Aim for the horticultural grand prize at county fair

Corn. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum)
If you grow high quality sweet corn this year, consider entering it in your county fair. (Photo By Lynn Ketchum)
Last Updated: 
June 6, 2014

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Could your spotless peppers or flawless flowers have what it takes to claim the blue ribbon at your county fair this summer?

With some insider tips from Lynn Long, you could make this your year to test their mettle. Long, a horticulturalist for the Oregon State University Extension Service and county leader for the OSU Extension Service in Wasco County, previously served as a judge at the Wasco County Fair and Rodeo for several years. 

During that time, Long saw contestants gain so much more from the experience than merely a ribbon, a little cash and bragging rights.

"If you go through the growing season with the idea of entering your produce in a county fair, you will learn that you've got to irrigate steadily, fertilize properly and keep your produce or flowers clean of diseases and insect pests," Long said. "All that is a learning process You'll do research, call Master Gardeners and talk to your neighbors.

”All of that will make you a better gardener and you'll end your season with high quality produce and flowers."

Even at the beginning of the growing season, it's a good idea to obtain your county's fair book to get a look at the rules, Long advised. These books are essentially guidelines and procedures for entering items in fair contests.  A list of fairs is available at the Oregon Fairs Association website. Many provide their books online.

Read and follow this fair book to the letter in a contest in which attention to detail makes all the difference, Long emphasized. For example, if your county fair requires you to bring 15 beans and you only show 10, you could be disqualified from even the chance at ribbons. If your county fair requires carrots to come with a one-inch top and you sliced it off to make it look prettier, that could disqualify you, too. Each county fair has different rules. 

Say you're entering parsnips in the garden products open class. In Wasco County, the fair book requests that contestants bring five specimens of parsnips. At fair, you will display your parsnips on a table at the fairgrounds. When Long served as judge, he would walk around each display. He would pick up those parsnips, turn them around in his hands and squint closely at their skin.

He judged produce by the same criteria that most fairs use. Judges look for uniformity of shape, quality of appearance, ripeness and size, he said. Size, however, is not always the quickest claim to fame. 

"We wouldn't, for example, award the prize to the biggest zucchini," Long said.

The most important factor? An unblemished appearance is evidence that the gardener has kept pests and diseases at bay. You could get docked points for powdery mildew on your flowers, for example. 

Pay attention to the ripening period of your produce as well. Judges will forgive items such as apples and pears that don't ripen until September or October, Long said. But if your cherry tomatoes appear under-ripe, you could lose points.

So if you enjoyed a great growing season and the weather held out, consider picking out your prettiest produce to enter at your county fair. With any luck, you could even take home the grand championship.

And to find your local Master Gardeners for advice on how to grow prize-winning produce, visit the website Local OSU Master Gardener Programs.

Author: Denise Ruttan
Source: Lynn Long