Every August, thousands of visitors descend upon the small, yet cool, town of Lewisburg for the State Fair of West Virginia (OK, technically the fair is in Fairlea, but close enough). Aromas of fair foods, sounds (and smells) of livestock, lights from the carnival and crowds of fairgoers fill the atmosphere.
This scene also plays out in many counties across our great state in the form of county fairs.
I love fairs, and every year I volunteer to work at the State Fair representing WVU Extension Service. This past week I found myself working just about every rainy day of the fair. (The rain isn’t so bad, though it gets old quickly for those of us who tent camp in the fair campground.)
Most of my days are spent engaging visitors at the WVU building by handing out WVU memorabilia, answering garden questions, and even convincing guests to correctly label various parts of a cow named Mabel.
But one other thing I really enjoy doing at the State Fair, and at various county fairs around the state, is serving as a judge for the exhibits of vegetables, fruits, flowers and more.
It is always wonderful to see the variety of great (and sometimes not so great) produce our gardeners and farmers grow around the Mountain State.
Why do fairs have these exhibits? First off, fairs started as celebrations of the bounty of their particular regions. Farm families would bring their best livestock, produce, canned goods, quilts, home arts and more and show them off as a mark of pride and skill.
Winning a prize at the fair meant that you were good at what you did and could result in making a name for yourself or your farm. Many fairs still have this focus on showcasing just what their area and their people can do.
These exhibits, though, are about more than just highlighting skill and soil fertility. It’s about educating people. You heard me right. Whether you know it or not, a fair exhibit hall and livestock arena are educational venues.
This is why the Extension Service is involved in these aspects of fairs. It’s not about giving out blue ribbons and the cash premiums that accompany them. It is about positive reinforcement for those growers with the best tomatoes, or the 4-H kid with the best animal, and about showing others what quality looks like.
We often say when working with our 4-H youth that it is not about having a blue-ribbon project, but about having a blue-ribbon kid. The same can be said about those of all ages who enter their produce and wares for judging.
It’s about making better gardeners, better livestock husbandmen and better home canners. And that’s what Extension does — it helps people gain the skills they need to make their lives better. And that’s why fairs are a more important teaching tool than you realize.
How to win a blue ribbon
So, now that you know why we give blue ribbons at the fair, how do you go about winning one for yourself? While the State Fair and many county fairs have come and gone this year, I will suggest that you think about next year. Entering an exhibit at the State Fair or county fair (if you have one) can be great fun. I used to do it before I found myself on the other side of the fair ribbons.
Here are some things that a produce or flower judge looks for in a fair entry:
Follow the directions. There should be an entry guide provided by the fair. Check out the book to see what you need to enter and how many you need to enter. Each item will have a different number of items you need to include. This is so that the judges know you can grow more than just one good tomato or pepper. Sometimes it will also tell you how things need to be displayed.
Be consistent. Each item that is included should be closely matched to the others. All items should be the same size, color, maturity level, etc. This goes back to you being able to grow more than one of something.
Have quality. This is the biggie. This is where the skill as a gardener comes in. Your items should be as free from blemishes as possible and should be of excellent quality. This also goes for harvesting your produce at the right level of maturity. Nobody wants a squishy tomato or a zucchini the size of a baseball bat. Think in terms of having your item as “retail quality” as possible. You should also make sure that your items are clean.
Have fun. This can be a fun way for you and your family to enjoy and celebrate the things you love. It may even be fun to have a little family competition. Just don’t take it too seriously.