Country Fair Coming Out
Known variously as county fairs, state fairs, field days or sometimes -- with a little bravado -- a world’s fair, agricultural fairs offer an opportunity for farmers and hobbyists alike to show off their horse training expertise, their vegetable growing skills, their pie baking (and pie eating) prowess, their finest rabbits and hens, their most excellent maple syrup, their woodworking ability, their cattle wrangling agility, and their pumpkins as big as a bathtub, among other things one might get handy at living in the country. These fairs are also an opportunity to gorge yourself on fried dough and grilled sausage before spinning yourself dizzy on a Tilt-a-Whirl. Not that I recommend that combination.
According to the Vermont Agricultural Fairs Association there are fifteen county or regional fairs annually across the state. After a maple festival in April, the county fairs happen nearly every weekend from mid-July until mid-September. The Champlain Valley Fair boasts some of the most high profile entertainment (pig races and a Pat Bentar concert!), meanwhile I’m fond of the Tunbridge World’s Fair, a postcard perfect September happening tucked into a river valley with a ferris wheel, a horse track and grandstand.
Besides cooing at the piglets and bunnies, the part of agricultural fairs that has always delighted me the most are the vegetable exhibits. Yes the giant pumpkins and fire engine red beefsteak tomatoes are a sight to see, but there’s also the humble plate of perfectly proportionate string beans or the understated blue ribbon radish. Winners come in all shapes and sizes.
Though I’ve been admiring the prize winning vegetables at county fairs for years, I didn’t learn until I ditched the city for the rural landscape of Vermont’s Lamoille County that you don’t need to be a professional farmer to enter the agricultural exhibit. If you grow vegetables on your land, even a little kitchen garden, you can compete. This year, amid my third Vermont summer as a resident, I decided to enter the agricultural competition at my local Lamoille County Field Days. It would be my country coming out. My vegetable quinceanera.
Not really knowing what from my garden would be blue-ribbon-worthy until the week of the fair, I monitored the condition of my plants, kicking myself for skipping on the summer squash this season, mourning the fleeting strawberry boom from a few weeks earlier, and frowning at my still green blackberries. The lettuce had mostly bolted; the cabbage was riddled with holes from hungry snails; the kale, cucumbers, tomatoes and broccoli were slowly but too slowly gearing up; and the sprawling pumpkin patch looked promising but wouldn’t be harvest ready until fall. The only real contenders were the towering dill that had appeared in more places than I’d planted it, my flourishing sage plants, a final wave of purple snow peas (nevermind the dozens that lay bloated and rotting on the vine, too prolific for me to keep up with), and the beets which I couldn’t see underground. I yanked up a couple beets, which looked oddly pointy and gnarly, but I salvaged their healthy-looking greens. And at the last minute I spotted the very first green string beans of the season and carefully picked the most uniform specimens. I had exactly twelve, the quantity needed to enter in the bean category.
Other than the number of beans or bunches of greens required to enter, I had very little instruction to go on and rolled up nervously to the fairgrounds. Inside the agriculture building two women and a man sat at a folding table. “Have you entered before?” one of them asked. “No. I have no idea what I’m doing,” I chuckled. I’ve noticed old school Vermonters, those whose families go back generations -- real dyed in the wool New England farmers -- tend to be people of few words and even fewer displayed emotions. No one laughed at me for being an amateur, but no one laughed with me either. They simply handed me a form for each of my entries and told me to come by anytime after 3pm on Sunday to pick them up.
Saturday morning I headed over to the fair with my husband and my toddler to see the sights. The Lamoille Field Days is a fine little county fair, albeit a bit low energy. Though I’ve yet to visit after dark, when I’m sure the carnival rides and the maple cotton candy sugar highs kick things into high gear. At eleven in the morning, the vibe was pretty mellow, with prize cattle being calmly paraded about, Pirate Man Dan making the rounds in his bubble boat, and a pie eating contest getting underway while an elderly duo called Woodchuck’s Revenge played country folk standards under a gazebo and politely told the audience, “Thank you for your attendance and your attention.”
Behind a ten foot tall replica carton of milk was the Vermont Farm Bureau building where all the agricultural products sat on display. As my eyes adjusted from the blazing sunlight to the dim barn light, there I saw on a shelf my carefully curated plate of purple snow peas adorned with a blue ribbon. The word EXCELLENT was stamped on my entry form. On the next wall I located my beets, dill, and sage all wearing a blue ribbon! Only my adolescent green beans, which did look a bit puny next to the other entries, weren’t bestowed a blue ribbon, but they still won a red ribbon for a good effort.
To be fair, more entries won ribbons than not, but I still took immense pride in seeing my own backyard creations sitting side by side with entries from actual honest-to-god farms and holding their own.
On Sunday afternoon, the skies opened up into a torrential downpour. I waited for a break in the deluge before heading over to the fairgrounds to pick up my exhibit vegetables and herbs. Although the fair was scheduled to run well into the evening with live music, a bicycle stunt show and the arm wrestling competition, I arrived to find the soggy grounds half packed up. The rides were still and quiet, the glum vendors were dismantling their tents, and the Farm Bureau building was locked up tight. As I walked up, two precocious children had also just arrived to find the barn locked up and were circling the building trying to figure out how to retrieve their entries. I followed them to the fair office where the dreary mood among the organizers was interrupted by the older girl’s plea to have someone help us locate our ribbons and handiwork. I felt sheepish as a grown woman asking to pretty please help me find my blue ribbons and was grateful that the two youngsters were there to make the request on all our behalf. After some back and forth on walkie talkies and some hunting around the dim building I managed to find my ribbons stashed in a drawer (weird) though my vegetables and herbs had disappeared along with every sign that there had been an exhibit there that day. It had rained hard on this agricultural parade, though ironically my vegetable garden was better for it.
A week later I was surprised when a check arrived in the mail awarding me for my prizewinning produce. I was so unfamiliar with the process of competing in the ag fair that I didn’t even realize there were cash prizes! And here I was just thrilled to have been awarded ribbons and the feeling that I more or less fit in here in rural Vermont.