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Judging Plant Science Exhibits at the County Fair: A Personal Journey

By Dennis Patton, County Extension Agent/Horticulture

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Judging plant science exhibits at the county fairI have always been a plant geek and loved being in 4-H when I was young. As a kid I loved the excitement of the fair and getting my entries ready for the big show. For months I would tend the vegetables and pamper my flowers, all in anticipation of the fair. 

4-H Fruits & Vegetables table signThe night before the entries were due I could not sleep as I was full of excitement. I knew I had a big day ahead of me. First prepping my exhibits, sorting, cleaning and getting my entries ready for display. Then came the check-in process and waiting for the judge to assign that all-important ribbon placing. Would it be a purple, blue, red, or the dreaded white ribbon (meaning the entry was below average in quality, and the exhibit did not meet standards).

If I was really lucky I might even get the showy rosette Grand or Reserve Champion ribbon.

Judging plant science exhibits at the county fairAs an Extension agent I am now in the role of judge. I take great pleasure in watching the youth go through all the childhood excitement and stress I remember. I also watch the interaction between the ever-present parent and the youth as they strive to put their best foot forward.  This is what makes the fair worth it as a judge.

As a judge you want every entry to be a winner, you want every child to succeed. But as a judge your role is to teach, guide and help them build for the future. Exhibiting in the fair and having the project judged is more than just the final ribbon placing.

4-H youth (girl) showing off her ribbonsRibbon placings come and go, and rarely do you remember later how the exhibit placed. But as judge, what you hope the youth learned is how to communicate with an adult, how to take constructive criticism, learn and grow. That is the value of having your exhibit entered and judged in the fair.

When I judge county fairs I always try to put myself in the youths’ place. I think back to when I was in their shoes and how I hoped for the best, but also, knowing that sometimes the judge and I did not see eye-to-eye on my efforts.

As a judge the fair is really not about the ribbon, it is about teaching life skills and helping that youth grow and learn. As you can see I enjoy being a judge. It is difficult to look a cute kid in the face and say nicely, “Your exhibit just doesn’t stack up this time.” But the real joy is working with the child to help them gain from the experience. The reward for the judge is often the best thing in life, and that is an ear to ear smile!