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How to Win First Prize at the County Fair

Zucchini Winner

As a teenager, I raised rabbits for 4-H. Every year we would enter them in the local county fair. They would be judged and I would receive ribbons and trophies. I still remember the “Best Opposite Sex” and “Best Doe and Litter” trophies I won. I learned many lessons by showing my bunnies.

One is that you can’t display your ribbons on the cage’s outside as the rabbits will eat them (munch munch munch). Second, rabbits moved to a new strange home with lots of people and animals will get stressed and bite (right on the fleshy area between the thumb and pointer finger). Lastly, and most importantly, competition helps you to strive to be better.

A few years ago, we decided to enter some of our produce into our local fair. The Portage County Ohio fair (also known as the Randolph Fair, because that’s the township/city where the grounds are) is pretty standard as far as fairs go. There are demolition derbies, country/western concerts, tractor pulls, 4-H exhibits, fair food (which is really unfair if you are trying to eat healthy), and local vendor displays.

Of course, entering vegetables, canned goods, and photos does feel a little childish but these are in adult categories, so maybe not. And with the adult entries is prize money (enough to pay for your $5 admission to see whether you won or not).

It’s Better to Look Good Than Feel Good

Most judging is done on how the entries look. Some canned goods and baked goods will be taste tested but vegetables will not. So how do they determine who’s the best? By what I call the “supermarket test”: If your entries look like you bought them from the store, then you’ll win. Just don’t enter purchased produce. That’s called “cheating” (I’m sure you’ve heard of it).

In this picture of me pointing to my zucchini, you can see the fruits are “professional” quality. I think people get too hung up on size (bigger is better). If I have five nearly identical potatoes and my competition has one or two giants and several others that don’t match, I’m going to win. Unless the category is “Biggest Pumpkin” or “Largest Tomato” — just make sure your veggies are good enough to buy and eat.

This excerpt from the Portage County Fair Book says it best:

“Judging is performed and ribbons awarded based on but not limited to the entry’s uniformity, market quality, neatness, freshness, cleanliness, and if the entry qualifies for its section and class.”

Read the Fair Book and Know the Rules

As soon as it’s available, pick up or download the official current year “Fair Book”. It will have all the rules, deadlines, and categories listed in detail.

One piece of information you might find interesting is if you have to live in the fair’s county to enter. None of ours have that rule (that I know of), so if that’s the case in your area, go for it. Personally, that sounds like a lot of work.

Also, make special note of the date when your entry paperwork is due and when you must bring in your stuff. Miss these deadlines and you will find out life is unfair (see what I did there?).

Potato First Place

More is Better

One important part of the fair book is the entry categories. These tell you all the items you can enter into the fair. Read them all — you might find a few surprises. For instance, I discovered special men’s categories for canning and baking. Last year, I entered my canned dilly beans in the “Men’s Canning - Bean” category and won first place (against no competition).

It didn’t occur to me that I could have entered three jars of dilly beans — one in the men’s and others in canned bean and canned pickle categories. I also entered two sets of purple fingerling potatoes — one in the purple potato group and a second in the fingerling group. Using a technique of “volume entering”, I ended up with a whole bunch of first and second place ribbons.

Fair Time

When the fair is held will determine which one’s you should enter. For example, the Summit County fair (one county over and the fair where I had all my rabbit trophy glory) is held in late July every year. My local fair is held in late August. Many more veggies will be ready for picking in a month’s time.

When you make your entries, you’ll need to make judgements about what your garden will be producing at the time of the fair. You might not have a lot of tomatoes now, but you might in a few weeks. If in doubt, sign up for the category. If you don’t have something to enter at fair time, no big deal.

Who’s Been Touching My Stuff?

After the fair is over, you can get your produce back. Do you really want produce that people have been touching all week? Obviously canned goods should be fine, but make sure to wash any veggies you are keeping. Also, remember your entries might not be in climate controlled conditions, so they may decay faster.

Have Fun and Brag (But Not Too Much)

The most important fair rule is to have fun. You are pretty much doing all this for bragging rights. Of course, some people may not want to hear you talk about your “award-winning vegetables” over and over. Oh well, they’ll just have to get used to it.

Don Abbott (aka The Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he's a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle. Read all of Don's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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