Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Exhibiting at the County Fair

Exhibiting at the County Fair
(or You Don't Have to be in 4-H or Own a Cow to Win Ribbons!)
Exhibiting your craft projects and culinary items in your local county fair is fun, easy, economical and good for your community! I read so many blogs from young (and not-as-young) crafters and culinarians and I often wonder if they have considered their county fair as a fun outlet for their talents. If you've wondered (or never even though of it), I'm here to tell you how easy it is and that you should get off your duff and try it out this year!

Step 1-Where is the fair?
Find out if your county has a fair. Time was, all counties held fairs as a community gathering and a place to exhibit each person's special talents. Across the country, fairs are having a harder time each year getting people through the gates so they can make money and continue the next year. County fair, sounds like a quaint old pastime, and fewer and fewer people want to spend Friday night at the tractor pull or rodeo. (If they only knew the fun you can have there!)

If your county is one that has sadly dropped it's fair, check into your state fair! All 50 states have state fairs and most do not require general category exhibits to "qualify" at any sort of county fair or smaller competition. You extension office can provide you with a state fair book or you can have the state fair office mail one to you, check your state fair's website. Do be warned that unlike most county fairs, state fairs usually require pre-registration so you will need to plan a month or two in advance and get your entry fees in before the closing date.

Step 2-Fair book
Get a fair premium book. This is a list of all classes, entry fees, prizes and rules for each category. You can get them from the fair office (usually located on the fair grounds) or your county's Extension Office.

As an aside, your local Extension Office has a wealth of information on cooking/nutrition, budgeting/finance, gardening/lawn care, animal care, sewing/crafts, emergency preparedness, parenting, and more. Their websites are chock full of gobs of handy info and their print publications are usually available free or at very nominal fees. I LOVE the Extension Office! (It's also where you can sign your kids up for 4-H or become a volunteer like me!)
Crochet doily, second place

Step 3-Recalling projects past

Brainstorm your creations. Don't think you need to create a whole basketful of new projects just for the fair. Most fairs require all items you exhibit to be made since the last fair. Think of all the projects you've completed in the past year! All the recipes you've already tried, enjoyed and would gladly recreate! No need to start from square one. As long as items are not noticeably worn, you can exhibit them so round up your projects from the past year and grab your fair book to decide which class to enter each one in.

What kinds of things can you exhibit? Basically anything you can make! Our fair is pretty standard and has separate categories for fine arts (paintings and photography), needlework/crafts (quilting, knit/crochet, paper craft, jewelry, sewing, etc.), junior division (under 18), produce (fruits, veggies, grains), baked goods, preserves/canned goods/honey, flower arrangements/specimens, and more!
Cookies in a display case at the Champaign County Fair

Step 4-Tips and tricks for new creations
Create a few new items for a few classes if you'd like. I love to be challenged and try new things! The fair book is my idea book for new things I would like to try. Last year I saw the category labeled "Craft item made from recyclables" and ran with it. And won first place!

I'm sure we all do our very best in everything we do, but when creating items for the fair it's important to keep in mind what they judges look for. Creativity and design are important but so are neatness and correct use of technique. Finishing in sewn items is very important. Clean, correctly finished seams, neat or no knots, straight hems finished properly, patterned fabric matched up, zippers inserted correctly. In Cross stitch, neatness is key (our judges use magnifying lenses and inspect the front AND back of pieces). When it comes down to placements, a more intricate crochet doily will beat one made with larger thread or one with a simpler design. In the culinary division, all items are tasted but texture, color, completeness of recipe card and use of proper cooking methods are also important. When exhibiting produce, most class are shown in groups of 3-5 and uniformity is VERY important. For example pickling cucumbers are shown in groups of 5 at our fair. Not only should they all be beautiful specimens free of bugs and disease but they should all be the same color, size, variety and maturity. Planning the planting of your garden is also important so that the produce you plan to exhibit will be in its peak season when fair time rolls around. This can mean starting plants early indoors so that they will have a leg up or planting later for some varieties like lettuces that you would want younger, more tender plants to show at the fair.

Pineapple-kiwi jam, make several and take the very best to the fair!

Step 5-Fair Day

Bundle up your items and head on out! Most county fairs are day-of entry meaning you bring your entry fee and your items and register the day of the competition. Having your entry form(found in the back of your premium book) already filled out will save you time and a headache at the fairgrounds. It is a good idea to bring hangers for any apparel items and quilts Your superintendents will appreciate you saving them space on the tables. Doilies look nice mounted on foamboard with pins. Make sure you food items are displayed on plain white paper plates, patterns or decorative displays are usually not allowed unless the category calls for them. Cover with plastic wrap or in a plastic bag. Most fairs will have these things available in case you forgot. Don't forget a recipe card with each recipe on it. Canned goods must be clearly labeled with the date they were canned.

Cheap or FREE!
Entering your county fair is usually VERY economical. Entries in my county fair's general division are 50 cents each! Add to that the fact that most of the time you are required to drop off and pick up your items early in the morning before the fair opens so you don't have to pay entry each time and you've got a bargain! (And if you earn ribbons, there is almost always a small cash prize to go along with it! I always make at least my entry fees back.) I do encourage you to come back to the fair and pay entry at least once though because if the fair fails to make enough money, it will not be able to continue. And the elephant ear and lemon shake-up vendors aren't open early in the morning so you've got to come back at night to get your fix! Is that just me? It can't just be me! Anyone want to share a fried Snickers bar with me?

