Nothing seems more out of place amid swine and steers than formal, floor-length dresses.
But every year the Farm Queen contest draws a tremendous crowd at the Howard County Fair.
Yesterday in West Friendship, people packed the stands of the sawdust-strewn show ring to watch the time-honored custom of speeches, nerves, agricultural know-how and swept-up hairdos as teen-age girls vied for the coveted position.
Escorted by six young men, the six contestants entered the ring on a humid afternoon, competing for the yearlong position of spokeswoman for Howard County agriculture.
"It feels like an awesome responsibility," said Rebecca Sparenberg, 19, of Ellicott City, who finished as runner-up last year.
It wasn't for the money that these contestants subjected themselves to the stomach-tightening experience of giving a 90-second speech before friends and strangers, then answering questions from out-of-town judges. The queen wins $100 (though she has a shot at Maryland Farm Bureau Queen, which comes with a college scholarship of up to $6,500).
Instead, it's the idea of being a voice for agriculture - and being a person young 4-H'ers look up to.
"I saw those girls as role model types," said Cortney Hill-Dukehart, 18, of Sykesville, who realized a lifelong ambition by entering the contest this year. "They symbolized what the fair meant."
The contestants are in high school or the first years of college. Three had chased this title before. All have years of agricultural experience to draw on for their speeches and in answering judges' questions: Some ride horses and help run stables, some win public speaking contests, some train dogs or raise cattle.
Melissa Patrick, 19, comes from a long line of Howard County farm queens - a sister, four aunts and two great-aunts preceded her. Several of the girls - like Hill-Dukehart, reigning Maryland Angus Queen - were already royalty.
They were ready for the moment. They hoped.
Last year, Jenna Starr, now 18, decided to "just wing it" because she'd given 10-minute speeches in the past without a hitch. But talking about herself proved unexpectedly difficult. She didn't know what to say and meandered through.
Attack of nerves
Her friend Anna Baran, 19, had the opposite problem: The Elkridge resident was well prepared, memorizing her speeches in 1999 and last year. But when nervousness struck in mid-speech, she panicked and suffered a brief loss of memory.
But the slate was clean for this contest. At noon, Hill-Dukehart sat in the fair office with the other girls, running on a few hours' sleep and yawning. Starr had her speech in her lap, highlighted in green. Patrick thought about how she almost didn't enter the competition this year, her last year of eligibility (19 is the cutoff age for contestants).
"I knew if I didn't do it, I would have regretted it later," she said.
Kate Burgy, 16, who lives in Clarksville and runs a horse barn, was here because the Howard County Farm Bureau encouraged her to run. "It sounds like fun - and it sounds like a lot of work, too," she said.
One by one, they entered the back room for a 10-minute grilling by the judges. One by one, they came out to anxious questions from the rest.
"They just want to know what you really know," said Baran, who went in first.
"I should have tried doing it last year, just to get practice," Patrick said.
Then, after participating in the opening parade, they rushed back and changed into dresses worthy of a prom, helping each other with necklaces and hair. Starr practiced her speech in a corner.
"Third time's the charm, right?" Baran said as they marched out to the show ring.
They looked beautiful, even though appearance doesn't count for much. They smiled as they told the crowd of about 400 of their years in 4-H, the competitions and lessons learned.
"Going to parties or riding your horse?" Starr said. "Well, the horse wins every time."
Watching in the stands were at least five former farm queens, recalling their moment of glory. The event has not changed much since they were crowned. But Annette Fleishell of Sykesville, who helps run the contest for the county Farm Bureau, said the event speaks to the future, not the past.
"It's a way for us to perpetuate agriculture," she said. "If the youth are not going to stay in agriculture,we're going to lose it."
Once, most farm queen hopefuls came from huge farms. Now the girls typically hail from places with a dozen acres - sometimes less. Patrick, whose family farms 1,100 acres, is an exception.
"You can know a whole lot about agriculture without living on a big farm, as long as you're willing to learn and explore the possibilities," said Jamie Bullock, last year's county and state queen, whose Ellicott City home sits on 1 acre.
She was at the fairgrounds, ready to add "former" to her county title and hand over the gold tiara.