Brian Athearn takes the reins of Ag Society

Runamok Farm owner vows to help stabilize and reinvigorate venerable organization.

Brian Athearn has been selected to receive the Spirit of the Vineyard award. - Rich Saltzberg

Update Nov. 29 at 5:15 pm

Farmer and MV Tech owner Brian Athearn was elected president of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society at its annual meeting earlier this month. In a subsequent interview at his West Tisbury farm, Mr. Athearn told The Times that he plans to use his presidency to help shepherd the society through a period of change geared to renew vitality in the 159-year-old organization. The first step in making that happen has already been taken. “We’ve righted our financial ship,” he said.

While the balance sheets of the society aren’t rosy, Mr Athearn said they’re orderly thanks to a new accountant and a new bookkeeper.

The Agricultural Society fell on hard times after it leveraged an $800,000 acreage purchase and later ran into construction delays on a solar array meant to offset the cost of that purchase. Society leadership made sound decisions based on the financial information they had at the time, Mr. Athearn said, but it turned out that the figures they’d been provided were inaccurate. Blame for that appears to rest with the previous accountant, Mr. Athearn said.

Clean ledgers are a good start, Mr Athearn said, but more entries in them are what’s needed to sustain the society. “We can’t just run on weddings and a fair,” he said.

To that end, he said the society plans to beef up its membership base and solicit new donors. He pointed out that the society is in the process of assembling a fundraising committee. Previously “the office was run from five, six, seven different households,” he said.

Society management is now centralized, and in line with traditional nonprofit structure, Mr. Athearn said. The previously all-volunteer organization now has a paid part-time executive director, Sally Rizzo, and an office administrator, Joe Hughes. Things, in general, are “much more efficient,” he said. Mr. Athearn credits outgoing president Dale McClure with instituting the nonprofit model and adding the staffers.

He also said the society has amped up its web connectedness with Constant Contact, crafted a Facebook page, and now regularly updates its website, Mr. Athearn said, and added that the result is a much better flow of information.

Mr. Athearn said he’s been a member of the Agricultural Society for close to 20 years, and decided get more involved about eight years ago. Two years ago he was voted in as vice president. Now that he is president, he has a good understanding of the society’s needs.

To address those needs, items on his agenda include greater agricultural outreach, new programs for young kids, establishing more of a presence at the high school, bringing back 4-H, and getting more out of society facilities.

The society’s 62 stalls sit vacant for most of the year, he noted. “We have recently started letting farmers use the stalls for quarantine situations, for birthing situations, for a lot of other situations,” he said.

Mr. Athearn would also like to see a butchering facility for hunters and livestock owners built on society property. Most deer carcasses and livestock are shipped off-Island right now, he said. “I don’t want to buy my deer a boat ticket. I don’t want to buy my sheep a boat ticket,” he said. Such a facility could lower the cost of Island farm-raised meats, he said. It could also be a way to more humanely treat farm animals like pigs, which get unduly stressed during travel, he added.

“People could use it to butcher their own animals, or they could hire a third-party butcher to come in and utilize the area to process their animals,” he said.

How to bring about USDA certification would be another, albeit important, matter, he said, as it is required for meat to be sold. Until that’s figured out, he suggested the facility could just focus on deer. Deer taken in the wild cannot be sold in Massachusetts. But he noted that freezers full of deer meat harvested on-Island help carry many Island families through the winter.

Mr. Athearn said he has deep gratitude for elder members of the society and their decades of volunteer service.

“They’ve given everything they possibly can to the organization, and they want to hand it off, but I think they want to be careful about how they pass that baton along,” he said. To that end, Mr. Athearn said, he wants to make sure elder members of the society and the wisdom they have to impart don’t fall to the wayside in the transition process toward a more modern organization, but are integral components of it.

Mr. Athearn pointed to longtime fair manager Eleanor Neubert as an example of a treasured pillar of the society. He described her service and generosity as “amazing,” and said that he is indebted that she has offered to assist in the transition to a new, and yet to be selected, fair manager.

Mr. Athearn said he was very enthusiastic about recently elected trustees, including Rebecca Haag of Island Grown Initiative, and Bob Egerton, who brings a background in finance and agriculture.

According to Mr. Athearn, trustee Jefferson Munroe’s success at GOOD Farm and the Larder has made a big impression on the society. “He’s the model of what we want to encourage,” he said.

The Agricultural Society is in a transition as momentous as any in memory, Mr. Athearn said. Plenty of work remains to be done; nevertheless, he sees “so much potential” in the future. “I’m really excited,” he said.

Updated to correct the number of years Ag Society has been around and the spelling of the fair manager’s name.