On the Farm: At the Fair

Rolling up our sleeves, and getting back to work. 

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I started helping out with the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair in 2018, for the same reason I do most things: My husband is very charming. 

Brian had just been elected president of the Agricultural Society, and as young, idealistic leaders are known to do, he had a number of highly ambitious ideas for improvement, and didn’t realize exactly how much work was involved until he was truly in the thick of it, and fair time was drawing near. He was passionate about his mission, but beginning to get overwhelmed. So I stepped into my official role as First Lady of the Agricultural Society, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work. 

I had some experience running fundraisers and organizing volunteers, so I quickly slid into a similar role for the fair. The work itself was fun and rewarding, but I wasn’t prepared for just how well the whole team, the self-described Fair Gang, worked together. In real life, they are farmers and police officers, chicken whisperers and artisans. They bake and do needlecraft, drive tractors and educate children. But for a few weeks every summer, they eat, sleep, and breathe the fair. They accepted me immediately, admired my unique skills, and appreciated my time. It was apparent none of them were there to push their own agenda, or get in anyone’s way. They were simply there for the love of the fair. They were honored to have been trusted to uphold an Island tradition, their collective mission to make this year’s the best one ever.

Despite the exhaustion, working at the fair has always felt a bit like summer camp to me: Spending all day outdoors in matching T shirts, working together on projects, not seeing our families or pets for weeks on end. We bond in our sleep-deprived state; fueled by endless espresso floats and frozen pie on a stick, we giggle inappropriately over misspellings on entry forms, convince ride operators to let us cut that giant Ferris wheel line, and gather ’round the glow of the Gravitron, telling stories and singing songs late into the night.

The decision to cancel the 2020 fair, though clearly the only option, weighed heavily on my husband and the other trustees. The fair had continued for more than 150 years, previously stopping only in wartime. He didn’t want his legacy to be “the Grinch who stole the fair,” but with words like “unprecedented” and “these trying times” worming their way into our vernacular, it was clear we would have to make some sacrifices in order to preserve the health of our community. 

That fall, when work would usually start on next year’s fair, case numbers soared on the island, and the Agricultural Society watched and waited. They met on Zoom and spoke on the phone. They speculated and found false hope. They convinced themselves there was no way a fair would happen, and then in the same meeting convinced themselves there was no way they could let it NOT happen. Through the uncertainty, they nonchalantly made some plans, nothing that couldn’t be canceled — boat reservations for draft horse trailers; lined up some bands. No one knew for sure when things would get better, and even if we could have a fair, how would we know if we should? Wouldn’t having a fair with tens of thousands of people in attendance be asserting that the pandemic was over? Who were a group of Island farmers to make that claim?

By spring, vaccinations were up, and Massachusetts cases were dropping dramatically. Governor Baker, who people had complained was too careful with his restrictions, suddenly started rolling them back with gusto. The Fair Gang started to feel a feeling we hadn’t let ourselves feel in so long a time, we had nearly forgotten how to recognize it: Hope. Finally, in early May, the word came that all restrictions would be lifted by August, and, if things stayed on course, there would be nothing stopping the fair from happening. 

We didn’t have long to process our newly rediscovered feelings, since we were so very far behind. Preparations began to take on a frantic pace, and there will surely be some things we run out of time for. Our crew has also shrunk a bit — department heads from years past are stepping back and shifting roles for various reasons: illness, new jobs, caring for grandchildren and aging parents, and all those socially anxious pandemic puppies … 

Luckily, we don’t have to do it all on our own. This Island is literally overflowing with people who are just as insane about those four days in late August as my husband is. 

They flock to the fairgrounds to help, giving up their precious personal time to paint furniture and move picnic tables, judge junior baking and push strings though teeny-tiny holes on entry tags over and over and over again. They spend their summers carving wooden kayaks, and growing giant sunflowers and alpacas with impossibly long eyelashes. They toss skillets and cheer for their favorite woodsman and stuff themselves with strawberry shortcake and ride the Zipper until they can’t see straight. And this year, more than ever, they honestly cannot wait to share smiles, and yes, maybe even a few hugs, and celebrate the simple joy of being together.

