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Judging county fairs in a COVID-19 atmosphere

Judging county fairs in a COVID-19 atmosphere

Since I was a sophomore in college, I have spent a portion of every spring and summer judging 4-H events ranging from speech contests, presentations, fashion revues to foods and photography. I have also judged open class foods and photography for various fairs in our region.

A key component of judging 4-H foods is tasting the entries to be sure ingredients are well-blended and that the recipe was followed properly. There shouldn’t be any off flavors and the product should be evenly baked or cooked, i.e. no burnt edges, dark brown bottoms or tops.

Enter 2020 and COVID-19 and county fairs and 4-H judging got turned upside down. Thankfully, Extension folks are as resilient and creative as the day is long. Because their training taught them to write and execute plans, almost every county in our state was able to hold the 4-H portion of their fairs within district health department guidelines and proceed with a slice of normal.

Unfortunately, the plans also dictated no tasting of foods during judging this year. I didn’t agree with the reasoning behind that decision, as one of the key lessons we teach 4-H members enrolled in food projects is starting with a clean kitchen, using proper hand hygiene and food safety while cooking. But no tasting meant the fair could go on — so be it.

It was interesting as I discussed with my fellow food judges that in addition to the visual aspects of an entry, this year we relied heavily on our sense of smell to evaluate the baked products before us. Years of baking experience paid off as I could tell one youngster had used a tad too much cinnamon in her cookies. The minute I opened the plastic bag covering the cookies, a wall of cinnamon essence slapped me in the face. Another had some shortening in serious danger of going bad as that off-smell was also a factor in a red ribbon cake.

This year, many counties that normally conduct interview judging opted not to bring the youngsters in to help maintain social distancing. I missed the one-on-one exchanges that provide extra insight into how a member worked on their exhibit. Knowing what their thought process was as they took pictures, sewed a seam, chose their rocket design or picked the color for a home environment item was always a question.

It also meant that I, in turn, couldn’t explain why they received the ribbon I awarded, and my helpers often got writer’s cramp as I dictated fairly lengthy comments to help bridge the information gap.

Some counties went ahead with public viewing of exhibits, others decided bringing the public into the fairgrounds and exhibit buildings was too risky, depending on their virus numbers. That all added to the surreal atmosphere at each fair.

I really missed getting to sample a bite of each food entry, whether it was cookies, bars, quick breads, breads, or those heavenly chiffon cakes and pies. As I related to my helper at the last county fair I judged, “This is sheer torture!”

Most of all I missed the fair food. Each county I visit has their own specialties and almost none of them had their usual food stands, and no one had a carnival with corn dogs, funnel cakes or other goodies.

Our county fair 4-H Café was able to operate for the 4-H families, but the folks in town that normally support the program by coming out for a meal or two weren’t allowed in. We did offer take-out, but it’s just not the same as sitting down to a nice piece of cherry pie topped with homemade ice cream and solving the world’s problems with a group of your best friends or family.

May 2021 bring us a return to the sights, sounds, smells, but most of all the tastes of a good old county fair!

Barb Bierman Batie can be reached at  

Midwest Messenger Weekly Update

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Barb is a freelance journalist who grew up near Battle Creek, Nebraska, and now farms row crops with her Platte Valley Farmer, Don Batie, northeast of Lexington. She can be reached at

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