhouse with Island Grown Initiative. A piece of the Agricultural Society property would be the site for the slaughterhouse if the zoning is approved.

“There are the scholarships that we give to graduating seniors,” Ms. Neubert says. “We award them at graduation in June, and they’re for the second semester of the student’s first year in college.” The scholarships total $10,000 a year.

Meanwhile, at the monthly meeting of the trustees, says Mr. McClure, “We looked into the possibility of saving Thimble Farm for agricultural purposes.” In the past, the agricultural restrictions on properties like Thimble Farm (off Stoney Hill Road in West Tisbury) included horse farms and landscape plant nurseries as acceptable uses in addition to farming for food production.

Preserving land and working on the infrastructure for farming are relatively new goals for the Agricultural Society, compared to its mission to help young people learn about agriculture.

Ms. Neubert explains that the Fair is an important way of furthering that goal, both in itself and as a source of funding for the scholarship program. “We try to include as many kids as possible — to enter things in the fair, and to work at the fair,” she says. “For a lot of them, it’s been their first job, and it’s another way to encourage interest in agriculture. Even if they’re not working down at the barn with the animals, they’re exposed. Now more and more kids are raising their own chickens, and some goats, and a nice amount of vegetables are entered in the youth department.”

“Our mission statement is to promote agriculture, home economics, and the arts, anyone who is going to work with their hands,” Mr. McClure says.

The Agricultural Society is always happy to support students attending Stockbridge School of Agriculture, Mr. McClure says, but he adds that the definition of agriculture is flexible. “Marine aquaculture is also a form of farming,” he says, “and we consider that, too.”

If a student has shown consistent interest in agriculture in the past, that also supports their application for scholarship money. “The point is to get people into the best cause for the Ag Society, and that’s what we support,” Mr. McClure says.

The Agricultural Society is, most of all, a group of people who support agriculture on the Island. “The fundamental thing that we have done is to keep alive the agricultural history of the Island,” says Clarissa Allen, a trustee of the Agricultural Society.

“The Fair was started to showcase the livestock and produce, and to provide friendly competition,” Ms. Neubert says. “Now, 150 years later, there’s still that friendly competition. The Agricultural Society is still looking to make sure that agriculture stays on the Vineyard.”