(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 1, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
American fairs are an interesting blend of harvest celebration and good old-fashioned competition reinforced by a zealous quest for self-improvement. The founders of our modern fairs consisted of people (frequently members of a local agricultural “society”) who sought to improve the quality of their livestock, poultry, and produce by bringing together the best samples from their farms and subjecting them to detailed scrutiny and expert evaluation. Utilitarian motives are balanced by aesthetic concerns. That prize-winning Guernsey heifer must have “the right stuff” to become a high milk producer but also requires a head turning sense of style complemented by just the right shade of gold in her color pattern. College genetics class meets “American Idol” with some corndogs and snowcones thrown in for good measure.
Although I’ve exhibited vegetables at our local fair (and a neighboring county fair) for several years, I still consider myself something of a beginner and I’m writing with the newcomer in mind. I’ve won my share of prizes, but I still tip my hat to the experienced growers in my county who manage to produce those grand champion displays year after year. The fair is enriched by more participants and, lest you feel intimidated, here are a few basic pointers to get you started in a fun activity tailor-made for anybody who appreciates gardening.
Unless you are a young person involved in 4-H or a comparable youth organization, you will be entering vegetables in “Open Class.” A few large fairs draw some further distinctions between amateur backyard gardeners and professional growers (and provide separate competitions) but this is rarely the case. The vegetables from my small plot of raised beds in the backyard go head to head with cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, and squash grown by folks with large gardens. The fact that I do not (yet!) own a John Deere diesel tractor has not prevented me from becoming a full-fledged member of the competitive vegetable growing fraternity. Quality not volume is the coin of the realm at the county fair.
How to get started? As in many aspects of gardening, some advance planning and lead time is necessary since entry deadlines are often several weeks before the start of the fair. You need to get your hands on a “premium book.” This catalog provides all the categories and classes for vegetables, rules, entry forms, deadlines, as well as specifying any prize money to be won in competition (thus the “premium” in the title). Some fairs have entered the high tech era and you can find everything you need on line, and in some cases complete your entries on line as well. Many other small fairs are more like annual festivals run by volunteers and tracking down the information may require a bit more detective work on your part. The folks at your county extension office or neighbors who have children in 4-H are likely to be of some help in acquiring the premium book, or you may be able to pick one up at the administrative office during this year’s fair if you don’t plan to enter until next year. Once you’ve exhibited vegetables at the fair, you are likely to be on the mailing list in future years.
While each vegetable judge brings his or her own subjective views to the task, there are some standard criteria for exhibitor success. First, follow the directions. Provide the proper number of specimens for a particular category and match them. If an entry calls for three slicing cucumbers over five inches, for example, try to find three identical to each other rather than a giant and two runts. Second, quite obviously, seek the best looking specimens you can produce. Eye appeal, appropriate level of ripeness, minimal (preferably no) damage by pests all help produce an attractive display. Finally, try to bring the freshest possible specimen (it may need to sit on a shelf at the fair for a week) and do what you can to avoid damage in transit. Some of us do crazy things like wrap our potential prizewinners in cloth towels (or put cherry tomatoes in a tissue-cushioned egg carton) in order to have the “perfect from the garden” appearance when they arrive at the fair.
Ultimately the fair is less about competition and more about education, tradition, and fun. Exhibiting your vegetables at the fair helps promote an appreciation for gardening. You may have the only specimens of a beloved heirloom tomato or maybe you are the first one in the community to grow a newly developed hybrid cucumber. Your entry provides an opportunity for avid gardeners to view a first hand sample. Who knows? Your beautifully presented display of vegetables may inspire another person to try their hand at gardening. Whether or not you bring home the blue ribbon, you will be part of a grand tradition celebrating the best of your backyard bounty.
 For example, the Minnesota, Ohio, and Indiana State Fairs have all of their rules and entry information on their websites. Check under the “competition” category within the general wesbite, e.g. http://www.mnstatefair.org/