 

3 COMMENTS

  1. “Wouldn’t having a fair with tens of thousands of people in attendance be asserting that the pandemic was over?”

    Yes, it would, which is insane, since it is far from over. It would also be reckless and stupid.

    “Who were a group of island farmers to make that claim?”

    Good question. I would have phrased it differently, as in, “what the hell were they thinking”? Yes, everyone worked really hard to pull it off— and the recklessness of these efforts is mind boggling.

    “…this island is literally overflowing with people who are just as insane about those 4 days in late August as my husband is.”

    So it seems. She said it, I didn’t. There were no reasonable covid precautions in place for the outside activities, just a nice “ask” that unvaxed wear masks. Masks work well, though not 100%, but only when everyone wears them. Hand sanitizer stations do not stop an infected person’s breath droplets from infecting those nearby, especially if someone is wearing an ill-fitted mask or not wearing one at all. Babies through 2 years old do not wear masks, yet they were indoors and out at the fair. Vaccinated people weren’t even asked to mask up outdoors, even though we know that breakthrough cases are just as contagious. Yes, lots of people were “careful”—wore masks, social distanced as best they could. Not all, but lots. Careful people, in fact, do not attend large public gatherings. Antivaxers and anti-mask people do, though. So do people in denial about the risks to themselves and others.

    Is there anyone who is going to make excuses for the inevitable upcoming rise in cases? Obama’s party, perhaps? Undocumented immigrants? Tourists? Who is responsible for unsafely gathering thousands of people together, with pathetically inadequate covid precautions?

    There are people on social media saying that the Ag Society “took every precaution” to prevent the spread of covid. This of course is denial and a lie. There was no vaccine or testing requirement to enter the fairgrounds. There was no mask mandate for outdoors. And, the fair was not cancelled due to rising cases within our community, even as more and more shuttered businesses and restaurants are in the news.

    There are lots of people “hoping for the best” after the fair. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

    • Hi Jackie. Good thoughts. This essay was approved in early summer, and laid out and shipped with the magazine before the recent Delta surge (or the Obama party). Wish we’d had future goggles then…

      • Thank you for posting my comment, Jamie. I wish the Fair planners had read the writing on the wall– when absolutely no goggles were necessary these last weeks. Instead, they published this, just a few days before the Fair:

        “The Society takes Covid-19 and the recent Delta variant very seriously. We are following public health guidelines. Masks will be REQUIRED in all indoor spaces including the Hall, Barn, and in all tents. The Society is also ASKING anyone not vaccinated to wear a mask on the Fairgrounds.
        At this time the Society does not plan on limiting attendance, however should we receive further guidance from the Board of Health, we will make adjustments to our capacity limit.”
        (Caps mine, and with a nod to all the antivaxers in attendance, I refrained from putting a LOL after their ask of anyone not vaccinated to wear a mask on the Fairgrounds.)

        Since masks are now required in all public indoor spaces in West Tis (and other towns) their indoor requirement shows no admirable responsibility or concern on the part of the Fair planners, for which they waited and waited to finally announce days before opening anyway, even admitting that “adjustments” could be made at the last minute. They sounded helpless in determining themselves the safety measures they’d institute for the tens of thousands of attendees.

        Is there a public health guideline that infers large public gatherings are a good idea during a pandemic? I have never heard any guidelines from anywhere that suggest holding an enormous indoor/outdoor public event, with estimated crowds of 30,000 people over 4 days during a deadly pandemic is recommended. In fact, every single covid guideline includes: “Avoid crowds”.
        From the CDC: “Avoid large events and gatherings when possible”. The Ag Society declined doing more than the very least, and unfortunately, that recklessness will impact us all in the coming weeks, whether or not we went to the Fair. Yes, we can hope for the best, but we’d better prepare for the worst.

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