Although the gates won’t officially open for more than a week, hundreds of people gathered Saturday at the Montgomery County fairgrounds in Gaithersburg in anticipation of this year’s Agricultural Fair.
The attendees were volunteers brought in to paint fences, fix benches and complete advance preparations for the fair, which starts Aug. 10. The work is an example of how much effort is required each year to get the volunteer-led fair underway.
Organizers say it is a constant effort during the year, and requires about 1,000 volunteers — some putting in as many as 100 hours per year — to prepare and run it.
“Truly, it starts more than a year in advance,” said Marty Svrcek, executive director of the Montgomery County Agricultural Center, the nonprofit that organizes the festivities. “Already we’ve started putting together next year’s fair.”
Svrcek said he expects attendance this year will be about the same as last year’s: 220,000 for the nine-day fair, now in its 64th year.
And some of those preparations are herculean efforts.
Joy Schwab of Laytonsville is in charge of organizing ribbons for the thousands of contests, which range from national competitions comparing farm animals and homemade baked goods to local events featuring dueling wannabe lawn mower racers and watermelon seed spitters.
This year’s fair has 20,000 registered contestants, and Schwab is tasked with organizing the 17,878 ribbons and banners that will go to the various winners, runners-up and participants.
The process, she said, can be a messy one, wherein she must separate, then box, sets of ribbons marked for each of the competitions. That way volunteers can easily dole them out as the competitions get started. The task will take her roughly 100 hours.
Luckily for her, the 72-year-old has nearly 30 years of experience dividing up the ribbons. That experience goes even further if you count the time she spent dividing up her own ribbons as a child — won as a member of the Montgomery County 4-H club for her icebox cookies and sewing skills.
“I guess I’ve been involved since I was in 4-H myself,” she said.
Schwab’s passion began, she said, when she was denied entry into the various competitions when she was 8 and too young to participate.
“I think that did it,” she said.
In recent years, her six grandchildren have been the competitors and annually take home blue ribbons in painting, baking and other contests, she said.
Similarly, Ed Hogan Sr. of Damascus is prepping The Big Cheese for operation. The grilled cheese sandwich business is run only during the fair but still manages to sell more than 9,000 of the treats each year.
Hogan said the operation requires more than two tons of Wisconsin cheddar, delivered fresh and cut daily. The operation, also entirely volunteer-run, has been staged at the fair for more than 60 years.
The Big Cheese is one of few permanent structures at the fairgrounds and needs to be cleaned and set up. Hogan said only experienced grillers are allowed to fry up sandwiches, and it requires as many as four years of volunteering there before getting to man a spatula.