Reclaim the County Fair

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County fairs are the perfect place to show off your extraordinary produce, whether you grow huge pumpkins or incredibly tasty zucchinis.
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Your county fair is the place to go if you are looking for recognition for your hard work, or to see the hard work of other gardeners and farmers.
The night was cool and rainy, making the wait for the 4-H project release not nearly as enjoyable as years past. As the evening wore on, my siblings and I became quite restless. Suddenly I noticed the barn next to our tent. A light was shining from an open door beckoning me to enter.

As I stepped through the doorway, my mind was overwhelmed by what lay before me. The building shut out the garish noise of the fairgrounds and replaced it with a muted quietness. The smell of the flower exhibit reached out to me from the far end of the hall; the scent of marigolds still makes me long for fair time. The baked goods lining the wall caused my mouth to water, not unlike the aroma wafting from the roasted-corn stand.

The picket points of the fence were under the palms of my hands, keeping homegrown treasures just out of my reach. Those colorful fruits and vegetables depicted their own version of the rainbow. As I delighted in the full sensual experience of the displays, I realized I had found a way to continue to learn and share, even as an adult.

As an active 4-H member, I had always enjoyed friendly competition. I have shown for many years but now, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend: While gardening is on the rise, fair exhibits have been on a steady decline. County fairs were originally created for exhibitions and are now more focused on carnival rides and commercial endeavors — what an unfortunate state of affairs. I propose that we take back the county fair by sharing the heirloom produce and flowers we cherish and enjoy.

Planning & Preparation

First things first: Do you have your county fair exhibit book? Sometimes referred to as a premium book, this is the ultimate authority to showing anything at your fair. Within its pages are the class specification and divisions, rules, and both local and state regulations. Read and understand what is expected and plan to follow those expectations exactly. The book also lets you know what categories are available for you to enter. Some counties have printed books but more times than not, the Internet will be your ultimate source.

To enter, you need to determine if you actually qualify. In my area of Michigan, the county to the east requires you live in that county in order to exhibit. The west county is open to whoever would like to show. Rumor has it there are folks from Ohio who compete there. The question of entry fees is also an option to consider. Some are free and some ask a small amount, usually per item shown. The monies collected are usually added to the open class “fund” to continue supporting the exhibits and premiums.

You may want to visit neighboring fairs and talk to other exhibitors. Ask questions—gardeners and county fair enthusiasts are usually quite willing to share information. Study their produce displays and try to discern what makes a winning entry.

A note to those experienced competitors: Encourage people to try! It’s always much more satisfying to compete in a class full of outstanding and beautiful products. In days gone by, the halls were overflowing and gorgeously decorated. The exhibits of yesterday can, and should, be recreated for today’s enjoyment and inspiration. Let’s all do our part.


Now that you have an idea of what you’d like to show, plan on how you’ll present the items. The fun part of this is the variety of ways to share your passion for heirlooms. There are classes for most anything that can be grown in your area and harvested just before the fair.

After the judging, inquire if you might add a small sign to your exhibit with the name of the produce, the history, and information about pure, heirloom vegetables and their seed. Not only can you display individual fruits and vegetables, but how about a basket of homegrown produce, straight from your garden? A display of heirloom goodies can be a sight to behold.

Try the “Decorate a Pumpkin” category with a uniquely colored (non-orange) pumpkin. Imagine what could be designed with a ‘Mammoth Red E’tamps’ or a Jarrahdale? Another common category would be the “largest” vegetables — a great way to showcase those super-sized onions (mine weighed 2.5 pounds!) or extra-long green beans.

Aside from the produce exhibits, a different way to share heirloom vegetables would be to bake, cook, or can them. Remember to always include the name of the heirloom in the title of your recipe. Experiment with squash in bread and call it “Delicata Squash Bread.” Or when you can that applesauce, call it “Gravenstein Applesauce.” Obviously, the sky is the limit when it comes to creatively showing and sharing the heirlooms from the kitchen.

Another way to showcase heirlooms would be the favored flower hall. Folks remember the old-time varieties and enjoy seeing them revived. Use your grandmother’s favorite zinnias in an arrangement and wow the judges.

One last idea for educating the public about heirlooms would be to create art or take pictures. At my fair, we have a Horticultural Quilt competition. In essence, it’s a quilt design using only seeds and dried plants (think: the Rose Parade of quilts!). What an excellent way to show off all those different types of dried beans.

On the other hand, people might be surprised to see a beautiful shot of various carrots or tomatoes and learn that they can be grown in a multitude of colors. Exposing fairgoers to the vast variety of heirlooms can be a great boost for the survival of our seed heritage.

The day has finally arrived and you’re ready to head to the fairgrounds. Other exhibitors greet you as you walk into the building. The camaraderie is especially evident as you wait your turn to enter your creations. The ambience of friendly competition is enhanced with laughing, talking and catching up on a year’s worth of activities and life. You feel so comfortable, you’re willing to take on any opportunity to educate the public about your garden favorites.

Make it a goal this year to make a difference by being a part of your county fair as well as the National Heirloom Exposition! 

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.