It’s inevitably hot and hectic, dusty and bit tersweet — these four days of waning summer on the Vineyard during the agricultural fair held in West Tisbury.
Thousands of visitors, including Island and off-Island farmers come from all over for the midway, the ox pulls, the woodman’s contest. These are the last tingling date nights of summer loves and the first Ferris wheel rides for the littlest ones. Clouds of cotton candy and funnels of fried dough tip and turn like the tilt-o-wheel . . . while the volunteer firemen’s brigade keeps the hamburgers grilling and the Island Children’s School scoops ice cream and tops it off with real whipped cream. Yet it’s the women’s skillet toss on this last day that fills the bleachers. Our whoops and hollers rise above the carnival din for these ladies who heave pans of iron across the pulling ring.
And this year — quietly, a milestone was reached at the agricultural fair’s 147th year when two new categories for Island grown food were created. Crops from Brazil — taioba and jiló — became the latest in innovative entries after enough home growers submitted their prized leaves and “garden eggs” for competition. Ribbons — first, second, third and honorable mention — were awarded to the Island’s most recent immigrants amongst the more traditional entries of supersized zucchinis, bulging tomatoes and super-sweet corn.
Because of Island Grown Initiative’s collaboration with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst ethnic crops program, the estimated 3,000-plus Brazilians who live on the Vineyard can now grow their own food — food from their homeland. And the commercial farms who are growing these crops as trials: Morning Glory Farm, Whippoorwill CSA and Bayes Norton Farm — all have new, enthusiastically dedicated customers. The average time to sell out taioba from farm stand to customer: seven minutes.
Already there’s talk in the street about next year’s fair, the neighborly competition and new entries to come — like the maxixe — a lemony cucumber and abóbora japonesa — a hard squash with condensed orange flesh.
Interestingly enough, my friend Elio has been very quiet about how he grew his red-ribboned taioba, and the double blue-ribbon winner Neromar just gives me a humble look along with one of those I-don’t-know-how-I-did-it shrugs. Maybe there’s a trade to be done — my blueberry pie recipe for some growing tips so then even I could be a contender next year.
Ali Berlow is executive director of the Island Grown Initiative