Fair Judgement: garden lessons from a fair (and crop trial) judge

I love a fair! Which is a good thing since I find myself at a lot of them as an extension professional.  It seems like fairs attract extension folks like honey attracts flies.  We’re always involved in the 4-H activities – the livestock, project displays, and contests.  Sometimes we pop up other places as well.  The one thing that I get asked to do multiple times each summer is act as a judge for horticultural entries.  Usually for 4-H youth entries, but sometimes for the open class where anyone can enter their best (or sometimes not so best) produce, flowers, and more.  I thought I’d take a few moments to talk about what I look for as a judge, so if you ever want to enter your best tomatoes or dahlias at the fair you’ll know what to do to get the best ribbon possible.  And even if you aren’t going to enter something into the fair, the rules and guidelines we use can help you select quality seeds and plants for your own garden or help you pick out the best produce at the grocery store or farmers market. 

Produce items and flowers with their ribbons after judging. Each item is judged on its own merits and is not compared to the other entries (except for selection of a “grand champion” or for submission to the state fair).

The fact is, many of the same qualities I look for and skills I use when judging produce and flowers at the county fair are also ones I use as a trial judge for the All-America Selections (AAS) program.  I recently attended the AAS/National Garden Bureau/Home Garden Seed Association summer summit and was discussing fair judging with some folks from seed companies.  They were excited by the process, and especially by the fact that one of the things that I judge (and have gotten fairly strict about) is that the fair entry information contain the cultivar or variety name.  They found this exciting because companies, especially smaller companies, put a lot of work into developing new cultivars, and when the general public identifies specific cultivars as being high quality (as in, I grow XXXX cucumbers because I think they are the best) or at least being able to identify the qualities of specific cultivars then it is sort of like a recognition of the plant breeders and distribution company’s work (and also puts money in their pockets).  As home gardeners, it is important to know which cultivars or varieties work best for you and to be able to identify the qualities you prefer.  It can also be handy to see cultivars out in “the wild” and be able to recall the name of plants you like, which is why the All-America Selections program has display gardens where you can see the edible and ornamental winning plants up close and personal. I’ve written about the trial process for this blog before.

Our display garden on the UNL Campus, which is our home garden for our TV show Backyard Farmer. We feature the garden each week on the show, which is one of the longest running locally produced shows in the US celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. Watch episodes.

Now back to the fairs – this year I used my judgmental eye at five county fairs in the course of three weeks – with three of those fairs in one week.  I’m not sure why I’m so popular, maybe because I’m good at it or maybe because nobody else will do it.  In either case, I do my best to not only judge fairly and by the rules, but also provide valuable feedback as a learning opportunity for youth.  The whole point of fair entries and projects, from our point of view at extension, is not that a kid gets a blue ribbon (in Nebraska the top standard ribbon is purple, though, which I had to adjust to) but that we help raise blue ribbon kids.  In some counties I actually talk to kids, interviewing them on how they grew stuff and giving them feedback on their entries.  When I don’t interview, I fill out a score sheet and provide comments on positives and negatives of each entry. 

Here are a few of the things that I look for when judging, and how they might help home gardeners:

