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Garden Lifestyle

Judging Vegetables

A veteran county-fair judge reveals what makes a blue-ribbon vegetable.

Veteran vegetable judge Charles O'Dell, a horticulturalist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, gets started on a full day of reviewing North Carolina's finest produce.
Photo/Illustration: John Bray

by John Bray
April 1999
from issue #20

For nearly 40 years, Charles O’Dell has been judging vegetable contests, traveling the fair circuit in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. He says he still finds the work fascinating.

“It’s just nice to see people really work hard to prepare nice entries, especially in a tough season like ’98,” said O’Dell, a horticulture scientist for commercial vegetables at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. “There was virtually no rain.”

As to what he looks for, O’Dell said that never changes. He said a manual he found in 1961 is valid now and “will be in the year 2300. You’re looking for quality and uniformity.”

While new varieties are always arriving on the garden scene, an unblemished tomato that’s true to type will always trump one with a cracked skin. But even perfection doesn’t guarantee blue ribbons. There’s more to it than that.

Good excuses to limit the field come from contestants failing to follow the fair rule book. “If it calls for three tomatoes and they submit five, you throw that one out,” said Robert Cox, a horticulture extension agent at Colorado State University. “If they can’t even read the fair book, why should they get a ribbon. You’d be amazed at how many people get disqualified because of that.”

Criteria can be very particular. Take the sweet corn standard put out by the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension in Jefferson County: “6 ears, husked, with shanks trimmed even with the cob . . . a soft brush may be used to remove the silk . . . the silking end should not be cut to hide any lack of filling.”

Standards and practices haven’t been codified throughout the country. That’s why knowing the rules of the fair you’re shooting for is critical. Generally, entries should be true to type and free from damage by pests, disease, and handling. Is it the kind of specimen that someone going through the bins at a grocery would put in his bag or push aside?

The Colorado State Extension office offers a class for aspiring judges that draws 10 to 15 people a year. “Most of all, it takes a willingness to throw yourself into the position of judging,” Cox said. While judges are occasionally challenged on their decisions, it’s rare.

Craig Andersen, University of Arkansas Extension horticulture specialist, said he knows why his rulings haven’t been questioned. “I’ve stayed away from flowers,” he said. “The most contentious groups are the ones who do flowers.”

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