Each year I make the pilgrimage from Charleston to Fairlea, near Lewisburg, for the State Fair of West Virginia.
I love fairs and have fun at the fair. I love the fair so much that I camp with friends in the fair campground during my stay. However, I can say that after 11 days at the fair and 10 nights sleeping in a tent, I am happy to be home.
Many of my coworkers, who come to the fair to work for a few days and stay in local hotels think I am crazy. And perhaps I am — but at least I have fun doing it.
One of my favorite “jobs” at the fair, aside from representing WVU, is judging produce and flowers. I get that honor three times during the fair — for the produce and cut flowers that are dropped off the day before, and the flowers that are dropped off mid-week to replace the wilting flowers from before the fair.
The aches and pains from standing on the hard concrete floor for hours while judging are worth it to showcase the best produce that West Virginia has to offer.
I’m proud to say that a farmer I know, Julie Schaer, who runs the organic farm The Potager in Hurricane, won the Best-of-Show award for produce with her beautiful garlic. Aside from her first-place garlic, she also got a blue ribbon for her wagon full of vegetables — a diverse display of different varieties and types.
Bob Maslowski, another Putnam county farmer and one of my Master Gardeners, got a red ribbon for his garlic, but I can tell you that it was a close call — we had to deliberate about whose garlic was best. Bob did get a blue ribbon, however, for his raspberry wine in that competition. He also got a red ribbon for his red wine. Unfortunately for me, I never get to judge the wine competitions.
Both Julie and Bob (and his wife Susan) sell produce at the Putnam Farmers Market. You should definitely go check them out. You may also recognize Susan Maslowski — she just debuted as one of the new food writers for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
(Note: Judges at the state fair don’t know who the entries belong to during judging as names are hidden, so the other judges and I didn’t know that Julie and Bob produced the winning entries).
We also have some good bakers in the area. Veval Newhouse, 97, of Sissonville took third place in the state fair Pie Bake-Off.
I have to say, however, that the selection of vegetables and flowers for judging this year was much smaller than in years past. Weather and flooding, of course, have something to do with that. Several regular exhibitors at the fair said they wouldn’t be exhibiting because floods had claimed their gardens.
But there has been an overall decline in the number of entries over the last few years. Some, I think, have to do with a change in culture — the fair, or fairs in general, aren’t the big events they used to be. The state fair, along with other county fairs, are suffering with earlier school dates eating into summer — a phenomenon you could definitely see at the state fair, with low numbers of attendees through the week.
I’m hoping that more people, though, will take advantage of this wonderful way to win bragging rights in the future. It is a fun way to get the whole family involved — many families enter together, fighting over who has the best produce (and yes, we can usually tell when things come from the same garden, but we judge them separately).
It is also a way to preserve our culture of gardening and farming. Who knows if your good-looking tomatoes will inspire someone to grow tomatoes in the future, or even enter theirs in the fair?
Aside from bragging rights, participants also get free entry to come back and enjoy the fair. If you win a ribbon, monetary premiums are also awarded. They are small ($8 for a blue ribbon), but if you get several they can add up.
Not only did Julie’s garlic earn her a pretty rosette ribbon, but the Best-in-Show also gets a $50 prize — not bad for some bulbs of garlic.
We’ll try to remind you in the future when to register for the state fair produce exhibits (it is usually about a month in advance). I want to see lots more entries next year — it will make my job even harder and even more rewarding.