Most people associate the Minnesota State Fair with seas of sweaty bodies, rickety Mighty Midway rides, and the inevitable fried food hangover induced by delicacies like Pronto Pups, cheese curds, and a beautiful union resulting in something called the “Pizzarito.” Yet its core purpose remains the same after more than 150 years: to celebrate the best agriculture, livestock, food, and art produced by Minnesotans.
Every August, farmers, bakers, and craftspeople from all over Minnesota go head to head in pursuit of a purple Holy Grail: the champion ribbon. Fierce competition ensues across the fairgrounds, with judges picking winners in categories from crop art to canned goods to chickens, bringing only the best of the best to the arena.
A casual spectator might associate a winning ribbon with the sleekest horse or the fluffiest sheep. But the critically trained eyes of a state fair judge look beyond just presentation and evaluate every little detail of the entries. It takes years of experience to be able to identify the cream of the crop, and these men and women have been climbing the ranks of their respective fields for decades to get to this level. We spoke with four Minnesota State Fair judges to learn what it takes to reach the pinnacle of fairs, both for them and for those they crown as champions.
Judges’ responses are highlighted in bold throughout the following text. Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
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Emily Griffith • Beef Cattle
Attractive with a strong, yet refined jaw. Thin neck and smooth shoulders. An ample amount of muscle to shape a feminine form. A comfortable stride. Emily Griffiths has a keen eye for bovine beauty.
Griffiths, a 29-year-old, fourth-generation cattlewoman currently living in North Platte, Nebraska, has built a prominent presence in the champion cattle scene. She exhibited 20 breed champions in her 10 years in 4-H at the Indiana State Fair, and earned Champion Showman status in five breeds at Junior Nationals. And at age 18, she jumped into the judging circuit at the Canadian National Gelbvieh Show at Farmfair International in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. This year marks her ninth as a state fair-level judge.
“The great thing with cattle, just like with people, [is that] beauty means something different to everyone.”
“I have always believed that beef heifer shows are very comparable to a beauty pageant in that it is about combining desirable female traits in a well-presented form with poise and style. You want an amount of body and muscle that is proportional and well suited to the animal’s frame with excellent structure. What separates an ordinary cow in the pasture from a champion at the state fair are those heifers with an extra amount of class, style, and grace. Those characteristics are not just limited to people—cattle can have those, too!”
“Most of the heifers that show at the state fair will be shown several other times throughout their “show career” before they become a mother cow; some will even be shown with their baby after they calve.”
“Something very unique about beef cattle is there are heat-tolerant breeds in the southern United States that are not in states like Minnesota with colder winter climates. You can come to the Minnesota State Fair and see all of the same breeds of dairy cattle or pigs that would be at the State Fair of Texas, but that is not true of beef cattle.”
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Steve Pittelkow • Decorative Painting
Steve Pittelkow didn’t choose decorative painting so much as decorative painting chose him. He learned everything he knows about the category from his mother, a state fair decorative painting judge for 30 years. Pittelkow has been a judge for 10 years now, and readily admits that the term “decorative painting” is a little unclear. Traditionally it applies to designs painted on wood, he says, but fair entries can include everything from glass to metal to rocks.
Pittelkow has taught at studios and workshops in France and Switzerland, as well as the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, University of the Arts in Philadelphia, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and many other art centers around the country. He currently lives in Florida, but still teaches at Homewood Studios in Minneapolis during his summer visits to Minnesota.
“I guess I’d never call myself an expert. Even at my age, I figure I can still learn new things. Having been surrounded by the art and good craft of my talented parents, I understand the effort that goes into creating art, and over the years I have learned the difference between good and less-than-good art and craft.”
“My mother was notorious for not awarding sweepstakes ribbons (a sweepstakes ribbon is awarded when no detail is overlooked […] even the places no one looks should be finished). She was a tough judge. My first year of judging, I raised some eyebrows by awarding a sweepstakes to a carved front end of a Dodge Charger. It was perfect in every detail and a true work of art. I do not regret my decision.”
“There are a few devious souls out there. Just last year, an entrant tried to submit a piece that had been purchased at a local craft store. Most entrants, however, submit their art because they enjoy what they’re doing.”
“I really appreciate that people still want to create. They’re spending their time learning a craft and then are willing to submit their work to be judged. That’s what’s so great about the fair: If you make it, you can enter it.”
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Ron Kelsey • Corn
Ron Kelsey is crazy about corn. Dent, flint, popcorn: he judges it all. Kelsey learned how to judge the crop from his dad, who judged at local and county shows in the 1940s and ’50s. The 78-year-old has only been a state fair-level judge for the past 15 years—he couldn’t partake any earlier due to a conflict of interest: his dad showed corn at the Minnesota State Fair for 53 years, and two of his sisters also entered corn several times.
Beyond judging, Kelsey taught agriculture education at Red Rock Central High School in Lamberton, Minnesota for 35 years and has been Superintendent of Farm Crops at the Minnesota State Fair for 18 years, overseeing all farm crops, scarecrows, crop art, county exhibit booths, and the vintage seed sack collection. He even has a tattoo of an ear of corn, which his children gifted to him for his 75th birthday.
“All exhibitors have to bring in their 10 best ears of corn. The 10 are judged as a sample together. We want all the ears to be uniform in color, size, and number of rows of kernels—14, 16, or 18. We want them to have straight rows of kernels, with no missing kernels.”
“One year, when my dad and I brought his corn to the state fair to exhibit, we saw two gentleman sitting on a bench watching us. My dad went over to talk to them and ask if they brought corn to show. They said, “No, we are the judges and we decided to come early to see what the Kelseys look like.” Did they think we had corn growing out our ears?”
“My hobby is collecting vintage sacks—mainly corn sacks. I have over 1,000 in the collection, which may be the largest collection in the world. They are displayed annually at the Minnesota State Fair.”
“Farmers are honest for the most part. Sometimes they try to glue in some kernels for kernels lost, but the judges catch that.”
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Jeff Halbach • Poultry
Jeff Halbach’s destiny as a poultry judge was sealed before he was even born. Preceding his 46-year tenure as a poultry judge at the Minnesota State Fair, Jeff’s great-grandfather founded the Halbach Poultry Farm in Waterford, Wisconsin, where Jeff was raised and still resides.
Jeff, 68, is such a renowned poultry breeder and judge that he was sought out as an advisor by the director of the 2016 documentary “Chicken People,” which looks at the cutthroat world of champion show chickens. As the only fourth-generation poultry breeder and judge in the U.S., and the second-youngest poultry judge to receive a license at age 21 (his grandfather was the first, at age 18), you could say poultry breeding runs in the family.
“I was born into the poultry exhibition world. […] I was looking at poultry before I could talk.”
“Exhibitors may try to enhance a bird by removing or manipulating feathers in some way, which we call faking. It’s a serious offense, so when I discover this it will usually result in a disqualification of the bird. Most poultry exhibitors are in it for enjoyment, but occasionally some sore losers show up.”
“The birds that end up on champion row usually are sound in body, correct and bright in color, have been cleaned and prepared for showing by their owners. And, finally, they have that winning personality.”
“I have wanted to be a poultry judge for as long as I can remember.”
“One of my favorite memories of my youth was the in the early summer, when poultry “string men” would come to the farm and each purchase 300 to 500 chickens to travel with and exhibit at the county and state fair circuit.”