This week, I had the opportunity to judge vegetable and herb entries at the Ulster County Fair. I was excited, as I have fond memories of attending the local fair through the 4-H program when I was a child. Back then (an undisclosed number of years ago), I would often enter several of my craft projects and such, hoping to find a ribbon next to my entry when judging was complete. On several occasions, I did find a ribbon, and I remember the feeling of pride and excitement that winning a ribbon brought me. Now, I would be the one handing out the ribbons, and I was just as excited!
All morning, people dropped off their entries for both the vegetable and horticulture departments. Many entrants were children, proudly bringing us what they had grown in their garden. You could feel their excited energy. Boxes of beautiful floral arrangements, herbs, vegetables, and potted plants made their way into the intake area. Conversations, oohs and ahs, and good luck wishes were frequently uttered among entrants, all eager to share what they had grown and to admire the other entries. The camaraderie was palpable among them all; despite their differences, the love of growing and gardening connected them, which was beautiful to see. I got the sense that the fair wasn’t a cut-throat competition for these gardeners to see who had grown the biggest and best; it was an opportunity to share the love of growing.
When the entries were all submitted and arranged, the judging began. There were six judges in total, three judges for the horticulture department and three for the vegetable department. The horticulture judges would be looking at the ornamentals, including flower specimens and arrangements, and the vegetable judges would be looking at the edibles, including vegetables, fruits, and herbs. The horticulture judges had 80 possible categories, including cut flowers, arrangements, and potted plants. The classes I would be judging included 54 vegetable categories, 12 herb categories, and 9 fruit categories. But, of course, not every class had entries.
Being a first-time judge, I was lucky to be paired with two experienced judges who showed me the ropes. I quickly learned that judging wasn’t just about determining the biggest or even best looking in each category (except the monster vegetable category, of course). Many factors went into a judge’s decision. Firstly, there are strict guidelines that each entry must follow (to make it fair for all entrants), including size, number of specimens, and presentation. As judges, we had to uphold those guidelines. We tediously counted the number of stems and measured the length of the fruit, making sure all entries had met the guidelines before judging. For example, we, unfortunately, had to disqualify a beautiful zucchini entry simply because they had added one too many fruits. Other factors we considered were color, quality, uniformity, ripeness, presentation, and growing difficulty. In the case of a carrot and pepper entry, we were impressed that they were fully developed and ripe this early in the season; no easy feat considering the crazy weather we’ve had this growing season.
There were four possible ribbons that we could award entrants at the fair: a first-place blue ribbon, a second-place red ribbon, a third-place white ribbon, and a purple best of show ribbon. I quickly discovered that we were not obligated as judges to award ribbons. Just because there was only one entry in a category, it didn’t win a first-place blue ribbon automatically. Based on our criteria, it might get a red or white ribbon, or if it didn’t meet the guidelines, it wouldn’t receive a ribbon at all. We judged each entry both individually and as it related to others in that category. In some cases, the decisions were easy to make, and in others, it was more difficult. For example, when faced with three very similar watermelons.
When we had finished judging all of the entries, we had one ribbon left to award: the best of show. Each judge wrote down their top three choices on a piece of paper, and then we came together to see if there were any matches. Luckily, one entry made all three of our top choice lists. So we awarded the best of show ribbon to a beautiful pair of Carmen Italian Sweet Peppers.
As I left the fair, I imagined how excited the growers would be when they saw the ribbons they had won, which would serve as an acknowledgment of their hard work and green thumbs. However, I also knew that those ribbons didn’t even truly matter. Because gardeners are passionate about what they grow, and they love to share that passion. Often by freely sharing their harvests and knowledge with others. In the end, I know, as a gardener myself, that being a part of that unique community is reward enough.