It’s refreshing for old-timers like Jim Springer to see a face like Noah Chaney’s show up at the Douglas County Fair.
Noah, a skinny, tow-headed 7-year-old, walked into Building 21 Monday night and presented Springer, 77, and other open-class horticulture superintendents with a bag full of hot peppers he grew himself.
“This is my second year of growing,” Noah explained excitedly, adding that he’d given some of his peppers away and made his own salsa out of others. “They’re still doing very good.”
Participation in the fair’s horticulture contests is a sliver of what it was 20 to 30 years ago. That makes it easier to get a ribbon but worries farmers like Springer, of Lawrence, and longtime judge Lyle Turner.
Turner, 65, is a former K-State Research and Extension agent, has a masters degree in horticulture, used to have a truck farm, and owns Turner Flowers in Ottawa, where he lives. He’s been judging flower and horticulture contests in multiple counties — including Douglas — since the 1970s.
Back then, Turner said, the Douglas County Fair entries filled an entire building instead of one long table, and the process took him all day instead of an hour.
“In all the counties I see them dwindling, they are dwindling to (such) numbers that it’s really scary,” he said. “I would like to see it come back.”
Turner said he’s hopeful newer efforts like extension master gardener programs and community gardens may help renew interest.
After all, he said, there are valuable lessons to be learned from cultivating produce.
“It goes back to the old farm ethics that most kids don’t get now,” he said.
Extension agent Jennifer Smith said it’s exciting to plant something and see it grow. On the other hand, it also requires tasks like pulling weeds, which isn’t as much fun.
Both in and outside of 4-H, Smith said, youths have a lot more options for activities than they used to, and not as many choose growing fruits and vegetables anymore.
“I think there’s a lot more opportunities, which is good, but then kids divide their time,” she said.
Noah lives in Lawrence and has a little plot at the community garden at Ninth and Mississippi streets, his mother, Danielle Brunin, said.
“He’s kind of known as the pepper grower,” she laughed.
Brunin said she’s trying to get Noah interested in 4-H and thought entering the open contest (primarily adults but open to all ages, 4-H members or not) would be a fun way to introduce him to the idea.
Even with fewer entries, horticulture judging goes on the way it always has — with the focus on quality and consistency.
“It’s about producing a saleable crop,” Smith said. “It makes you pay attention to the quality — what would a consumer be looking for?”
On Tuesday morning, Turner went plate to plate in the open class category, carefully eyeing and turning over piles of tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and more in his hands.
Consistency consistently beat out size, that is, except for one category — largest vegetable.
The Douglas County Fair doesn’t attract the grotesque hulking pumpkins or freakish toddler-size watermelons of Internet photo fame.
There were only a few entries, and an upper-arm size zucchini and one of Springer’s watermelons — which he guesstimated to be about 35 pounds — handily won their categories.
Springer, who grows melons and pumpkins commercially, said he usually just enters the biggest one he has rather than planting special giant pumpkin or watermelon seeds and pampering them so they’ll grow to super sizes.
The giant varieties — “those big ugly ones,” Springer said, contorting his hands and cocking his head like Frankenstein — may be neat to look at, but they’re not much good for eating or anything else.
As for Noah’s peppers, they didn’t win their class, but the judge thought they looked pretty good. A few tips on consistency — such as trimming all the stems the same length — and he’ll be well on his way.
“I think that little fella could be a gardener,” Springer said.
— Features reporter Sara Shepherd can be reached at 832-7187. Follow her at Twitter.com/KCSSara.