The Quest for the Best in the Veggie Competition at the Agricultural Fair

One gigantic zucchini, and perfect pumpkins, much larger than your head.

In August 2003, Clarissa Stead of West Tisbury hauled an eighteen-inch-long, six-inch-wide zucchini to the Agricultural Hall and entered it in the junior vegetable competition at the annual Agricultural Fair. A veritable caveman’s club, the green behemoth won first prize for the largest in the children’s division, and Clarissa took home a blue ribbon and a check for five dollars.  
That same year, neurologist Barbara Stelle of Edgartown won first prize in the adult division for two blemish-free, deep-orange pumpkins about the size of the heads of most of her patients. 
    “Actually,” Barbara says, “I think by a lot of fair standards, those pumpkins weren’t great, but the competition wasn’t as tough because growing conditions weren’t good last year.” Barbara had an advantage because she also raises earthworms, and she grew her pumpkins in soil enriched by worm castings (the farmer’s black gold that comes out the far end of the worm). Every year Barbara and the rest of her family enter many competitions at the fair. “I love to see what people do,” she says. “It’s a great community thing.”
The vegetable competition has been a major component of the Ag Fair since its inception in 1858. Back then, no distinction was made between commercial and home growers; the assumption was that everyone was both, says James Athearn, owner of Morning Glory Farm, a vice president of the Agricultural Society’s board of trustees, and winner (with his sweet corn) of last year’s prestigious state award for Most Outstanding Vegetable. In the nineteenth century, most of the Island’s trees were cleared for shipbuilding and sheep farming, and agriculture was to be found everywhere on the Island. In those days the vegetable competition included not just specimens brought to the Ag Hall, but also whole fields of crops that the judges went to visit. In the 1920s, says Athearn, a farmer named Willis Gifford won the prize for a half-acre of corn planted on Brandy Brow, a property diagonally across from Alley’s General Store (and also across from what was once a tavern – hence the name). Brandy’s Brow is now mostly woods.
Judging by the number of home-grown vegetable entries at last year’s Fair – 245 in the adult division and 75 in the junior – noncommercial gardening may be on the upswing as well.
“I didn’t realize how many entries there were,” says Kathy Lobb, the fair’s hall manager. “No wonder it was so crowded in there! Even if it’s just growing a tomato in a container on your deck, people are more aware now of what they’re eating and where it comes from. And there’s a lot of satisfaction in eating something you grew yourself, even if it’s only a pot of herbs.”
Home-gardening competitors may enter nearly fifty types of vegetables, 
including the mystery category of “Other vegetable – give name.” Instructions on the manner in which vegetables should be presented are precise: for beets, provide five and leave an inch of stem; for carrots (also five), leave a two-inch stem. Display onions unpeeled, lettuce and Swiss chard in water. Lima beans should be left in the pod.
Entries are rated anonymously by two judges who consider several factors, beginning with whether or not exhibitors have entered the correct number of specimens for each vegetable, and whether items have been properly cleaned. Once these hurdles are cleared, judges consider size (not too big, not too small); uniformity of color, shape, and dimension; and appearance: winning vegetables are free of blemishes, cuts, bruises, and insect nibbles. One quality not 
considered is flavor, but as James 
Athearn points out, buyers in the marketplace don’t generally get to taste the goods either.
While winners vary from year to year, Paul Jackson of Edgartown is legendary. A home grower, he has been gardening for fifty-six years. With his wife, Mary, who grows flowers with their daughter Beverly, he has converted two acres off the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road into an organic garden of awe-inspiring productivity, lushness, and orderliness, with row after weed-free row yielding nearly every conceivable fruit, vegetable, and flower.
“Paul Jackson is amazing,” says Kathy Lobb. “He’s got all these things in his head, all these tips.”
“You can never know everything," says Jackson, “but you’ve got to start with the dirt.” His soil – the sort of fluffy, 
deep brown stuff that makes gardeners salivate – is the product of year-round maintenance. Last fall he spread twenty truckloads of rotting wood chips across his property, then planted winter rye to nourish and aerate the soil so it would break down properly before the spring planting. “It’s like a house,” he says. “If the foundation’s no good, then the house is no good.”
Jackson’s own house is equipped with three freezers in which he stores blanched vegetables so he can eat his own produce all year long. He and Mary also can their fruits and vegetables and make jams, juices, and pickles. For him, entering the fair is part of an activity that’s central to his life. “The stuff you buy now you can’t eat,” he explains. “There’s no flavor. You might as well eat a piece of cardboard as a hydroponic, store-bought tomato.”
Last year, Jackson took home several awards from the fair, including the state award for Most Outstanding Fruit. “We’ve got a whole closet full of ribbons,” he says.
But he’s not in it for the prestige, or for the prize money; in fact, he and Mary have donated their prize money to fund the fair’s purchase of the shiny green ribbons given to all junior entrants. “We go to the fair,” he says, “to set a standard. When we first started, people were just walking in with junk, cabbages with bugs still on them. We do it to show people that you can do it if you want to, but you’ve got to work for it.”