Updated July 24
The Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society has taken a financial drubbing from the novel coronavirus pandemic. Absent a limited number of hall rentals for weddings and the annual fair, the Ag Society has few other sources of revenue.
With the 159th annual fair rejiggered as a digital event and weddings canceled, Ag Society trustees plan to hold an auction of donated goods and services, in hopes of shoring up finances. Without some lifeline revenue, Ag Society executive director Kristina West said, the 160th annual fair is in doubt.
Trustee Skip Bailey, a tractor enthusiast, said except for the time when the community came together to help raise the Ag Hall and James Taylor performed a support concert, the Ag Society hasn’t been a fundraising organization in the traditional sense. However, the pandemic is forcing the society to behave differently.
“So we’re trying our best to put together ideas to raise funds to keep the society alive,” Bailey said. “And right now the idea is we’re going to put on an online auction.”
Initially, the Ag Society aimed for an in-person benefit auction, but the pandemic put the kibosh on that idea.
“Originally I was working with Trippy Barnes — not just me, all the trustees — we were going to try to do an invitation-only auction. A kind of a high-end thing where, you know, they feed the people and there’s a bar. It would be at the hall. Because of the COVID virus, we couldn’t get any type of a special permit to actually do that. So the second option was the online option, and that’s the format that we’re going with.”
True to his passion, Bailey has donated a sizable piece of farm equipment.
“I’ve donated a tractor, an old 1947 Ford 2n,” he said, “and that would be one of many items that’s going to be auctioned off.”
Bailey re-emphasized the Ag Society is in a dire financial state. “We hope we can raise some money to help us recoup our tremendous loss,” he said. “Like I said, the society has never been a fundraising society. We’ve always relied on the income that we get from the fair and from renting the hall for events like weddings, and we’ve lost all that income this year. I can’t really put a number on it … but I can tell you that it is a significant amount. We are in trouble.”
West mustered that figure. “With the combined loss of fair and rental income this year, we are faced with a $250,000 budget deficit,” she said. “We cannot work our way out of this, and must get creative to survive. We use that revenue not just to cover our operating expenses, but also to put on the following year’s fair. We have to replace that income in order to keep the society going and bring the fair back in 2021.”
West said the fair, which is impossible to pull off without an army of volunteers, is a four-day event that typically attracts some 35,000 people, and costs about $300,000 to run. However, she said it grosses about $450,000, and only nets the Ag Society a bit more than $150,000 — not a cash cow in the best of times, but a beloved tradition that’s kept as affordable for Island families as possible.
“We’re actually one of the cheapest fairs going,” she said. “We’re only charging $10 at the gate.” That modest fair profit and all rental income from the Ag Hall are kaput this year, she said.
People have begun to step up with auction donations, Bailey said. “My friend Scott Morgan has a yacht, and he said that he would donate a cruise on the yacht,” he said. “Fred Fisher, who is an alternate trustee on the board right now, has donated a hayride. And Will Warner, who is also a trustee — Mink Meadows — has donated a couple rounds of golf, and he said he’s going to throw in 100 gold balls … Another trustee, Jefferson [Munroe], has donated a fried chicken dinner for 40 people.”
He added Ghost Island Farm will be donating a basket of fresh vegetables, among other things.
“We want to make sure everyone is able to participate and support us, and we have items in all price ranges,” West said. “There really will be something for everyone. Some of the items already collected include: fair merchandise, 2021 fair packages, memberships (both family and life), hand-built Adirondack chairs, rounds of golf, fishing trips, winter CSA share from IGI, a Pie Chicks pie party, an Allen Whiting painting, and my personal favorite, a beautifully restored tractor. This was donated by Skip Bailey, one of our newest trustees, the hardest-working man I know, and the mastermind behind this auction.”
Bailey said an auction catalog will be “up and running” as soon as possible for viewing. “The auction is supposed to kick off on the 17th of August, and it will end on the 23rd,” he said.
The in-person benefit auction remains a future goal, Bailey noted. “This is an idea that we are definitely going to pursue next year, as long as we can actually hold the event,” he said.
Barnes reportedly was able to auction off the same sailboat four or five times to generate revenue for another nonprofit organization.
“And people would purchase it for, you know, too much money, and then they would basically just donate it right back,” Bailey said. “You know, because they just really wanted to give …
We were kind of hoping that’s what happens with the tractor, but if someone wins, then we’ll definitely bring it to them. And it’s theirs, and we’ll do anything to help them out, and we’ll try to get them involved in the tractor pull, and that type of thing.”
Bailey, who said he’s exhibited and competed at the fair since he was in his 20s, used to train horses and oxen, but has moved on to shepherding tractors.
“The tractor, you can leave it sitting out behind your garage for 364 days, and then the day before the fair you go and put some fresh gas in it, file the points, and fire it up, and go and have a great time at the fair for the day,” he said. “You know, and just go and park it behind the barn until next year.”
Bailey made it clear the Ag Society is looking for additional auction donations. The fair aside, he said, the Ag Society’s day-to-day operations, programs, grants, and scholarships are all in peril. “Like I said, that money is gone.”
He said the trustees are looking to the Vineyard to plump up the auction. “We’re really hoping that we get a strong outreach from the community,” he said.
“We know a lot of people are having a tough time right now, we get that,” West said. “The Society is unique in that the trustees are all year-round Islanders. They are your farmer, your nurse, your police officer, your IT guy, the best pie lady around. They love this organization, what it stands for, and they are digging deep to help ensure it continues to survive. This year they need your help in order to do that.”
Anyone wishing to donate to the auction is encourage to contact West directly at email@example.com
Updated with contact details for donations.