  1. Overall quality, appearance, and health – this is the one that most can identify with.  Does the produce item or flower look appealing and high quality.  Is it free of blemishes, diseases, bug holes, etc.  You’d be amazed at the quality of some things we get at the fair.  Of course, since I usually judge items for kids I do try to provide feedback on how to improve quality overall.  Basically, my reference point is “would I buy this at full price a the market or grocery store”. 
  2. Correct preparation – this is one where lots of folks get tripped up.  For produce items we are often looking for whether or not the item has been harvested correctly, whether or not the stem has been removed or trimmed properly.  It varies by produce item.  These rules seem superfluous and overkill, but they actually are based on guidelines for how to best prepare produce and flowers to extend their shelf life and storability. For example, in Nebraska our guide says to leave a ¼” piece of stem on cucumbers, to remove the blossom cap/stem (sepals) from tomatoes to reduce damage to fruit, to trim beet stems to 2”, to pull (not cut) rhubarb and leave 2” of the leaf blade attached, and so on and so forth.  These guidelines all help reduce damage to produce items or keep them fresher longer – so these guidelines can be handy for home gardeners, too. Herb stems are to be cut a certain length and kept in water (like a bouquet) with the leaves below the water line removed.  For flowers, rules will often state how large of a specimen to provide, and to remove the leaves below the water line.  Rules vary by state and by fair, but many of them are fairly consistent here.  You can find our Nebraska preparation guides for produce and flowers to see how best to harvest and prepare crops and flowers for storage or usage. 
  3. Uniformity of size, shape, color, etc. – this one also trips a lot of people up.  First, most fair rule books will state a specific number of one item that needs to be provided, so that a judge may judge consistency and uniformity across multiple specimens.  For example, our fairs require two specimens of larger produce items (slicing cucumber, zucchini, eggplant, etc), five specimens of medium size items (slicing tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, pickling cucumbers, beets, etc.), and twelve specimens of small items (cherry tomatoes, string beans, etc.).  Flowers usually require five stems, but larger specimens like sunflowers may only require three.  All the specimens provided in the exhibit should be as uniform as possible.  All of the produce items and flower stems should be exactly the same size.  Being the same level of maturity is also important and also leads to uniformity of color, especially in produce items.  Color uniformity is especially important in flowers.  I use this uniformity rule when judging our AAS trials as well – do the plants perform consistently across the whole plant in terms of harvest or flower appearance.  This is a useful skill for home gardeners as well, as you can judge how well a specific cultivar or variety performs for you. You want to grow plants that perform well and provide consistent produce or flowers and not plants that only produce a few good items here and there with questionable produce or flowers mixed in. 
  4. Correct identification and cultivar names – as I stated earlier, the correct identification of the plant (like don’t enter a jalapeno pepper as a bell pepper) and the cultivar or variety are important.  Knowing what the actual end product is supposed to look like is helpful for gardeners to know what they are growing, understand the traits that they want in the plants, and how to select the seeds or plants with the traits they desire.  That’s why the seed company reps got excited about this part – because having gardeners identify specific (newer) cultivars as the ones with the traits they want is important.  It takes garden selection from “I want a slicing tomato” to “I want this specific cultivar of tomato because I know it does X, Y, and Z, so I’ll buy it from this specific seed company that sells it.  That in part is what we do with the All-America Selections trials.  We try out new things (before they hit the market) to test them out for taste, color, disease resistance, and a whole bunch of other things to give a “stamp of approval.”  So any time you see that AAS symbol you know there have been several judgmental eyes (including mine) have assessed those plants and found them worthy. 

So next time you visit a fair take a look at the exhibits to see if you see what a judge looks for.  And think about entering your produce or flowers in a fair near you just to see how your garden skills stack up with your neighbor’s.  Even if you don’t win best of show you can have fun and learn a bit along the way.  And even if you don’t enter at the fair, you can use your judgement to pick the best plants for your garden for years to come. 

Sometimes you get to judge the “fun” stuff, too….like best dressed vegetable.

The 2022 Tropical Season: What are Tropical Systems?

In the Southeast, almost nothing gets more press than the Atlantic Tropical Season, including the outlooks, real-time events, and post-storm analyses. If you live in another part of the United States or the world, you may not be as directly affected as the Southeast is, but you might be surprised at how far and wide tropical moisture is spread, either directly by tropical storms and hurricanes or by the remnant moisture which can be carried with the winds for long distances away from their original sources. This week I will describe what tropical systems are and what they mean for gardeners. In my next post, I will review the current season, including any impacts that have occurred. Don’t let the early quiet conditions fool you—about 90% of Atlantic tropical activity occurs from mid-August through mid-October.

Hurricane lily (Lycoris radiata var. radiate). Source: Tonbu Mizo, Commons Wikimedia. For why they are called “hurricane lilies”, visit https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/hurricane-lily.html.

What is a tropical system?

I am using “tropical system” as a term that encompasses the life cycle of a tropical disturbance from birth to death. That may include formation by a tropical wave coming off Africa, developing in the Gulf of Mexico, or growing in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, then a tropical storm, a hurricane (maybe even a major one), and eventually a slow death as a tropical depression or extra-tropical low that has lost its tropical characteristics.

The map below shows historical tracks for all known storms across the globe. Note that in some regions they are called hurricanes and others, typhoons, but both are tropical cyclones, the generic name for rotating, organized systems of thunderstorms that originate over tropical waters and have closed, low-level circulations. The pattern of tracks shows some interesting information about tropical systems. For example, why are there almost no tracks in the eastern part of the South Pacific Ocean or in the southern Atlantic? Why do many of the tracks show a curve as the storm moves from east to west? Why are there more storms in the Northern Hemisphere (NH) than in the Southern (SH)? Why are there almost no tracks along the equator?

A picture containing nature

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Historical tropical storm tracks. Color coding indicates tropical depressions (green), tropical storms (yellow), hurricanes (red), and post-tropical storms (gray).

