State fair's glitz is no match for its produce


Next to the glitz and glitter of the Midway at the Maryland State Fair is living proof that art falls short when it imitates nature.

Despite its high-wattage hype, the neon brightness of the rides and games pales in comparison with the colors on display in the Food and Garden building.

Inside the low cinder block structure, just inside the main entrance off York Road, there's enough subject matter to keep a gaggle of Flemish painters busy at their palettes for a lifetime.

The reds leap out of the tomatoes. The purple of the eggplants is deep enough to plunge into. The green of the zucchini and beans are archetypes of that hue. The row of tremendous pumpkins plays a gargantuan variation on the theme of orange. You could spend a lifetime mixing paints and never come up with the rich copper of the cured tobacco.

These are Maryland's best -- the entrants in the farm and garden products contests -- most grown in backyard gardens, a few by professional farmers. They all await judging today -- Opening Day -- by corps of Ph.D. types from the University of Maryland.

The experts will peruse the potatoes for uniformity of size and color, count the pods in the pole lima beans, examine the alfalfa-grass mix for a proper combination of flat alfalfa leaves and nice green grass shoots (with no trace of weeds) and otherwise pass judgment on apples, pears, plums, peaches, berries, nuts, melons, oats, squash, cabbage, onions, grapes, gourds, rhubarb, salsify, kohlrabi, cocozelle, corn and all the other 1,700 entries from 350 different growers.

They will weigh the tomatoes, looking for the heaviest. They'll sip the mead wine, looking for the sweetest. They'll chuckle at the vegetable oddities, looking for the oddest and carefully consider the mixed vegetable displays, looking for the prettiest, before handing out the coveted blue ribbons.

They won't be taken in by the razzle-dazzle that might turn the head of a fair-goer who has wandered in from the Midway -- the excess of leaves on a cabbage or the baseball-bat size of a zucchini.

"Now really, if you were getting a squash in the grocery store to eat, would you buy one of those?" asked Lorraine Gover, superintendent of the Farm and Garden division, as she eyed an overgrown entry.

During the days of the fair, the Farm and Garden building belongs to Miss Gover, who has run these contests and displays as a volunteer for the past six years.

She seems to know everyone who walks in the door, how they've done in the past and what they've entered this year.

Wilbur Koerner of the Jacksonville area walked in yesterday afternoon and handed Miss Gover a bag of plum tomatoes. "These are my favorite," she said. Mr. Koerner claimed that his only entry was the one big tomato he carried in his hand -- which seemed destined to be an also-ran in the race for the weightiest.

Ms. Gover knew better. Mr. Koerner was the grand champion last year -- took home the most blue ribbons -- and sure enough, out in his truck were baskets and trays filled with everything from potatoes and peppers to horseradish and salsify.

Carl Yowell, 47, works with weather satellites now. But he grew up working in the orchards on Windsor Mill Road not far from his current Randallstown home.

"All you see there now is houses," he said.

But Mr. Yowell keeps the farming tradition alive with his 50-by-100-foot plot.

"It's a beautiful garden," commented his mother, Helen, who traveled from Salisbury to help out. "He grows everything there."

The Maryland State Fair continues through Sept. 7. The livestock and horse shows were to mark today's opening at 8 a.m. The Midway opens at 11, and a hot-air balloon race is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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