Competition heats up at this year’s State Fair

aweigl@newsobserver.comOctober 20, 2013 

  • Today at the fair

    Hours: Gates, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Midway, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Exhibit halls, 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.

    Tickets: Adults (13-64), $9; Children (6-12), $4; Military with ID, $5; Children 5 and younger and adults 65 and older, free.

    Dorton Arena concert: Scotty McCreery, 7:30 p.m., $25

    Forecast: Partly sunny, mid to upper 60s.

    Saturday’s attendance: 97,936

There are several ways to judge the vitality of the N.C. State Fair: attendance, ride ticket sales, even the number of giant turkey legs consumed.

But by one measure, this year’s fair is hitting definite peaks: Entries are up in contests for the best in everything from 4-H crafts to gluten-free quick bread. Reasons include broadened categories and more public input, but the increase also boils down to a renewed interest by North Carolinians and others across the country in these handicrafts practiced by our grandparents’ generation. And at the state fair, that interest can earn someone a blue ribbon.

The final number of entries submitted in this year’s contests from flowers and cakes to rabbits and poultry won’t be available until after the fair ends Sunday. But the number of preregistered entries for this year’s contests was 26,131 – a 44 percent increase over the number of entries actually submitted at last year’s fair. (These numbers do not include the entries in the livestock competitions. Under contest rules, rabbits and poultry are not considered livestock in this case.)

The flower contest alone saw a 103 percent increase. The beer competition saw a 117 percent jump. And the crafts competition for 4-H students surged 127 percent.

“All these entries across the board are up at this year’s fair so I think the health of the fair is good,” N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said.

The honey contest – up 28 percent with 702 entries this year compared with 549 last year – is an example of more folks taking up our grandparents’ practices. With all the headlines about the decimation of the world’s bee population, state apiarist Don Hopkins said: “Interest in beekeeping is up. (Bees) have become a cause celebre.”

In fact, North Carolina is home to the largest state beekeeping organization in the United States with membership approaching 3,500 members.

One factor, said Denise Walker, the fair’s competitive exhibits director, is the addition of categories in response to a survey given out to competitors after last year’s fair.

For instance, there were 75 new categories added in the flower show alone, which has three contests during the fair. In the culinary contest, competitors wanted to enter their gluten-free baked goods and so a gluten-free quick bread category was created. Parents asked for a category in the baked goods competition for exceptional/special needs children and so one was added.

“All of that feedback – I think – has really made a difference,” Walker said.

Walker and Shannon McCollum, who oversees the 4-H craft contest, name two factors in that contest’s rise in entries from 669 last year to 1,518 this year. First, Walker said the survey showed that competitors thought it was unfair that all entries from children ages 10-18 were judged against each other. And those age groups were divided into two: Now children ages 10-14 compete against each other and youths age 15-18 compete against each other. Plus, McCollum said the county 4-H agents offered many craft workshops and classes this past year: “Our agents out in the counties have done a good job.”

Richard Mitchell, superintendent of the beer competition, expected to see some increase because the competition is only in its second year and they broadened the categories from 15 to 23, which reflect the categories, based on style of beer, commonly used in beer competitions. Even so, the contest saw a healthy jump in entries from 181 to 393, Mitchell said.

Irv Evans, superintendent of the flower show, said the spike in flower show entries from 4,947 to 10,059 is especially surprising given this year’s weather: a cold spring, a mild summer and lots of rain right before the fair. “This has not been an easy gardening year, which makes it even more amazing,” Evans said.

Evans, who took over running the flower contest five years ago, believes entries are up because they have tried to improve customer service. He realized that competitors were having trouble finding the container sizes specified in the rules so they changed those specifications based on what kind of containers are widely available. They split the miniature rose category in two based on competitors’ suggestions. They make an effort to help competitors; if someone shows up with a hanging basket entry without a hanger, they find one instead of turning the entry away.

Evans said they had to get creative finding space in the greenhouse and building to display all of this year’s entries. “That’s a good problem,” Evans said.

Don Myers, a prolific rose gardener in Wake Forest, has been competing at the State Fair for the past seven years and took home three best in show ribbons last year and $900 in prize money. He was happy to see the miniature rose category separated into miniature roses and miniflora roses, which let him submit more entries. And he’s been happy that Evans has been receptive to suggestions.

“The last few years,” Myers said, “we’ve made suggestions and Irv has listened.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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