The Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society will hold its annual August fair virtually this year in an online event the weekend of August 20.

Staying as true to tradition as possible, the virtual fair will feature online versions of fan-favorite programs, society leaders told the Gazette in an interview this week.

The fiber tent will be available online as a set of pre-recorded craft demonstrations this year, and the tractor pull will be broadcast on MVTV Channel 13 during its usual Saturday time slot, said volunteer Kristy Rose, who has spearheaded the planning of the event.

Other programs, like the hall and barn entries, will be judged photographically this summer, with a $2 entry fee for all participants.

Staying Home on the Farm is the theme of this year’s fair. “We’re trying to provide something that the Island is missing out on,” society president Brian Athearn said on a hot, breezy day at the Ag Hall, which has stood empty all summer due to the pandemic.

The annual Agricultural Fair has been an institution on the Vineyard since it began 159 years ago, and each year the event draws fair-goers from near and far. Roughly 43,000 people attended the fair over four days last August. This year due to the pandemic, trustees were forced to make the difficult decision to cancel the fair, marking the first time in the organization’s history since World War II that the event will not run in-person.

But beyond tradition, the fair’s absence marks a breaking point in a financial problem long in the making for the society, which has always depended on revenues from the fair to cover most of its modest operating budget every year. Monies go to support year-round educational programs such as 4H groups, scholarships and an array of agricultural support services.

The pandemic has also forced the cancellation of the society’s only other reliable income source, which comes from renting out the Ag Hall for weddings six times a year.

“It’s is a knock-down punch across the board,” Mr. Athearn said.

The society now needs to raise a minimum of $250,000 to make ends meet, leaders said.

With a full-time office staff of only two people, a facilities staff of just one, and volunteer participation at a lull in recent years, the society will need to expand its staffing as well as its revenue streams, if it hopes to continue fulfilling its founding mission, Mr. Athearn also said.

“This is what the Agricultural Society is for — to support local agriculture, farmers and fishermen,” he said. “We’re branching out, but our hands are constantly tied as we go forward.”

As a result, this summer the society has shifted course, undertaking more active fundraising efforts than it has in past years. So far, the organization has begun asking for donations from the community and has reinstated its lifetime memberships for a short time this season, said executive director Kristina West.

“We were founded 165 years ago by farmers and farmers don’t ask for money or help,” she said. “Even now, people don’t think we need money because we’ve never asked before or told anyone about the severity of the situation and how little the society runs on.”

With the help of trustee Robert (Skip) Bailey, the society also decided to organize its first auction in conjunction with the fair to further augment fundraising efforts. The virtual auction is slated to begin August 17 and wrap up on August 23, the final day of the online fair.

With a short window to plan, the society has been busy collecting donated items for the auction from participants across the Island. So far, they have gathered over 50 items, ranging from a Model T car to pegs from the historic barn raising in 1995, signed by former President Bill Clinton. The society leadership team hopes the auction will expand to become an annual event in the coming years.

Despite the challenges, since beginning its efforts, the society has received an outpouring of support from the Island community, said Mr. Bailey. “Of all the staff and trustees, no one is discouraged,” he said.

Taking an optimistic outlook, Mr. Athearn agreed, restating one of the central founding goals of the Agricultural Society.

“We want to leave things better off than we found them,” he said.

To join Staying Home on the Farm, the virtual fair and auction go to marthasvineyardagriculturalsociety.org/annual-fair/.