By Loni Ingraham
7:39 AM EDT, August 27, 2013
Betsy Lentz has won hundreds of ribbons from the Maryland State Fair and the 63-year-old Pine Valley resident appears energetic enough to win hundreds more as she bounces out of a sunroom chair, brings in a big brown bag and a large cardboard box and dumps her blue, red and white bounty on the coffee table for a visitor.
And that's not all of them, said John Donald, the housemate Lentz calls her "soulmate." He's also her gardening mate.
Donald said the 11 days of the state fair is one of he happiest time of year for Lentz, who has been winning ribbons for her flowers, flower arrangements, vegetables, baking and photography since 1985.
"She's like a race horse," he said. "It's in her blood. Her eyes get big and her ears wiggle."
This year, she is entering multiple items — too numerous to list —in the Food Preservation, Flowers, Farm and Garden and Baking categories.
Lentz donned her gardening gloves early. She was just 5 or 6 when she planted some beets in the large vegetable garden her father, Ed Lentz, maintained in the yard of her childhood home in another section of Pine Valley.
"I was fascinated," she said.
When Lentz retired in 2012 from a career in marketing and sales (she was the listing agent 20 years ago for Donald, the house she and Donald now share) she said she had every intention of devoting more time to her home arts entries.
These days, Lentz has the fair in mind when she plants at the farm her brother Ken Lentz, and his wife, Carol, own near Hereford. This, despite the rabbits chewing through the 8-foot high plastic sheets designed to keep deer away. She also plants in her own small garden and pots in Pine Valley and in Delaware, where she and Donald have a beach house.
It was her brother who pushed her into canning in 1984. It made sense.
"If you didn't freeze it, can it, or make it into casseroles or zucchini bread, it was going to go to waste," Lentz said.
Lentz found herself in Stebbins Anderson Co. in Towson buying canning equipment and reading the "Blue Book Guide to Preserving by Ball," the bible of canning.
The potential for botulism the book revealed terrified her, Lentz said: "I freaked out." To this day, she never takes shortcuts.
A year later, after planting droves of cucumbers, she showed up at the fair with a jar of bread and butter pickles and asked how she could enter them. She won her first ribbon, a second place.
"I was absolutely thrilled," she said. "I hadn't told the family I had entered. It meant the world to me. I was hooked."
The thrill is still there, Donald said.
"When she comes in the house and puts down her (newly won) ribbons, she gets so excited her eyes fill up with tears."
Lentz feels it's an honor to win but it doesn't bother her when she loses. And she's produced her share of "goose eggs," she said.
"The judges are tough. You can be creative but when there are requirements, you have to stay within them, whether it's a basket full of vegetables or a photograph," Lentz said.
She enjoys seeing what others have produced. "And I have a great respect for the hard work they have put into their entries," she said.
Vola Osborn, who looks forward to seeing Betsy come "bubbling in" each fair, supervises the entries for the 160 classes of food preservation, which is one of the 11 Home Arts Department divisions, including quilting, weaving and spinning, baking and photography, which all have similar breakdowns.
Sally Over, who's in charge of flower submissions, said, "Betsy's so cheerful every year it's like a family get-together when we see each other. Everybody's happy and it's fun hearing about what people have been doing."
Multiply and add the numbers from the farm and garden, livestock, horse and 4-H competitions and it explains why 18,000 ribbons are awarded each year.
Hundreds of ribbons is not that unusual for a yearly participant, according to Bill Langlotz, who supervises the farm and garden entries. " It's pretty normal," he said.
"Then there are some participants who strive for a thousand ribbons and say they are going to retire … and they don't always retire," Langlotz said.
For those who participate in the competitions "it can be a really enjoyable year-round hobby," said Over.
In fact, some of Lentz's entries aren't even planned.
A month after she took a picture of the Delaware Bay, she was stunned to see how lovely a photograph it was and decided to enter it, she said. Its bright blue waters and golden cattails won a blue ribbon as well as a fair champion award.
She also goaded Donald into submitting one of his photographs. It won a first prize.
Lentz's blue ribbon apple pie might have been a win for her in 2008 but it was a loss for Donald. Like her other entries it had to remain at the fair for its entire run and he never got a taste of it.
The following year, he asked her to bake two.
The Maryland State Fair runs Aug. 23-Sept. 2. For more information, go to http://www.marylandstatefair.com.
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