The first girl to be named the Maryland Farm Bureau Agricultural Ambassador was the last girl she thought the judges would pick. Friday night, when the TV news anchor who emceed the contest called the names of the four runners-up, Sara Wiles was convinced she had blown her chance at the title.

Sara, who is 16 years old and lives in Washington County, stumbled on her words during the 90-second introduction each contestant wrote and memorized. Many of the other 20 girls on stage in the Horse Sales Pavilion at the Maryland State Fair did so much better, Sara thought.

Take Beth Harkins, who represented Harford County. She managed to tuck in her 11 years of 4-H experience without a hitch. Or Katie Roberts from Charles County. She artfully let the judges know she has been competing in livestock judging competitions since she was 6. Or Kirby Collins of Worcester County, who got a big round of applause for saying, "People need to know food doesn't just come from a grocery store. Food comes from the hard work of the farmers." Then there was Rachel Cawley. She no doubt scored points for her enthusiastic introduction when she said, "I'm proud to be representing 'The Green Garden County' - the heart of Maryland's beautiful Eastern Shore - Caroline County!"

Sara, in her 90 seconds, told the three judges that she lives on a small farm in Fairplay with her mom, her dad, and her two younger brothers, and that they raise chickens, dairy goats and dairy steers. She said she breaks animals for shows and is a member of the Washington County Junior Fair Board. She didn't have to say that her mom, Vickie Wiles, was the Maryland Farm Queen 22 years ago. The emcee said that as Sara walked across the stage to the lone microphone in the center of the spotlights.

There was a lot Sara didn't get to say about herself. Like how she saved money from selling dairy goats to split the cost of a 1994 Chevy Cavalier with her parents. Or how she switched from Williamsport High School to Clear Spring, where she will be a senior, because Clear Spring has a strong agriculture program and an active Future Farmers of America. She didn't get to tell the judges she leads kindergarten farm tours, has written and delivered sermons at Salem Reformed Church and wants to be a minister after she graduates from college.

But none of that mattered because she got a little tongue-tied and was certain she blew it, anyway.

Sara couldn't talk to her mom, who was sitting among the 300 people in the audience, to ask how noticeable the flub was.

So much has changed since Sara's mom was Farm Queen that whatever her mom could have said probably wouldn't have changed Sara's mind. When her mom was Farm Queen, every one of Maryland's 23 counties sent a contestant. It wasn't like this year, when the contest's sponsors, the Maryland Farm Bureau and the Maryland State Fair, changed the title from queen to ambassador and got rid of the gowns and tiara in an effort to modernize the pageant. When Sara's mom was Farm Queen, she got to wear an antique dress from the 1800s because it was the 100th anniversary of the fair. And when Sara's mom was Farm Queen, the girls were judged on personality, agricultural knowledge and public speaking - just as they were Friday - but her mom didn't have two days of interviews with judges as Sara did.

On the county level, Sara was asked what she thought about the change in the state contest. She was honest. "I'm really not in favor of the decision to take the tiara away. The gown doesn't mean as much as the tiara, but when you are out in public, the tiara is what makes people notice you."

Maybe it was because Sara was so certain she would not win that she looked more relaxed than some of the other girls when she walked back across the stage for her "barn box" question. The question, sealed inside an envelope, is drawn from each contestant's application and meant to test the depth of her farm knowledge. The girls who went before Sara received some tough questions - and gave some impressive answers.

Kimberly Underwood, who represented Cecil County and was the girl Sara believed would win, was asked to explain why she uses a TMR (Total Mixed Ration) mixer to feed her cattle and how it works. When she compared it to "a batch of cookie dough," the audience smiled. Amanda Snyder from Queen Anne's County was asked to explain why she rents 5 acres on her own for her cattle and swine. "Because having my cows at my house is a lot better than having them at somebody else's," she said. Sarah Shores of Somerset County got the night's biggest laughs when she explained why she wants to become a tractor and heavy-equipment mechanic. "I feel that women can do anything they set their minds to," she said. "If my car breaks down, I'm in good hands because I'll know what to do."

Sara didn't have to think long about her question: Please explain the process of breaking animals for show. Growing up on a portion of her great-grandfather's dairy farm, Sara learned firsthand how to tend to animals.

"I have several animals that I have to break for show," Sara said. "I have dairy goats, which to break a goat for show means you take it out in the front yard and lead it around every night for quite a few nights - and it usually ends up being weeks." Sara spoke easily. She didn't trip on her words or pause at all.

When Sara was done, she went back to her seat on stage and sat with her legs together, her ankles crossed and her hands together in her lap. Like the other contestants, she wore a navy blazer, a sash with her county's name in gold letters and a scarf decorated with black-and-white cattle, red barns and silos.

As a little girl, Sara grew up hearing bedtime stories about Rockland, the dairy farm where her mom was raised. Sara was in elementary school when she wore her mom's old tiara on costume day and called herself a princess. She used to look through her mom's scrapbook of Farm Queen photos and imagine what it would be like to be the girl on the white throne.

Then two years ago, she entered the Washington County Ag Expo Queen contest and won. Last year, Sara was the Alternate Maryland Dairy Princess, just like her mom.

As the judges tabulated the ballots Friday night, Sara listened to the last winner who'll wear a tiara thank all the people who helped her have such a good year. Hannah Amoss gave up many weekends to go to parades and banquets and promote agriculture across the state. Yet Sara, listening, didn't think it would be her dipping ice cream in a fair booth on Saturday or having her photo taken with ribbon winners Sunday or milling around the fair grounds tonight. At least not until the emcee called her name.

State Fair

When: Through Sept. 1. Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; midway opens at noon weekdays and at 10 a.m. on weekends.

Where: State Fairgrounds, York and Timonium roads, Timonium.

Admission: $5 for adults; free for children under 12. Rides are extra.

Call: 410-252-0200, Ext. 227

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