- Susan Norton
I was a county fair kid. Every year growing up, I dragged an extremely reluctant goat around an arena in southwest Colorado, and then sold it at auction to some generous sucker who probably got about five pounds of meat off the entire scrawny specimen. The fair was the social event of my summer. I would meet up with my friends and wander through the animal barns, dodging steers and poking my fingers into rabbit cages. Then there were the indoor exhibitions, where one could compete in just about anything.
I especially loved the garden center, a room full of beautiful flower arrangements, clusters of ripe veggies and other horticultural specimens. The garden was usually the most neglected portion of my family's small farm, and it was constantly amazing to me that people were actually growing grocery-store-quality fruits and vegetables — and that they not only managed to grow one perfect tomato, but three perfect tomatoes at the same time.
Today, I garden for the same reason I occasionally bake pies from scratch: Making the thing with my own hands is satisfying, and it seems like something that a person who really has their crap together would do.
So I invited the vegetable judges from the Champlain Valley Fair — the two people who have the ultimate power to decide on the best squash or ear of corn in the entire valley — to my community garden on Myrtle Street. I wanted them to talk about how to harvest vegetables for the fair and, even more importantly, what to do with those that don't make the cut.
One judge was Jessica Hyman, who was executive director of the Vermont Community Garden Network for seven years. The other was Charlie Nardozzi, a gardening educator, speaker, radio commentator, and coauthor of Vegetable Gardening for Dummies and Urban Gardening for Dummies.
It should go without saying that the weekend before this garden visit, I yanked two half-dead zucchini plants out of my plot and pruned the tomatoes. It wasn't that I thought Nardozzi and Hyman would critique my garden; I assumed, correctly, that they would be kind and encouraging. But I wanted them to be at least a little impressed.
Nardozzi has been judging vegetables at the Champlain Valley Fair — which runs August 23 through September 1 — for about 20 years. Hyman started out judging the kids' section in 2011 through VCGN, and then began judging adult produce a few years ago.
Competing in the fair is a lot like grade school homework assignments: It's mostly about reading the directions. Hyman said it's amazing how many people don't read them — or, in this case, don't read the garden center handbook.
"If it says in the category that you need to have 10 cherry tomatoes, sometimes there'll be 16, and sometimes nine," she said.
"Sometimes we'll move them around," Nardozzi said.
"Or sometimes it gives us the opportunity to sample them, if they happen to have too many," Hyman added with a laugh.
The directions go beyond just the number of vegetables to submit. Some vegetables, like squash, should be submitted with the stem attached. Beets and carrots, however, are displayed with their greens trimmed off. Kale should be displayed in a jar of water, but leeks should not. The handbook is on the fair website, and Nardozzi said it's updated every few years to keep up with changing trends in what people are growing. For example, more varieties of tomatoes are in. Rutabagas and turnips, not so much.
There's also the matter of knowing when to harvest. Hyman stopped to point out a tangle of bean plants growing up a trellis in a plot neighboring mine. By the time the outline of the beans inside is visible through the shell, she said, a bean is overripe. And those giant squash that everybody is posting on Facebook? They're too big. Zucchinis are actually best when picked at about six inches long.
The other main traits the judges look for in vegetables are consistency, uniformity, and lack of damage from bugs or rough handling. But Nardozzi and Hyman aren't sticklers.
"We don't really love the idea of rewarding people for growing blemish-free, beautiful fruits, because we don't really ask how they grew them," Nardozzi said. "So maybe they sprayed all kinds of stuff on them to get these beautiful fruits, and we'd rather have people bring in stuff that maybe has a few blemishes."
They both try to strike a balance between acknowledging the long-held tradition of vegetable showing and encouraging people to see beyond which vegetables are "perfect."
"We're recognizing the perfect vegetables, the ones that look the best and are picked at the height of their freshness and are the right shape and the right colors, and that's really important in terms of good growing practices and encouraging people to grow their best," Hyman said. "And it's also really important to recognize that that's not the only thing to value about food. And that there's a lot of value that comes from food that isn't perfect in all these qualities, and that the food is still perfectly good to eat and may taste delicious and has all sorts of other uses other than showing it at the fair."
Attention to the role that misfit produce plays in food waste, sometimes called the "ugly food movement," has taken off in recent years. In Vermont, you can have "misfit produce" delivered to your door by the Philadelphia-based company Misfits Market. Another company, Hungry Harvest, does the same up and down the Atlantic coast, and Imperfect Produce delivers to large cities nationwide. Even Walmart has been dabbling in selling weather-damaged produce since 2016.
Hyman doesn't really believe in "ugly" food. Food is food. But she thinks this movement is a good place to start the conversation about food waste. The fair provides an opportunity to educate people about growing practices and sustainable food systems. When kids enter their vegetables for competition, they get a face-to-face judging session, where volunteers from VCGN give them tips.
For my part, I made carrot-top pesto for the first time this summer, and I sautéed my beet greens and blended the ends and insides of tomatoes into a vinaigrette, attempting to reduce the amount of food going straight into my compost.
And for the record: Hyman and Nardozzi said my tomatoes looked nice. I beamed. And now that I've dedicated so much of my summer to coaxing food out of the dirt — and spent a not-insignificant amount of money on pots, starts and compost — I really want to show it off. Not on Instagram, where the "likes" feel cheap. Not to my friends, who are tired of pretending to be amazed by yet another stubby jalapeño.
I want to go where the gardeners go. I want to carefully pack up 10 of my best cherry tomatoes and take them where I know they'll be appreciated. Maybe I'll even win a ribbon.