Would-be judges flocked to Gaithersburg on Nov. 4 to hone their skills. Not to declare who is guilty or innocent, but to determine the flavor, texture and appearance of fresh mozzarella, goat cheese, ricotta, aged cheddar and Humboldt.
Or the precision cut of flowers and the chef’s kiss taste of scrumptious cupcakes. These traits and more are necessary tools of the trades that attendees learned at Maryland Association of Fairs and Shows Judging School.
This is just one step in prepping judges for a milestone event – the 75th anniversary Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, or MCAGF, starting Aug. 9, 2024.
While the fair is 268 days away, it’s never too early to start planting the seeds for strong judges. Over 800 volunteers help put together the nine-day fair, according to the event website.
“The purpose of the fair is to educate the community as a whole about agriculture and various other topics,” said judging school coordinator Laura Kefauver.
Some exhibitors come back to judge or take classes to earn official county fair positions, Kafauver said.
“Most people come to the county fair and state fairs because they’re excited to have done something,” Karen Witt, who taught the cake decorating session. “They love the ribbons and so I encourage everyone to be very generous with the judging and when you give the awards. Give out your ribbons.”
One of the most popular sessions was on judging cheese, where novice judges tasted and compared about 18 cheeses including fresh mozzarella, goat cheese, ricotta, aged cheddar, Humboldt and more in three categories: flavor, texture and appearance.
After they discussed how and what qualifies as high-quality cheese, potential judges were reminded while everyone will have their personal preferences they are to abide by the judging guidelines.
Potential judges must fulfill five requirements: attend judges’ training school, complete three segments in the same subject area by different instructors, provide written permission to be on a public judge list, judge at a minimum of two fairs or shows with another judge, and provide documentation to MAAFS Judging School of the dates judged.
The first judging session of the school was on April 1. The judging school provides novice judges guidelines on how to judge various categories. For the fall school, there were 12 classes in four sessions for popular fair events as stated by the judging school coordinators.
Witt was on hand to support her sister, Alicia Clugh, a cheese judge facilitator. Witt reminisced on how important the fair has been since she was a child.
“I’ve been involved in the fair all my life…my grandparents, some of the people that helped out at the fair, 75 years ago, that’s what happens to us, and then you’re sucked in, and you never leave and now you’re doing it for your whole life,” Witt said. “My grandmother was a superintendent of home art and then my mom was the superintendent of home art, and now me.”
Inside the decorative cake room cakes were judged for their presentation, not their taste, as some fairs allow Styrofoam cakes. Cakes judged for taste are another category. There were seven cakes and two sets of cupcakes decorated in assorted designs made by Witt and Clugh, as Witt is teaching this session.
Witt stated that paying attention to judging rules was very significant as most county fairs use the Danish method, measuring if all entries reached a set of three standards and awarded ribbons per standard. Occasionally if all entries reach the same standard, they can all receive the same ribbon.
The Montgomery County Agricultural Fair is one of 17 fairs held in the state annually including events in Baltimore, Frederick, Kent and Howard County. The counties share instructors, resources and judges.
Inside the crops classroom, judges were tasked with determined with awarding ribbons based on good food market value. One of the sessions focused on corn and its kernels.
Instructor Chuck Schuster told his students that judges only focus on appearance.
“I’m going to tell you right now, this is a lot easier than judging cakes,” Schuster said.