Inside the Animal Barn at the 156th Martha's Vineyard Ag Fair

Jul 31, 2017

Navajo-Churro Sheep at the MV Ag Fair. This breed is on Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste because its status is considered 'endangered'. Blue Ribbon Winners for Ewe and Lamb
Credit Photo by Ali Berlow

The Animal Barn is that place where visitors get to experience livestock up close and personal. It's a magical scene with sows nursing their piglets, lambs nursing their ewes. Ali Berlow takes us inside on the last day.

sow with her piglets in the Animal Barn at the MV Ag Fair are always a big hit with the visitors
Credit Photo by Ali Berlow

Ali Berlow: I’m in the barn on the last day of the 156th Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair, to see the livestock – it’s my favorite part of the Fair and it’s where the farmers, young and old, bring their best to. It has all the sights and smells of a barn. It’s busy and dusty and loud and filled with all walks of life – human and otherwise. I found a couple of Vineyard farmers still there… First up, Simon Athearn, from West Tisbury:

SA: This past winter my family we got sheep and we’re moving to a sheep flock. And we set up breeding late this year so they just lambed and we figured that lambs gotta go to the Fair. There’s very few times someone lambs in August you know it’s usually April thing or earlier. And these, we choose this Navajo-Churro variety we’re excited about it, it’s on the Slow Food Ark of Taste.

AB: The “Ark of Taste” is that ongoing initiative of Slow Food USA. You might remember Elspeth Hay’s report on the successful campaign to get the Wellfleet Oyster and the Northern Quahog into its catalog. The Ark focuses on heritage foods - promoting all kinds of crops, aquatics, and livestock like the breed of sheep the Athearn’s chose specifically because they are threatened. The theory and practice is ‘Eat it in order to Save it’.

SA: We knew a farmer in Vermont that had this flock and we specifically searched him out because we think that the heritage breed that there’s a desire for it, I think it will separate us in the market place selling the meat. So we’re excited about that, excited about getting them out here and the children love it. Our children love coming here everyday tending the animals and waiting for judging hoping for ribbons. That’s very exciting.

AB (on tape): And did they ribbon this year?

SA: They did they got blue ribbons. Ewe and lamb class. It’s pretty good.

AB (on tape): They’re beautiful.

AB: The sheep have long fleece, like a lazy ropy mop and a reputation for being personable and low maintenance.

It’s estimated that about 15,000 people go through the Animal Barn over the course of the Ag Fair. The Barn couldn’t run without the support of the volunteers, a work force of 8-15 people that’s made up mostly of kids.

BA: This place is like four days of intensive farming.

AB: That’s Brian Athearn (Simon’s cousin). He’s also a farmer on the Vineyard and during the Ag Fair he’s the Barn Manager.

BA: There’s a lot of cleaning up and there’s a lot of maintaining and a lot of awareness and trying to make sure that the people aren’t doing things to the animals that are stressing them out. And we have a good batch of volunteers that are here. They inform the people who aren’t aware of what the farm animals are.

AB: Volunteering in the barn as a kid is like training ground for future farming. I’d never thought of it like that before.

BA: I’ve had kids come back after years and say that they either work on a farm or they got animals at their house against their parents’ wishes but they ended up doing it and the parents want to encourage it. It’s great I have a kid who here’s from New Jersey who’s never been on a farm his entire life and he’s mucking out stalls and he’s feeding animals and he’s watering chickens and you know he’s learning all about what the every day parts of farming are like.

AB: I asked Brian about the impact of the barn on visitors who don’t ever get to be on farm  -  while here they get to actually experience the animals in a more personal way.

BA: Yeah it’s really interesting. People are really curious. One of the reasons I really enjoy doing this job is that you can teach people what it’s like with animal husbandry, poultry, ducks and all that stuff it’s a great medium to be able to present what a lot of us have in our lives every day that these people have no concept of what it is and you can actually get that message across to them. It’s a great format.

AB: Then there are visitors like 10 year-old Jameson Whitmarsh, who I met over by the sow and her piglets. He was with his mom Amy. They’re from Edgartown. They aren’t farmers but they do love animals and they come to the Fair every year. Over this summer he’s been working every Wednesday in the garden at his grade school. He was also awarded a week-long internship at a farm-based camp on the island.

AB (on tape) So you’ve been on farms a lot.

Jameson: um-huh. A lot.

AB: I always wonder about people visiting this barn so freely – Does it make them want to have a farm? Or how does it makes them think about the connection between the animal, meat and dinner. It’s a weird relationship – I struggle with it myself sometimes..  I found that a lot of folks seemed uncomfortable talking about it.

AB (on tape): If you had a farm what would you want to raise on your farm?

Jameson: Probably chickens. I would say. Easy to clean up after. And easy to feed.

Amy W. (mom): And you can eat their eggs…well and eat the chickens. (laughs) That’s awful.

Jameson: Another animal I’d probably get on a farm is cows.

AB (on tape): For the milk or for the meat?

Jameson: Milk.

Mom: Meat. …(laughs)…it’s awful again.