Norma Perez of Lynn aims to win a blue ribbon for the hot, yellow peppers she will enter in the junior fruit, vegetable, and decorative arts show at the Topsfield Fair.
“I want first place,” said the determined fifth-grader at Robert L. Ford School in Lynn. “If I win a blue ribbon, I am going to be very proud.”
If history is the judge, Perez, 10, will have bragging rights after the 11-day fair opens on Friday. Since the school started a garden four years ago, Ford students have won 16 blue, red, and white ribbons at the fair, which are proudly displayed in a frame at the school in the city’s Highlands neighborhood.
Eggplant, lettuce, green beans, and basil are among the winning crops. In 2010, Ford won a special purple ribbon and a medal for having the most spirit and the best vegetable display in the junior show.
“They’re very enthusiastic,” said Kathy Macy, a volunteer from Beverly who runs the agricultural fair’s junior department. “They know their vegetables. They can tell us how they grew it. They know how to wash them. They always line them up in a row. . . They’re very hands-on.”
The Ford School this year will have 31 entries, the most ever. Watermelon and grapes will be entered for the first time, along with a 6-foot-tall sunflower in the flower show.
“I like the sunflower best,” said James Pettipas, 10, a fifth-grader. “It looks nice when the sun lights on them.”
Excitement about the fair started building soon after school opened. Students have carefully watered their plants. They tagged the best-looking crops and flowers, to make sure they weren’t picked too soon. With their entries nice and clean, they’ll board a bus Thursday to head to the fairgrounds on Route 1.
“They’ll set up the exhibit themselves,” said Marion Mininger, the school’s head cook, who helps the kids prepare for the fair. “They really take a lot of pride in what they grow.”
The fair’s junior division this year will draw about 600 entries from youths age 18 and under. Schools, Scout groups, agriculture clubs, backyard growers, and others will compete in the fair, a celebration of agriculture in Essex County.
“There are a lot of opportunities for young people to participate,” said Bill Clark, superintendent of the vegetable barn, who owns Clark Farm in Danvers. “It’s been a main focus of the fair, for many, many years, to involve as many kids as we can.”
Along with taking part in the fruit and vegetable competitions, kids will also decorate pumpkins, color posters, create “veggie creatures,” and build 6-foot scarecrows. To encourage more young growers, the Essex Agricultural Society, the nonprofit that runs the 194-year-old fair, last year gave out 6,000 garden kits to schools in the county. The outreach comes as gardens have cropped up at urban and suburban schools across the region.
Andover High School, which started a garden three years ago, sells its produce at the town’s farmers’ market. In Lawrence, eight school gardens have been planted with help from Groundwork Lawrence, a local nonprofit.
In Lynn, planting began in 2008, after the Ford received a state grant to become the first Massachusetts school to build a garden on pavement. Soil was placed in raised beds measuring 1,500 square feet. The garden has since grown to occupy a whole side of the school yard.
Most crops, such as broccoli and Swiss chard, are planted in soil beds. But tomato plants grow in five-gallon buckets, and chives sprout from a shoe organizer hanging from the side of the yellow-brick school on Hollingsworth Street.
“Wherever we can find a place to plant, we do,” said Mininger, who is known to students as “Mrs. M.”
An aquaponics project is growing tilapia in a tank. A hoop-style greenhouse is sprouting with basil, parsley, and lettuce plants. A “worm factory,’’ filled with thousands of the squirming creatures, creates compost.
“The best part about the garden is the worm factory,” said Tavyanna Chheng, 10, a fourth-grader. “I like digging for worms in the garden.”
The garden also has cultivated new pride in an urban neighborhood scarred by foreclosures and crime. The Highlands Coalition, a neighborhood group, helps to manage the garden. Volunteers from FoodCorps, a national service program, have worked to create curriculum lessons.
Lessons on good nutrition are given around a picnic table in the garden. “Junk Food NO” signs hang on an awning. When ripe for picking, the vegetables are made into salads and salsa, and served with school lunches.
“The kids just love how fresh it is,” Mininger said.
But in September, the very best vegetables are off limits, until after the fair. “I really want us to win a first place,” Perez said. “But, if we win any place, I’ll still have a big smile. I will be proud of all our hard work.”
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