Winning Blue Ribbons at the Fair

Enter your best produce, most unique quilt or most high-quality livestock at the county fair this summer. Advice from seasoned blue ribbon judges can help increase your chances of bringing home a prize!

by Dani Yokhna

By Gretchen Heim Olson

About the Author
Gretchen Heim Olson writes from her ridge-top hobby farm in north-central Illinois.

The blue ribbon. For more than a century country folk have made an annual pilgrimage seeking that coveted fair award, hoping to see it attached to their handsome livestock specimens or carefully tended garden produce.

Blue Ribbon Red Peppers at the Fair
© David Liebman

Today’s hobby-farm women are just as interested in snagging the top prize as our peers of previous decades and, fortunately, it’s easy to “go for the blue” even if you’ve never entered the gates of a fair before.

Follow the advice of our judges and you’ll be in the running for No. 1.

First in the Class
No matter what you’re planning to show at the fair, all the experts begin by sharing the same important information: Everything you take to the fair will be entered in a class and each class of exhibits has standards that must be followed.

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Those rules and guidelines are very specific, so ignoring them can lower your place or even disqualify you from the competition before you’ve begun.
Your first job, then, is to:

  • Find out what the standards are for the items you’d like to take to the fair.

    Five Keys to Blue Ribbons
    Learn class standards:

    1. Practice, practice, practice–perfectly.
    2. Register in the proper category.
    3. Listen to the judges.
    4. Enter clean and neat.
    5. Have fun!

    The county or state fair office in your area can help, as can the friendly staff employed with university extension services. Industry-specific clubs and organizations, such as livestock associations or garden societies, are also excellent resources.

The second step is more extensive and involves learning the details about standards in a particular category.

  • In every classfrom lemon cake to llamasyou’ll find that judges are looking for the same qualities in each entry within the group; those are the ones you must strive to meet. Livestock, for example, should represent well the variety or breed being shown.

“… long-term preparation is the most important and most common characteristic among award-winning exhibitors.”

Letty Klein, a Karakul sheep breeder and judge in Michigan, explains “many traits are reflected in a standard because of that breed’s survival and evolution in a specific environment. These standards are used to identify one breed from another and to promote consistency for the breed.”  Too often, she says, exhibitors “don’t meet the breed standard.”

Ribbon-Winning Produce at the Fair
© David Liebman

New Mexico equine judge Linda Threet also closely evaluates each animal by the stated standards. “I look for the most perfect match of what that breed should be and I choose the one that comes as close to that match with as few flaws as possible.”

She points out that along with the specific breed physiology, exhibitors must also know the class rules for their discipline or breed. If they don’t, she says, that “can knock them down [in placings].” 

Learning these standards takes time. Klein tells shepherds before they “take their animals into a show ring, they should be a good judge themselves. They should know what a good sheep looks like and why, regardless of the breed.”

Exhibitors taking fruits and vegetables to the fair also need to know how to identify the best examples of the varieties they are showing.

Look, Listen and Learn
Reading breed standards and learning the rules that govern a class will give you a basic education in fair competition. But there is no substitute for actually visiting exhibitions and looking closely at which exhibitors win and which do not.

When you go to livestock shows, don’t be afraid to talk with animal owners about their practices or ask advice for your novice efforts (when they are not in the middle of chores).

With textiles and other domestic classes, stand back and note the overall impression made by the blue ribbon entries.

In produce, take time to compare different entries in the same class, and see if you would have chosen the same specimens as the judges.

In all areas of fair competition, if you can chat with judges or exhibitors, do so, or find out when you can make contact after the show.

Back at home, seek out experts in your community.
Don’t forget to use the knowledgeable folks at university extension offices and industry organizations, who are available throughout the year.

TJ Vinci, a vegetable produce manager for Maine-based Johnny’s Selected Seeds, says a judge’s placement will depend on whether or not the individual produce item realistically represents that particular variety.

He says that some judges will look for “the absolute nicest pepper,” but in other cases, such as non-hybrids, the standard will be slightly different.

“If you judge heirloom tomatoes,” he says, “some irregularities and cracks” are typical. Again, the key for growers is to know what is appropriate and expected in your produce class.

Vinci also tells gardeners to enter normal-looking specimens and to leave vegetables shaped like space aliens or Aunt Marge at home. “It can be different,” he says, “as long as it’s attractive. There are tomatoes that are really beautiful because of color variations.”

Failing to Plan
All our judges note that a willingness to spend significant time in long-term preparation is the most important and most common characteristic among award-winning exhibitors. Although fair season is short, blue ribbons go to those who have worked year-round on their entries.

Most quality produce and animal exhibits have been thought out carefully, they say, then managed well in the days leading up to the competition.

For garden exhibitors taking produce to the fair the in summer, that means planning selections in the dead of winter while digging through seed catalogs.

