Inside the 4-H Activities Hall Sunday afternoon, five Miss Howard County Farm Bureau contestants enjoyed each other's company before their presentations to the judges that would leave one winner donning a sash and bouquet of flowers.
As the friendly competition loomed, all five contestants said it's what Miss Howard County Farm Bureau represents that means the most to them.
"Agriculture and 4-H is a big family here," said contestant Rachel King, 17, of Woodbine. "Everyone helps each other out whether it's getting pigs to a wash rag or helping someone sheer their lamb or clip their cows."
After forming strong friendships through 4-H over the years, contestants King and fellow contestants Emily Buckley, 16, of West Friendship; Jennifer Brigante, 18, of Woodbine; Caroline Beall, 16, of Woodbine; and Emily Frank, 17, of Columbia reflected on their year's work in raising livestock.
"I go to different county fairs every year, but Howard County is the most special one to me," said Beall. "I am involved in it, but when I look at other counties, they don't have as much to do. All of us are involved in so many different things here."
While Beall said she specializes in showing larger animals, like horses, the other contestants, like Buckley and Frank, said they prefer the small critters.
"Even though I don't live on a farm, I found a way to make [raising and showing animals] work and I've been traveling around to different farms," Buckley said. "I've been able to show dairy heifers, market pigs and market goats. It's a little unconventional because I am raising animals that don't actually live at my house and I have to drive around to all these places to take care of them."
Danielle Bauer, of the county's Farm Bureau Women's Leadership Committee, said contestants were required to submit a resume and essay on agriculture and its importance in the community. Each contestant also created their own boards showing information on agriculture, which are displayed throughout the fairgrounds.
The competition began with individual interviews between contestants and judges. Bauer said the competition features 90-second speeches from each participate about themselves inside the show ring, leading into a question-and-answer session as they draw questions out of a fish bowl.
"They will represent Howard County Farm Bureau for the rest of the year and they will go off to the Maryland State Fair, where they will be competing for Miss Maryland Agriculture," Bauer said.
The contest is certainly a fun experience, Buckley said, but fair week is even more exciting because everyone shows their work.
"It's such a great way to showcase all of the hard work that we've been putting into our animals and projects all year long and we can finally show them in competitions to the judges," Buckley said. "It's like we're finally being rewarded for all of our work."
Frank agreed, saying there's never a dull moment when "fair friends" get together.
"It's pretty rewarding," Frank said. "One of the things I love about 4-H is it is a set group of friends I can come back to without making any plans. I know that at the fair I can hang out with people."
At the end of the competition, judges announced Jennifer Brigante as this year's Miss Howard County Farm Bureau, with congratulations celebrated in the crowd and among all the contestants. Brigante said her 4-H years of showing dogs, rabbits, poultry, pigs, goats, lambs, dairy cattle and beef cattle have been "a blessing" as she prepares for her final year with 4-H next season.
On Aug. 25 and 26, Brigante will go on to compete for the title of Miss Maryland Agriculture at the Maryland State Fair.
"I'm very happy and very excited to see where this takes me," Brigante said. "It feels amazing and I'm still on cloud nine this evening. I remember when I was the Little Miss Howard County Farm Bureau in 2008 and sitting in the bleachers watching the contest. I remember always being really scared like, 'There's no way I could get up and do a speech in front of everyone.' I was really proud of myself today because I was able to do that."
During her next year as Miss Howard County Farm Bureau, Brigante said she plans to spread the word on agriculture throughout Howard County by visiting elementary schools to promote agricultural education.
The Howard County Fair continues through Saturday, Aug. 13, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily at the fairgrounds, 2210 Fairground Road in West Friendship. Admission is $5 for ages 10 and older; $2 for seniors, ages 62 and older; free for children under age 10. For more information go to www.howardcountyfair.org