The farm queen to be crowned today at the 51st Annual Howard County Fair may actually turn out to be the suburban farm queen.
Only one of the six contestants in this year's competition actually lives on a farm. The rest are 4-H members from "minifarms" -- or "farmettes," as organizers put it -- raising rabbits or riding horses in the suburbs.
"There used to be at least one girl from a dairy farm, another maybe from a grain farm and one who raised sheep or goats on her folks' farm," said Annette Fleishell, secretary of the Howard County Farm Bureau Women's Committee, which organizes the event. "Now we've got girls competing who are living on 5 to acres, raising sheep or growing a vegetable garden."
The farm queen contest, at 4: 30 p.m. today, is part of the weeklong celebration of agriculture and rural life that began yesterday at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship with the grand opening parade.
Besides the staple animal showing and judging events, the fair will feature everything from pie-eating contests to live entertainment and the traditional midway -- all for an admission price of $3 for those 12 and older.
"The fair over the years has grown up with Howard County," said Rob Moxley, president of the Howard County Fair Association. "It's very positive to see even those who don't have a huge traditional farm of hundreds of acres showing animals and entering projects, because that's helping to keep the traditions of farming -- like the fair -- from dwindling."
The farm queen competition, a fixture of the fair, reflects the changing nature of farming in the county, organizers say.
Interest has decreased in recent years in the competition for the unpaid, ceremonial position that involves representing Howard County farmers and agriculture at banquets, schools and the Maryland State Fair.
Mary Jane Sullivan, who lives in Glenelg, was the first Howard County farm queen, in 1946. She remembers the 28 girls who paraded around the grounds.
"That was the first one, so we all came out for it," said Sullivan, 67. "To me, it was such an exciting time, and I guess all of us were a bit nervous.
"I was from a farm of 400 acres, as were many of the other girls," she said. "To be a girl from a big farm was the norm, and to be in the farm queen contest was a big thing."
As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, the competition typically drew 10 to 15 contestants each year, former queens said. But in the early 1980s, fewer teen-age girls participated. In a good year, there were four. That trend continued through the 1980s, with most contestants coming from 4-H clubs instead of large farms.
Now girls from 4-H clubs are keeping the contest afloat, organizers said. Girls ages 16 to 20 who qualify for the event often do not live on farms and are involved only in backyard agricultural projects, such as raising rabbits or gardening, organizers said. And that makes getting farm queen contestants even harder.
For the past three years, only three contestants took part. But years of mailing out invitations and making phone calls to encourage club members to participate seem to have paid off this year.
Becky Patrick, 17, who raises cattle and pigs on her family's 1,000-acre farm in Woodbine, said she was practically begged to enter the contest as a third contestant last year. She is running again this year and enjoying the increased competition.
"With this much competition, you realize that if you win, you've won it because you really did something good," Becky said. "But with more girls in the competition, that makes it a bit scary."
For Becky, as for some other girls, the farm queen contest is a family tradition. Her four aunts were former farm queens, and her mother is a volunteer.
For others, being crowned the queen would be a dream come true. Laura Smith, 17, said she's dreamed about being a farm queen since she was a little girl.
"I remember going to the fair with my parents and just being so amazed at how lucky those girls were to walk around with their sashes on and ride the floats, waving to everyone in the crowd," she said. "It was like watching a small Miss America pageant right here in Howard County."
At a reception recently for the participants, reigning farm queen Carrie Brown gave the girls tips on what to wear and on their responsibilities at the weeklong fair.
The advice was to speak clearly and slowly during the competition, look at the judges and generally show a concern for the county's future in agriculture.
And most important, contestants should wear the Howard County farm princess sash with pride -- even if people laugh.
Contestant Karen Barger, 17, said she's got a plan for those who would jeer at her farm queen sash: Go up and explain to them what a farm queen does.
"People laugh at it now because many of them don't know what it's about," said Karen, who is nicknamed the rabbit queen because she raises rabbits. "They think agriculture is an old thing of the past and is for hicks only.
"But I think the farming thing and the farm queen contest will eventually come back into fashion."
Pub Date: 8/11/96