Cheryl Conkle, of McComb, was happy-excited Tuesday afternoon as she and family unpacked homegrown tomatoes, lima beans, peppers and other vegetables from bags at the Hancock County Fair’s Grange Building.
She also seemed a bit bewildered and torn as she patiently, even cheerfully, tried to answer odd questions from this interruption, the city-fied journalist.
His questions were about how to grow vegetables that win awards at the fair.
“I have been raised on it, so when you say ‘strategy,’ it’s maybe hard for me to say that,” Cheryl, 68, said, like someone might answer if asked how they breathe. “I was coming to the fair, hauling things with my grandfather when I was 8 years old because Grandpa showed things at the fair. And I’ve done it my whole life.”
About a half-dozen families, like Cheryl’s, have a big percentage of the vegetables and fruit exhibited at the fair, said Gary Wilson, a judge for the competition and former Ohio State University Extension agent for Hancock County. Those families have been competing at the fair for multiple generations. Cheryl, for example, has grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-nieces who made entries this year, too.
She brought broccoli, pickled beets, turnips, green beans and musk melon in addition to the tomatoes, lima beans and peppers.
For extra fun, Cheryl sometimes enters something she does not normally enter. This year’s for-kicks-and-giggles entry is sweet potatoes. She showed off an outsized, mother-of-all sweet potatoes, coiled around a little, itty-bitty baby sweet potato.
A lifetime of fair competition has taught Cheryl that you never know.
“One year I got best of show on my red onions and I never would have guessed that in a million years,” she said. “There’s always a surprise.”
Cheryl swooned when asked what her favorite thing to grow is.
“I love to grow” — she paused momentarily, her voice softening — “gourds.”
“Ornamental gourds,” she said, then wandered off, sifting through plastic shopping bags to find one.
“They’re just fun,” Cheryl said. “I’m at the point where I enjoy growing fun things.”
She pulled out a bubble-warted gourd of sundry shades of green, yellow and orange.
“Growing just some fun things like that,” she said. “I’m at the point where I planted more of those this year than I normally do and I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to plant some sunflowers in my garden and I’m going to plant some gourds and I’m going to sit on the back patio and I’m going to enjoy the color.'”
“And I did that this year, along with stuff to eat, too,” she said.
“The garden is the place where I go and meditate,” Cheryl said. “It’s just a peaceful place for me.”
On Wednesday, Cheryl’s sweet potatoes won second place. She took first place in turnips, beets, large canning tomatoes, green beans, flat Dutch cabbage, broccoli and several other categories before the judging was complete on Wednesday afternoon.
Wilson, who was doing the judging, said he looks for uniformity in size and shape.
“If it’s five of something or 10 of something, we like them all to be the same,” he said. “If they’re all different sizes — even though they look nice individually — they’re not nice as a display. So, we’re looking at a display.”
Blemishes, insect bites, malformations are all deductions.
“We’re looking for ripeness. We don’t want anything that’s too green. We don’t want anything that’s too ripe,” Wilson said. “We can usually tell that by feel and by smell.”
Some bugs and worms like when a vegetable or fruit is overripe. A judge views their bites as an indicator.
Winning contestants have put in a lot of daily painstaking time and attention for months. They prepare their soil, plant in a timely manner, keep their crops weed- and pest-free, and harvest at the right time.
After the harvesting, there’s still more work.
“It’s hard to find good things to display, a good fruit or a good vegetable. I guarantee you these things that are on display today were not their first pick,” Wilson said. “They went through a lot of samples to try to put together one (group) that they could put together for exhibit.”
It’s hard to find a tomato that is not cracked or bruised, for example, he said.
Sometimes there are clear differences between one entry and another.
In judging corn, Wilson looks for the kernels to be in straight rows. Many ears have 16 to 18 rows.
“But some over there have 20,” he said. “That just really magnifies the number of kernels that one can get by having that big, wide ear.”
But people have put so much work into their entries, and so many are so good, that the judge is forced to make distinctions that can seem subtle to a casual observer.
“It really gets down to little, little things,” Wilson said.
“We’ve had several people that — as we were judging — (they were) watching and wondering why one was better than the other,” he said, chuckling good-naturedly. “Sometimes it’s very, very close,” Wilson said. “It’s very minute sometimes, the differences.”
“But there has to be a first place.”