What ingredients are needed for tropical systems to develop?

Tropical systems form from areas of low pressure that develop rotation (counterclockwise in the NH and clockwise in the SH) as the storms’ pressure decreases. For the storm to strengthen, it needs favorable conditions to cause rising air in the center, which drops the pressure at the surface. One ingredient is ocean surface temperature of 80 F or higher (27 C)—that explains why almost no storms develop in the southeastern Pacific or southern Atlantic, since both are far too cold. Tropical storms and hurricanes are considered to be “warm core” systems with the air in the center of the storm staying warm all the way to the top of the circulation. The peak season of storms in the Atlantic is related to the cycle of ocean temperatures, with the highest likelihood of storms in the period from mid-August to mid-October. As ocean temperatures warm, this could mean a shift in hurricane season in the future.

For spin to develop, you need a force called the Coriolis force that affects the atmosphere due to the earth’s rotation around its axis. The Coriolis force is zero at the equator so any areas of low pressure that form in that area can’t develop the necessary spin to form storms. Another ingredient is light winds higher up in the atmosphere. This allows the vertical structure of the storm to develop a strong circulation that ultimately becomes a hurricane. This becomes important when we talk about the impacts of El Nino and La Nina on predictions of tropical seasons, since El Nino years have much stronger jet streams in tropical regions than La Nina or neutral conditions do.

The curvature of the tracks is due to the mid-level winds in the atmosphere that steer the storms as they go through their life cycles. The counterclockwise flow of air around ridges of high pressure systems push the storms along their edges. This often results in a C-shaped pattern as the storm travels around the western edge of the oceanic high pressure, although the position and strength of the high pressure will help determine the path each storm takes and when or if it recurves to the northeast.

Depiction of a hurricane life cycle, from a tropical disturbance (easterly wave off the West coast of Africa) to a fully formed hurricane. Image credit: NOAA/NHC.

Impacts of tropical systems

Some impacts of tropical systems are only found near the center of the circulation, but others can be found hundreds of miles away, so even if you are not in the main area that tropical storms affect, you are not without risk. These storms are not small whirls like tornadoes, but are much bigger and can take hours to cross a location near the center. If you are close to the storm’s center, especially if you are on the right side of the storm’s path, you are likely to experience strong winds, heavy rain, and, if you are near the coast, the chance of a storm surge coming inland from the ocean. Farther away, you can experience strong squalls that include small tornadoes, heavy rains, and gusty winds. These effects are made worse if you live in mountainous areas where lifted air can cause rapid flooding conditions. Some of the worst floods in U. S. history are from former hurricanes that traveled over mountains and dropped incredible amounts of rain, such as Agnes, which caused the death of 122 people mostly in Pennsylvania, almost exactly 50 years ago.

Even after a storm weakens to a depression or transforms into an extra-tropical storm, the blob of moisture within the remains of the storm can be transported by the atmospheric circulation a long ways. There have been records of typhoons in the Western Pacific Ocean whose watery remains crossed the ocean and brought heavy rain to the West Coast. Occasionally some will enter the central United States and drop flooding rain there, too, such as the remains of Tropical Storm Erin in 2007.

Hurricane Dennis batters palm trees and floods parts of Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West’s Truman Annex, U.S. Navy photo by Jim Brooks

What gardeners (and everyone else) should know

Preparing a garden for a hurricane is no different than preparing for other types of extreme weather. Survey your property before the season to make sure that no objects that could blow around in high winds damaged are present. If a storm is coming, make sure that your yard is free of garden gnomes, rakes, damaged tree limbs, or other loose objects that could become airborne. Make sure your roofs and gutters can shed heavy rain and have a place on your property to contain rainwater safely. Have supplies of batteries, non-perishable food, and water for people and pets. Put together a plan to recover later by making inventories of your property, including outdoor equipment that you store online. And make a family plan for how to evacuate if you live in an area of flooding and how to contact each other later if you get separated. Cell phones often do not work after strong wind events, so you can’t count on them to bring your family back together quickly after a storm.

What’s next?

I expect to see the Atlantic tropical season start to pick up by mid-August, when the African dust that is currently inhibiting storm formation clears and the ocean temperatures get even warmer. In fact, today’s 5-day outlook map shows an area of possible development in the eastern Atlantic (as of 8-6-2022). This is expected to be another active season, and even though we’ve only had three named storms so far, we will likely see many more storms before the end of November, when the official season ends. In my next blog, we will look at the season so far in more detail.