The Howard County Fair opens for the 47th time Sunday, and if you have any doubts about the difficulty of organizing the weeklong affair, consider this:
Organizers spend an entire year seeking out and booking close to 100 judges qualified for such daunting tasks as determining which snicker doodles (that's a cookie, mind you) are the absolute tastiest, and who really has the doggone fastest worm around.
There are literally dozens of categories in some of the 40 shows and contests -- from swine showmanship to Swedish sewing.
And in the baked goods contest, which is open to anyone who can concoct a recipe, judges will review 366 entries. That's 82 more than last year. In the various crafts contests, which include such diverse skills as jewelry-making, basket-weaving and egging, there will be 552 exhibits, 317 more than last year.
A growing interest in farm life may be responsible for the overall increase in entries for the shows and contest, said fair board member Kim Sullivan. The fair is now considered the fourth largest in the state in terms of visitors and entrants.
About 125,000 visitors are expected between 8 a.m. Sunday, when the fair officially opens, and midnight Saturday, Aug. 22, when it closes.
As if it wasn't difficult enough to line up judges and keep them straight, there is also the task of rounding up a small army of volunteers. Their diverse tasks range from veterinary duties to helping lost children find their misplaced moms or dads.
If it weren't for the judges and other volunteers, the fair "would be a real headache to pull off," says Harold Clark, a Glenelg dairy grain farmer and president of the Howard County Fair Board, which organizes the event. "They are the backbone of the fair."
With a staggering 1,688 entries alone from 614 entrants in indoor exhibits, organizers will have to shut down an entire pavilion for a half day just so a group of judges can get down to the task of deciding who gets ribbons.
They'll plow through everything from jams and jellies, made from every imaginable berry and fruit, to handmade items as esoteric as antique quilt patchwork and an embroidery craft called chicken scratching.
Obvious question from a city slicker: Do the judges really sample a taste of every food item entered?
L Answer from a farm-bred fair insider: Nope, not enough time.
In the cooking contests with the most entrants, judges determine by appearance which entries to taste in order to narrow the field.
To ensure against favoritism for previous blue ribbon winners, organizers don't sign up judges for repeat performances in succeeding years.
A real logjam can take place if a judge calls in sick or for some other reason must cancel. "You're in world of trouble then," says Mr. Clark.
Last year, he and the other organizers were thrown into a temporary panic two days before the fair's opening when the chief dairy judge came down with appendicitis, placing a key event in jeopardy until another qualified judge could be found.
Keeping things moving smoothly can seem dizzying at times, the organizers say.
There are portable toilets to order and keep clean. There are Boy Scout troops to contact and recruit for parking lot duty. And there are literally hundreds of animals to assign to specific livestock stalls and pens, and to keep track of so they show up at the right events.
You'll find volunteers nearly everywhere.
Howard County General Hospital, for example, enlists volunteers staff a first-aid center around the clock, while local scout troops send in members to scour grounds for trash daily.
"It's a lot of things to keep straight," says Ms. Sullivan, who is considered the fair's resident historian.
Fair organizers even have enlisted a cadre of volunteers to keep tabs on who wins what and how much in prize money they are owed. By the close of the fair, the volunteers will have mailed out a total of $100,000 in prize checks to winners.
Despite the dizzying array of details for the board to pull together and the growing urban and suburban population the fair draws, the event still retains much of the farm-oriented character that flavored its early history.
"We've found that people coming out from the cities or the suburbs to the fair really want the exposure to farm life," said Ms. Sullivan. "People see the farmland vanishing, and they want to know what we are losing as a way of life."
To ensure that the farm orientation remains as strong as when the first fair opened in 1946, a primary focus remains the livestock shows and contests.
The livestock events are divided between open class and 4-H. Anyone can enter the open class, but only 4-H club members can enter 4-H events. Both draw plenty of entries.
In the open class alone, 627 people have entered 2,783 animals, from swine to sheep, in the numerous shows for best breeding and market livestock. And the 127 4-H members entered in this year's fair will bring another 300 animals.
Do volunteers clean the animal stalls?