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Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006 08:32 am

A passion for friendly competition

State fair winners share some growing tips

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Grand champion grain shown by Brady Zimmer

When I was a child, my mom shared her love for gardening with me. She gardened simply because she enjoyed it and because her garden provided our family with fresh vegetables during the summer and extra produce for canning or freezing. Although I now enjoy gardening, as a small child I saw it as a chore, except when I was helping my mom prepare vegetable entries for the Illinois State Fair. Evidently my story is not unusual.

One year, while viewing vegetable entries at the Illinois State Fair, Terese Cirillo told her husband, Jim, “I can do that” — and, once the couple had purchased their first home, Terese started a vegetable garden. In 1985, she entered vegetables in the state fair for the first time. Although she got off to a slow start — it took her a couple of years to figure out what the judges were looking for — she now enters about 30 vegetables each year, and she and her husband agree that her hobby has gotten out of control.

As a child, Cirillo lived in Chicago, where her family’s back yard was not much bigger than a postage stamp. Despite the scarcity of space, Cirillo’s grandmother, who also lived with the family, always grew a few vegetables. In doing so, she became Cirillo’s inspiration to garden.

Cirillo’s 18-by-56-foot vegetable garden contains as many different plants as she can fit into it. Her biggest motivation for growing vegetables? She enjoys eating what she produces. The remainder of her bounty she cans, freezes, or shares with neighbors, relatives, and friends. Cirillo has just one rule: She doesn’t grow it unless she likes to eat it.

When Cirillo started exhibiting, her biggest challenge was figuring out how many of each plant to grow to have enough vegetables to pick from for the fair. Today her challenge is keeping up her now-large garden.

Cirillo says her favorite exhibition vegetable is cabbage. She exhibits in five classes of cabbage and places almost every time, including grand-champion vegetable six times, twice for her green round cabbage. This year she won three champion ribbons but not the grand champion.

Cirillo’s secret to growing great-looking cabbage? Handpicking cabbage loppers off the plants and dusting with Sevin as needed. What about showing prize-winning vegetables? Cirillo says to pick everything as close to the show date as possible, learn what the judges are looking for, and stick with a cultivar that places; if yours doesn’t, try something new.

In 1976, Bill and Janet Zimmer encouraged their son Doug to enter a bale of hay in the Logan County Fair, and it placed first. A pair of veteran Logan County Fair exhibitors and farmers, Bill Ahrens and Elmer Krusmark, encouraged young Zimmer to continue exhibiting. Ahrens took Zimmer to other county fairs, and Krusmark encouraged him to exhibit at the Illinois State Fair. This year marks the Zimmer family’s 25th year exhibiting at the state fair.

Ahrens and Doug Zimmer farm 1,400 acres, mainly corn and soybeans, in the San Jose area.

Zimmer says his most memorable moment came when, after 10 years of showing at the state fair, he was awarded grand champion for his perfectly chosen corn display. Three generations are now involved with exhibiting grains — corn, soybeans, and wheat. Five years ago, Doug’s sons Brady and Jordan joined in the family fun of exhibiting at the fair, and they’ve won grand-champion exhibit of corn for the past five years. This year Jordan won grand-champion farm seed for his jar of soybeans and Brady won grand-champion exhibit of corn.

The Zimmers harvest most of the grain for their exhibits almost a year before the fair, then store it the basement. Brady says it takes about seven hours to prepare a prize-winning jar of wheat seeds. Selecting a corn display worthy of a blue ribbon involves walking a cornfield and finding 54 ears that are uniform in color, kernel size, ear length, and number of rows of kernels.

All competition results may be viewed on the Illinois State Fair Web site at www.agr.state.il.us/isf/competition/. Agriculture products, as well as Illinois’ finest baked goods, textiles and hobby collections, are on display in the Hobbies, Arts, and Crafts Building, on the east side of the Illinois State Fairgrounds, and will remain on display through noon Sunday, Aug. 20.

Jennifer Fishburn is a unit educator with the University of Illinois Extension, Sangamon-Menard Unit. For more information, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/sangamon.

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