SACRAMENTO, CALIF. Competition builds in Virginia over the ugly lamp contest. Colorado kids want to know who has the best-looking goat. California vintners sweat over a prize that could win them acclaim.
From canning contests to prize bulls, state fairs hand out thousands of blue ribbons each summer. It's a 150-year-old institution kept alive by a mix of economic motivation, tradition and old-fashioned pride.
"We have a saying here: You can forget the prize money, but don't you dare forget the ribbon or then you're in some real trouble," says Gary Goodman, manager of the South Carolina State Fair.
When state fairs started, participation was an economic necessity. Farmers had to display their wares and animals to do business.
Today, fair organizers say, there's a new motive behind the flashy midways and rows of food stands at modern state fairs -- getting urbanites to appreciate the agricultural economy, even if they only come to ride the Ferris wheel.
"There's more glitz other places. You can see animals anywhere. What you don't get is that little bit of Americana," says Virginia State Fair spokesman Jay Lugar.
Way of life
For Teri Ricketts of Citrus Heights, Calif., it's not a matter of whether she will enter something at the fair, but how early she will start planning. This year, she entered apricot candy.
"We are all so addicted to the television or the Internet that I think this is one of the few real things that people can go to and touch, taste, smell," Ricketts says.
In Winterset, Iowa, Julie Armstrong seems embarrassed by her third-place prize in the women's bow saw competition. Sawing through a 4-by-4 timber in 50 seconds isn't great, but it's fun, she says.
"It makes you feel like the good ol' days," says Armstrong, 33, who works at a magazine subscription company.
Fair competition is a family tradition for Armstrong. When she has children, she will have them enter projects.
They will have plenty to choose from. Iowa offered 256 this year, from husband-calling to rubber-chicken-tossing to the Super Bull Contest.
While parents say their children learn responsibility by raising prize animals, young farmers also discover winning can mean profit. Although most awards are in the $10 range, top winners can auction off their livestock.
"Last year the grand champion steer sold for $45,000," said Colorado State Fair project manager Ed Kruse. "That's a pretty good college scholarship."
Profit also is still the major motivation for farmers and ranchers who may travel hundreds of miles to a state fair, even with today's widely circulated livestock-breeding magazines and the World Wide Web.
"You don't really know how you are doing until you compare your animals with the best in the state," says dairy farmer Richey Hurtgen of Oakdale, Calif.
Vintners also find value in fair awards.
In the saturated Northern California wine market, consumers frequently choose a bottle because of a sticker that says it won a "best of" competition at the fair, says George Rose of Sonoma County winemaking giant Clos Du Bois.
"You're looking at 30 bottles and they all look the same," says fairgoer Larry Hoppin of Woodland, browsing the award-winning wines with his wife. "We almost always get the ones that have won some sort of award."
But while there may be cultural and economic reasons for entering state fair contests, it really comes down to one simple factor, says Del Chase, who entered vegetables in the 1939 West Virginia State Fair when he was 5.
"Ego," says Chase, a two-time West Virginia Premier Gardener with a box full of fair ribbons in every closet. "That's about it."