Vinci recommends giving yourself lots of choices, especially if you’re new to exhibiting. “I would grow something that has a large population,” like carrots, he says. Then “you can actually go through and choose nice ones.”

Come to the Fair!
Winfield Courier, Cowley County Kansas, Thursday, September 10, 1885.

The annual fair of this association will be held September 21st to 25th and promises to be a meeting of unusual interest and importance.

Nothing in the power of the Board will be neglected that will add interest to the occasion.

Many of the premiums, especially in the stock departments, have been greatly increased. Relying on the patronage of an appreciative public, the Board has assumed the liability of paying these enlarged premiums, and there is the most flattering prospects that its desires will be fully realized in thus attracting the largest display of the best stock ever shown in this part of the State.

Bear in mind that the Board has adopted a rule that when an entry is made for a premium on horses, mules, cattle, sheep, and hogs and there is no competition (there being but one entry) that if, in the judgment of the awarding committee, the animal is worthy, the blue ribbon will be attached, and second cash premium paid. This will obviate one of the complaints heretofore justly made.

The Board, in the spirit of public enterprise, has provided liberal things and all things are now ready, so come and aid and encourage in this good work.

Let the people of Cowley County, especially the agricultural class, arrange, if possible, to make Fair week a week of holidays.

The relaxation from care and labor to the husband, wife, and children will be beneficial.
If possible, take something for competition and if successful, it will aid in paying your expenses. In any event it will pay to spend the time in examining the best products and animals, learning the best methods, comparing notes, meeting friends and new acquaintances.
In many ways you will become better yourselves and help others to become better.– J. F. MARTIN, President (used with permission, Winfield Courier, 2007)

That same long-term perspective is important for managing livestock in the months leading up to the fair. Klein reminds sheep owners: “Proper nutrition year-round is important to keep animals in proper condition. Parasites should be eliminated or at least kept under control. Keep those feet trimmed.”

Judges say that exhibitors should work ahead of time on appearance and behavior in the actual show ring.

Klein says that those coming into the sheep show ring need to “learn the proper way to show the mouth.” She also frequently sees animals not groomed according to the breed standard.
“The fleece on a sheep should look neat, but natural,” she says. “The fleece shouldn’t be distorted by overwashing or conditioning.”  She encourages livestock exhibitors to become proficient at handing their animals.

In the home economics department, level of proficiency becomes obvious on judging day. The blue ribbon entries are always the result of significant work in the months prior to the fair.

“Watch your details,” says Marilyn Withrow, a veteran show judge of quilts from Oregon, “and use that old ‘frog stitch’ when necessary–you know, rippit, rippit, rippit–and start over.”

Read the Directions Before You Start
Even when you know the class standards and have worked hard to reach them, our judges say that as fair time approaches, new exhibitors frequently put themselves out of the running by failing to register entries in the proper classes or by ignoring directions given for judging.

In the weeks prior to opening day, every exhibitor should begin by making sure their entries are in the fair class best-suited for them. This is good advice no matter what type of product or animal you may be entering.

Withrow says one of the biggest mistakes quilters make is “entering their quilt in the wrong category.” Many times, she says, she has to note “would have done better in the proper category” because textiles can’t be moved between classes, even by judges.

“You should definitely check for guidelines and rules before you enter,” reminds Vinci. In produce, he points out, sample size is very important. If the rules state that exhibitors should show only five carrots or one head of broccoli in a display, then they must do that, he says, or the entry will be disqualified.

Inexperience also hurts newcomers in the show ring, says Threet, who lists “not following directions, not listening to the judge for instructions and not following posted patterns” as top errors made by exhibitors. “These are very simple mistakes,” she says. “All it takes [to remedy them] is paying very close attention at the show.”

The Ribbon is in the Details
At the fair, every judge looks for that outstanding exhibitor or entry; the one they say is instantly appealing, but also holds up under closer scrutiny.

With quilts, Withrow evaluates quickly the “overall appearance: Does the quilter use the principles of design; are her colors pleasing together; is it an innovative quilt or a traditional pattern?” Beyond the big picture, she looks very carefully at the quality of stitching, thread choices, sewing of appliqués and, especially, whether or not the quilt lies flat, as it should.

Judges of livestock entries, also, will spend time looking beyond the obvious. “When an animal walks into the ring, the first thing I see is the fleece,” says Klein. “The rest of my examination is only to substantiate and verify my first impression.”

And the Winner Is …
Our judges clearly know what they’re looking for in their class entries, but they also admit that final ribbon placement can be tough. Klein hopes exhibitors understand how hard judges work to give blue ribbons to the deserving: “In the show ring, someone has to be first and someone has to be last,” she says. “Often there is little difference between the two.”

Want to read more stories like this one?
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