Learning experience!
So you don't want ribbons. Why go to the fair? Being judged is a great way to improve your skills. The judges at our fair are experts in their area. They leave comments on each item's tag to help you understand your placement. You can also stick around after the judging (don't approach them while they are judging, it is not allowed) and ask them a question or two, how could you improve your color transitions in your afghan? Is there a better way to finish the seam in your toddler dress? Was it the spices or the texture of your pumpkin bread that could be improved?

What do I do with this stuff?
My favorite part of any project is planning! I love looking through magazines and finding patterns that would be great for the fair. But keep in mind you will be taking these things home afterwards so don't make anything you dont' like or won't get use out of. Make things you like, in colors and patterns you like. Create things you will wear or use in your own size or that someone you know will enjoy as a gift. I make several items each year that I know I will be donating to charity auctions. You can then include the ribbons with the item and as an added bonus, people will know they are bidding on a ribbon-winning item! This is a good solution to categories you would like to try out but maybe you have no baby for your layette or a painted jewelry box just doesn't fit into you decor. As for culinary and horticultural entries, there is a reason large garbage cans are located in the exhibit hall on check-out day. Winning exhibits stay on display for the extent of the fair. Sometimes it's in a hot, humid building with no AC or air flow of any kind. Be sure to take a picture of your exhibit before leaving that first day you drop it off because by the end of the week your tomatoes may be rotten, your pie may have devolved into a puddle of goo and your jam may have a green skin on top.

I really want to encourage everyone to try it out. You don't have to enter 40 categories your first year. Maybe pick one or two classes that fit items you've made in the past year or bake your mother's absolutely to-die-for, never-fail chocolate chip cookies. Get your feet wet, get acclimated to the process and build up from there. Or not. Nothing says you can't take one or two projects each year and keep it simple! I welcome questions or if you have stories about your trips to the fair, I'd love to hear them!

Show us your show stuff!
I've started a flickr group called The County Fair Revival where anyone can post pictures of their fair entries. Get out there and show your stuff and then show us!

Interested in showing off your garden produce? Check out my companion piece, Exhibiting Produce at Your Local Fair for info!


  1. Yes, please remember that you don't have to enter 40 categories at the County Fair. :)

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  3. Thank you so much for the tips! I have our county book. Now I just need to narrow down the categories! Your tips will really help.

  4. Thank you for these tips! There is a new fair this year, and I'm thinking of taking the plunge, so this really helps!

  5. Growing up on a farm, we always had things entered in the county fair. It was great fun. Your post brought back some great and special memories. Unfortunately, county fairs don´t happen here in Costa Rica.

  6. Congratulations you have won the leslie wind shawl pin on my 200th blog post drawing:)Hugs Darcyplease send me your full name and address at darcyknittingdiva@gmail.com

  7. I can't believe all of the ribbons you have won! That is AWESOME!!

    So impressed, and can I tell you how much I love going to my local County Fair. Yummy food, and tons of great ideas for me to look at that others have created. So fun! :)

  8. OK, I LOVE your ribbon wreath. Too cool for words.

  9. This is a great idea for a post! I have never managed to get my act together to do this but always mean to. btw - i love that one of your commenters is named "your loving husband"...i pointed this out to my loving husband, and he said it gave him an idea...

  10. I just found your blog today from jumping around. I was trilled to see someone talking about a county fair. I don't always enter but both of my daughters are getting their projects together. Why do we always wait till the last minute to get things finished. I will be back.

  11. Thank you so much for this post! I have never considered entering a fair before. I am hoping to be a professional baker someday so why not start getting feedback on my recipes now? Our fair starts soon but I've already been playing around with recipes for a different event, so I'm going to give it a shot!

  12. Jenna! Where do you live? The county fair here is nothing like it was "back in the day" when I grew up. I am only 38, and things have changed. But then I grew up in a small town of 1,200, too. 4-H was soooo much fun! I went to a 4-H "kick-oof" or intro here and it was mainly for animals, some cooking and I think there was photography. No sewing, no crafts of any sort.
    I was involved in general crafts, macrame, cake decorating, gardening, babysitting, photography, sewing, baking... those are what I did most every year. Those were such fun days! I know my daughter would love it. thank you for the trail down memory lane, dear! ;) Take care.

  13. I'm glad so many are finding this post helpful and enjoyable! All you hold-outs, get in there and enter!

    Shannon, I live in Central IL and our county fair has not changed very much. I'm glad of that! But you should check with your county extension office about 4-H for your daughter. Our county fair does not include any 4-H small projects (cooking, sewing, woodworking, motors, etc.). Those projects are exhibited at a three day long expo held inside our local shopping mall. The only 4-H projects at the fair are livestock. 4-H also offers a whole host of other compeitions like public speaking, judging contests (horse judging, beef and dairy judging) and quiz bowls for all different topics. Check it out! I'd love to know what she finds interesting if you are able to find a club!

  14. Thanks for these tips! I have sow for a few years now and just last year started entering in the crafty sections... but now i will be entering vegetables (as you can see im planing early) ad i just cant wait!