Amanda Clougherty takes a step back and surveys rows of pumpkins, tomatoes and watermelons splayed across tables inside the 4-H building at the Timonium Fairgrounds. Surrounding the vegetables and fruits are photographs, baked goods and other projects representing the months-long efforts of thousands of youngsters in statewide 4-H programs.
"It's really starting to shape up," Clougherty says, despite the clutter. "I'm loving it."
It's the day before the Maryland State Fair opens, and Clougherty's job is far from over. She still has to help arrange ribbon-winning clothes on mannequins, set up U-Learn Farm, an interactive agriculture exhibit at the Cow Palace, and assemble sale books for the livestock auction.
Clougherty is the logistical mastermind behind the fair's 4-H programs — not all 37,000 prize entries that come in every year, just the 40 percent that don't involve animals.
As executive director of the Maryland 4-H Foundation, Clougherty spends most of the year supporting and raising money for national conferences, state events and county grants and programs, as well as scholarships for students.
But come summer, Clougherty relocates from her home in Easton to a Timonium-area hotel so she can focus on the State Fair. She does a little of everything at the fair, from designing the layout of the building to working at the food booth to coordinating media interviews for the 4-H students.
And Clougherty troubleshoots if issues and questions arise — like the time judges in the "original artwork" competition came across a 4-Her's drawing of an iPod with Lady Gaga's name on the screen. It had to be disqualified, she and the judges agreed, because of the rule prohibiting copyrighted images and business logos.
"We have to be consistent," she says.
In many ways, Clougherty was born for this job.
She joined her local 4-H club, called the Green Clovers, as soon as she was old enough — at 5 years old. Clougherty, who grew up on her family farm in Easton and still lives there with her husband, entered many of her clothing, arts and crafts and food projects at the State Fair competition, racking up countless ribbons, which she still keeps in Tupperware containers at home.
Clougherty has been going to the State Fair for most of her life, as either a competitor, a volunteer or a superintendent in charge of a specific department. After graduating from the University of Maryland in 2003, she spent three years at Delaware's Department of Agriculture and almost a year as a program assistant at Talbot County's 4-H program before becoming the head of the foundation. At 29, Clougherty, who loves to sew, still enters her clothes in the State Fair's open competition.
"I have a passion for the State Fair and I love it," she says. "I worked up through the ranks and there needs to be somebody who could come annually, have the building set up and set up the logistics."
Just as she saw the State Fair as a place to meet new friends and network as a young 4-H member, Clougherty regards the annual summer event as an opportunity to promote the youth development program to the public, as well as to develop relationships with potential donors.
"The State Fair is a major contributor to the 4-H," Clougherty says. "I want the 4-Hers and their parents to be donors."
A short time after she says this, a woman approaches Clougherty as she arranges the vegetable exhibits and hands her an envelope. It's a $200 donation for the foundation.
"It's about building relationships and bringing new people to support our programs," she says.
The days leading up to the fair are long, with Clougherty starting her work at 8 a.m. and usually not getting into her hotel room until close to midnight.
Clougherty is running around the state fair grounds, jetting from the 4-H building to the Cow Palace to the administrative offices, with her two constant companions: a cell phone and a Post-it note with a list of things-to-do.
Last year, she had a golf cart to get around but it frequently broke down. So she went back to using her feet.
Throughout the day, Clougherty is constantly interrupted by calls on her phone or by volunteers and staff asking her questions. Even though she is juggling several tasks, Clougherty takes time to check in with her volunteers and staff.
"How's it going, Barb?"
"One thing at a time," she tells another volunteer.
Things slow down a bit once the fair starts, but more work lies ahead for Clougherty.
"It doesn't look like much now," she says, looking out at the space as preparation continues. "But to see 4-Hers come run in here to see if they got a ribbon, it's gratifying."