County and state fairs don’t do fruits and vegetables justice

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist August 31, 2011

You may have seen the scenes of young people in the Spanish town of Bunol enjoying themselves in a tomato fight. After an hour, vast quantities of the splattered fruit bloody their bare torsos. I suppose it’s a form of fun. But do they know the effort that goes into raising a tomato? I feel the same sense of vegetative desecration when I see a pumpkin shot out of an air cannon. Sorry, but I do.

In my more staid world, I wish we would do more to honor the harvest, and especially the homegrown one. County and state fairs throughout the land seek to do this, but not squarely, I’d say.

Fairs are about midways and corn dogs and livestock shows. To the extent they celebrate the domestic arts, the fruits and veggies get lumped in with canned produce and crochet work and knitwear; these are all noble skills, but the medley is too unfocused for me.

I can’t speak to the quality of the quilts, but some of the vegetables are not ready for prime time. You get a sense that the shows are more in search of entrants than the other way around. I’ve seen this in several county fairs in Maryland over the years. When I visited the Prince William County Fair recently, billed as the biggest local fair in Virginia, the fruit and vegetable displays were earnest but underwhelming in quality and variety.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I really hoped that the renewed interest in food gardening, particularly by a new generation of young, bright and informed gardeners, would have yielded trug loads of rare varieties of tomatoes, beans, melons, onions — you name it — raised to plump perfection. I’d love to see robust (but not gargantuan) examples of, say, the leek Tadorna, or the honeydew melon Snow Leopard, unblemished by pest or disease.

Perhaps such treasures are being raised this harvest season, but that world hasn’t connected to the traditional county fair. At the Prince William fairgrounds, I found a few tomatoes and hot peppers of eye-catching appeal. I could find only one yellow squash vying for a ribbon. The cucumbers were sparse and sad. Among the novelties was a gourd shaped like a hipbone and a potato fashioned into a flamingo. Another potato was done up in white with a ruff. I think it was that European clown Punch.

How do you organize a top-class fruit and vegetable show? With a degree of ruthlessness that might not mesh with the homespun welcome of the county fair. Competitions can bring out the worst in people, but they also raise standards and give visitors something to admire and aspire to.

In the plant shows of high quality — I’m thinking, for example, of the Philadelphia International Flower Show or the April shows of various daffodil societies — you have a ruling body with printed standards for entries, and judges who vet entries for health, condition and correct labeling before they are ever shown and evaluated. Gardeners want to know what variety the other guy is growing. With an interest in heirloom varieties and their distinctive traits, wouldn’t it be great to see some of the dozens of bean varieties out there, or of sweet peppers or eggplant?

“I do believe they’re of value,” Ethne Clarke, editor in chief of Organic Gardening magazine, said of fruit and vegetable shows. “I wish there were more of them.”

So does Amelia Showalter. The city-dwelling, carless 28-year-old found a commercially sponsored tomato contest two years ago in Northern Virginia and went to some effort to take public transportation and her tomatoes to the event.

In her blog, she complained about the lack of a fair in the District, which she and like-minded folk organized last year as part of Columbia Heights Day.

“I think folks don’t realize there are people growing zucchini right in the middle of D.C.,” Showalter said.

The second annual D.C. State Fair was going to be held Saturday, but Hurricane Irene forced the cancellation of this year’s Columbia Heights Day.

Organizers of the D.C. State Fair hope to find a new venue and date for the event before season’s end, she said. “We want this to be about urban agriculture and local people making food by hand. We want to give people a chance to show off their talents.”

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