This is not your mother's `farm queen'

Agriculture is changing, and so must its high-profile young representatives

August 30, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

She'd grown up on a 230-acre dairy farm, in a family that had been farming in Maryland for six generations. But even with those credentials, Michele Robinson looked astonished when, on the opening night of the 2004 state fair, she was chosen over 19 other young women to be the first-ever Miss Maryland Agriculture.

Along with honest surprise, there was also a bit of irony for 19-year-old Robinson, who admitted before the contest: "If you would have told me I was doing this five years ago, I would have laughed. I was never drawn to the whole farm queen scenario."

But now "farm queen" is nowhere in Robinson's new title, which she earned Friday night after impressing judges with her family's history and a discussion of the benefits of animal identification programs in thwarting bioterrorism. Neither is "agricultural ambassador," the gender-neutral title awarded to last year's winner of the annual contest to be spokeswoman for the Maryland Farm Bureau.

After two years of wrangling between traditionalists and those who felt the 60-year-old contest needed updating, each side seems to have won a partial victory. Evening gowns have given way to business suits; the tiaras are gone, though black and gold sashes remain. But perhaps most importantly to those in both camps, the revamped contest is drawing young women like Robinson, earnest about helping support the state's shrinking agricultural base.

"My family has been farming in Maryland for more than 200 years, and [agriculture] means a lot to me," she said. "I'm proud of my family heritage and I'm excited to be able to represent it."

Fifty years ago, more than half of Maryland was covered by farms. In 2002, according to the Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Policy at the University of Maryland, just over one-third of the state -- 2.15 million acres -- was farmland.

That fact is reflected in the increasing struggle contest organizers face in finding potential competitors. In recent years, many county contests have had just one or two contestants.

So the Farm Bureau and state fair officials began looking for ways to make the contest more appealing to young women who may have found the farm queen trappings too outdated.

Last year, the organizations changed the title to "agricultural ambassador" and traded gowns and tiaras for blazers. There was discussion of one day letting males compete.

But the transition proved to be difficult. Some among the Farm Bureau's nearly 14,000 members lodged complaints with the group's leadership, urging them to return to the traditional farm queen format.

"A lot of the members didn't particularly care for [the changes]," said Farm Bureau president Earl Hance at the time. "They felt the girls did not have much of a presence without the crown."

The Maryland State Fair's board of directors, though, balked at returning to the old format. It wanted to keep the changes and said it would not host -- or give scholarship money to -- a farm queen contest. The groups sat down to work out a compromise, which went into effect this summer.

The essential structure of the contest has stayed the same. Girls aged 16 to 19 who won their county contests come to the fair to demonstrate their farm knowledge and communication skills. They give speeches in front of hundreds of fairgoers and each answers an on-the-spot question.

But instead of crowns and gowns, Robinson and the other top four finishers wore business attire for the contest and will wear bright pink polo shirts as they spend the rest of this week giving speeches, handing out ribbons and meeting with dignitaries at the fair.

"The biggest thing is, we didn't want the kids to lose out on the opportunity," said Andy Cashman, assistant general manager of the fair.

"I think it was time to move ahead," said Evelyn Wilcom, vice chairman of the state Farm Bureau Women and a member of the Frederick County contest committee. "The contest has more of a look of young women who have to compete [in life] with men," she said. "These are intelligent young women, and they deserve to be treated that way."

"It is a great tradition, we're just putting a new face on it," said Hannah Amoss, who was the last farm queen, crowned in 2002, and who now sits on the state contest committee and runs the Harford County contest. "I think since we've changed the name, the young ladies know what they're getting into," Amoss said.

The new format, agreed winner Robinson, a sophomore exercise-science major at McDaniel College, "helps the public understand the contest more."

But among the other 19 young women in this year's contest, some from farms with hundreds of acres, some from suburban enclaves, feelings were more mixed.

Emma Bullock, who raises lambs on one acre in Ellicott City and has been involved in 4-H for 10 years, watched her sister Jamie receive the Maryland Farm Queen crown in 2000 and said she has seen its appeal.

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