Laura Bradley remembers being interested in farming since she was a child. No one in her immediate family is a farmer, however, so she was surprised to be crowned Miss Howard County Farm Bureau this week.
"I wasn't expecting that because I thought I might have got runner-up. It was a little shocking," Bradley said. "All the contestants were very well qualified."
Bradley, 17, of Ellicott City said she is excited to become the group's spokeswoman for agriculture.
"I love talking to people and sharing what I know, so I think it would be neat for me to do the various activities, like teaching to children, and representing the Farm Bureau, because I like answering questions," Bradley said.
The annual contest took place Sunday at the eight-day Howard County Fair, which will conclude Saturday.
With hundreds of fairgoers watching, the seven Miss Farm Bureau contestants, ages 16 through 19, were escorted to the show ring by male family members or friends.
The young women, who voted to wear formal dresses, then delivered a speech and answered a question on the spot. Before the event, the judges also interviewed the contestants.
Annette Fleishell, the contest chairwoman, said Bradley "was a very good choice.
"Our goal was to keep the contest alive and hopefully growing," Fleishell said. "We're always happy when we get anywhere near six [participants], because that makes a good contest."
Bradley thought the most difficult part of the contest would be delivering her speech, but she said it turned out to be the easiest.
"I thought I was going to be nervous, but they did a really good job making us feel comfortable, and I don't mind public speaking," she said. "Probably the hardest part was writing a good speech."
After she was chosen, Bradley was given the winner's sash by Brooke Hartner, the 2006 Miss Farm Bureau.
Brittany Bowman, 17, of Walkersville, was named the runner-up of the contest.
As the winner, Bradley earns a $300 scholarship and will represent the county in the Miss Maryland Agriculture contest Aug. 24, the opening day of the Maryland State Fair in Timonium.
Bradley said she had been watching the Howard County contest for several years, but did not participate until this summer. One of her motivations for competing was her desire to interact more with young people.
"I figured that being farm queen would give me more opportunities to teach children about farming," she said.
This was the second year that the Farm Bureau also sponsored the Little Miss Farm Bureau and Future Farmer contests, which Fleishell said promote agriculture among children ages 8 through 11.
McKenzie Ridgely, 10, of Union Bridge won the Little Miss contest, and Charlie Coles, 11, of Woodbine, won the Future Farmer competition.
The Little Miss Farm Bureau and Future Farmer competitions each had five contestants this year, with the participants submitting an application detailing their activities, designing an agricultural poster and interviewing with the judges.
The winners, who were announced during the intermission of the Miss Farm Bureau contest, each receive a $100 project scholarship, and will be youth representatives of the Farm Bureau.
Fleishell said she was happy with the turnout of participants in the Little Miss and Future Farmer contests. "Last year, we had just one contestant, so we made some changes this year to the way we promoted this contest, and we expect the contests to continue to grow," she said.
Bradley's mother, Donna Bradley, said her family was "excited, proud and surprised" when Laura become Miss Farm Bureau. Donna Bradley said her family's attendance over the years at the county fair encouraged Laura to pursue farm-related activities.
When she was 9, Bradley joined 4-H to become more involved with farming. As an 11-year-old, she began leasing horses and learning how to care for them. She leases a horse and a heifer, which she is showing at the fair.
"4-H has changed everything because I wouldn't be planning on going into agriculture if I hadn't joined 4-H. It provides so many opportunities. We do a whole lot of community service and you can get a whole lot of knowledge from it," she said.
Bradley, who lives with her family in the Dunloggin neighborhood of Ellicott City, is a rising senior at Chapelgate Christian Academy in Marriottsville. She plans to apply for admission to Virginia Tech to study animal and dairy science.
Bradley said she wants to have a career in agriculture, and may become a livestock veterinarian, though she is keeping her options open. She said she would like to own a farm and have her own animals, including cattle, horses and lambs.
"I think it's a neat process to be able to work with an animal the whole year, and it's really neat to come to the fair and show your animal. I think I would just love it," she said.