Farm queen's reign at state fair comes to an end

Event board cuts custom as farm bureau revives it

April 17, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Farm queens are returning to Maryland, but they will not reign at the Maryland State Fair.

Two days after the Maryland Farm Bureau restored the traditional formal dress, shiny tiaras and royal title to its annual competition, the fair's board of directors voted to end its six-decade association with the contest.

The fair's board unanimously decided Thursday night that the right decision was made last year when the fair and the farm bureau abandoned the farm queen for the more modern, inclusive title of agricultural ambassador.

"The [young women] we talked to felt it was a step in the right direction to go with the ambassador program," said Andy Cashman, the fair's assistant general manager.

The tiaras and the title of farm queen might attract attention, he said, but they suggest a beauty pageant. "If you have a sash on saying `I'm the agricultural ambassador,' people might actually ask a question about agriculture," he said.

As with the farm queen contest, last year's ambassador contestants were female farm bureau members ages 16 to 19. They were judged on their poise and ability to talk about farming. But the new rules traded gowns and crowns for professional blazers under the ambassador sash.

State fair leaders do not know why the bureau's board of directors decided to change the contest, Cashman said, but they believe "that was really the wrong direction."

Cashman said it remains to be decided whether the farm bureau will be involved in the ambassador contest. Usually, the farm bureau -- through its local chapters -- runs the county-level events while the fair supplies thousands of dollars in scholarships and the venue for the state contest.

"We've had a long relationship with [the fair]," said Earl Hance, the bureau's president. "There are no hard feelings on my part. ... We'll just each move on in our own way."

Hance said bureau members were outspoken about wanting the farm queen contest back, in part because the young women stood out more in their finery. He said the bureau will discuss new arrangements for the state contest and could stage it at the group's annual meeting, held in December in Ocean City.

But that might not be an easy transition, said Howard County's agricultural ambassador, Anna Marie Schlicht, 17, of Clarksville. Going to the state fair "was one of the most important events for the farm queen," she said.

As a statewide runner-up, Schlicht said she spent 11 days at the fair attending events, meetings, dinners and speeches. "We did most of our work at the fair," she said.

She also said visitors seemed to enjoy the competition, with huge crowds turning out for the two-day event.

If they don't go to Timonium, "I hope that somehow we can come up with some better ideas to get the girls out into the public," said Sue Myers, the farm queen co-chairman for Carroll County.

But, she said, if the bureau and the fair find a way to have both contests, "that might not be a bad thing at all. ... That would make for more young people out there getting the message out."

Getting more young people involved was part of the idea behind the changes last summer.

When the farm bureau's women's committee agreed on the ambassador program, it was seeking an image that people could relate to, said Beverly Burton, the bureau's women's chair. That committee did not vote on the decision to change back to farm queen.

Organizers also hoped that the changes would attract young women who might have found the farm queen format too dated and would someday allow young men to participate.

But Myers, of Union Bridge, said the transition wasn't completely smooth. She said some of the girls at the state fair were disappointed when they did not receive the recognition from visitors that previous queens attracted with their tiaras.

Schlicht said a lot of questions from visitors were focused on the contest changes, not on agriculture.

She was surprised that the fair and the bureau would split over the contest.

The fair leaders "have always been very supportive of this whole program," she said. "Something really had to go wrong to switch completely."

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