(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — The Waterford Community Fair kicked off on Monday morning, a dreary Labor Day that saw the sun declining to grace the grass at the fairgrounds. The ground in the parking area was holding firm and the faces past the gates were more than sunny enough despite the weather.

The midway wasn’t yet open at 9 a.m. as volunteers, judges and participants got busy at work preparing or judging. (The midway opened at 2 p.m.) They put finishing touches on bouquets, standing the flowers on their stems just right. They scrutinized the ears of corn — some kernels, they decided, were too dark in color, so the ear was past its prime.

Shelby Aylsworth of Cambridge Springs owns a botanical boutique on Main Street there, but at the fairgrounds in Waterford, her flowers were in competition against many others, many just as stunning as hers. Interestingly, what caught judges’ eyes wasn’t a large bright blossom of a flower, but instead just some small piece of a flower — saffron stigmas. Aylsworth had her locally grown saffron stigmas in a little vial.

“I found a package of bulbs for $7 or $8,” Aylsworth said. “They come up in the fall, and I didn’t get a flower until October. I was out in there in the snow in November picking the saffron.”

It’s not the complete flower that’s picked. The saffron crocus has a highly-sought stigma (part of the reproductive system of the plant) that’s used as a spice. According to Business Insider, one pound of saffron spice can sell for as much as $5,000. Aylsworth didn’t have a pound at the fair, instead just a dozen or so stigmas.

“I’m obsessed with plants — anything weird or different,” Aylsworth said.

Shelby Aylsworth of Cambridge Springs shows off the saffron she grew and harvested.

The saffron was entered in the “unique and unusual” class. That’s different than the “freak” class where carrots that have grown together — while twisting like a heavy braided rope — are featured in a class of their own.

Lisa Vaitekunas is a judge in the fair this year. She’s been judging at the Waterford Community Fair for four years, but she’s no stranger to fairs. Vaitekunas has been showing since she was 10 years old. For about 20 years, she and her family showed their goods in the Indiana State Fair.

Judges are looking to make sure each entry has followed the fair rules. They’re looking to make sure the produce is at its peak maturity — no more, no less. They’re looking for bug and pest damage. They’re judging on consistency of size. They’re judging on shape uniformity. Basically, they’re making sure it’s perfect.

“There’s been a lot of good stuff,” Vaitekunas said of this year’s entries. “We haven’t done best of show yet. There’s just so much, and so many good things this year.”

Lisa Vaitekunas has been showing her produce in fairs since she was 10 years old. She’s been a judge at the Waterford Community Fair for four years, and this year she’s also showing yellow Spanish onions.

Vaitenkunas also had yellow Spanish onions entered. Onions are a family thing — her family in Indiana used to show 750 pounds of onions each year on average. Today, her garden is smaller (a 20 by 20 plot). What she was showing was nearly all of the onions she had grown.

“I have one strand hanging at home. Then just this half bushel and the few plates,” she said.

Husband and wife Don and Liah Ghering (left and right) are co-chairs for the produce judging. Volunteer Joe Szymanowski poses with them.

While Vaitekunas is no longer showing 750 pounds of onions, the fair is seeing an uptick in entries this year compared to other recent years. Husband and wife Don and Liah Ghering are co-chairs for the produce judging, which includes hay and grain, vegetables, fruit, farmers eggs (although the Waterford Community Fair didn’t accept egg entries this year due to Avian Influenza) and apiarian honey. The judging tables were essentially full.

“This year has been better than the last couple of years,” Don Ghering said. Don has been a judge for at least seven years, and Liah has been a judge for 10 years. They took over for Elwin Rose who had served as their mentor before he died. “In years past, we’ve had plates and bowls stacked on top of each other.”

In the show this year, a large white pumpkin was an interesting standout, Don Ghering said. Hot peppers also had a fairly large footprint in the show.

“They’re blowing up like crazy,” Don Ghering said. “I don’t understand why anybody needs a pepper that hot.”

During the week of the fair (from Sept. 5 through Saturday, Sept. 10), some 30,000-40,000 people will walk the fairgrounds, said Kim Gates, director and treasurer of the 2022 Waterford Fair. It’s safe to assume that many of those folks will curiously venture to peruse the entries (maybe they’ll even think, “Yeah, that is a pretty big cabbage”), be those produce, canned good, baked, needlework, or animal entries.

A couple of barns away, goats, cows and swine were penned in their respective barns and their caretakers were preparing them. Carley Locke, 14, of Union City stood in the pen with her Boer goat, Clover. Clover (about seven months old) will be sold in the 4-H auction. Locke has been in 4-H for seven years. During those seven years, she’s shown 12 animals.

“I enjoy showing the animals and working with the animals,” Locke said. “The goal is just to have fun.”

Locke’s mother, Crystal Sherretts, also of Union City, said Locke had always been interested in animals so she enrolled her in 4-H when she was old enough.

“She spends most of her time in the barn anyway, so it just made sense,” Sherretts said. “She already knows how to care for them and knows her way around a barn, but in 4-H she learned how to show them and raise a quality animal.”

4-H also has helped Locke learn about budgeting and marketing. Locke has to keep track of the money each animal earns, and she has to send out “buyer letters” for the auction.

In another barn, some of the dairy cows towered over caretakers and spectators (“That is a pretty big cow,” a spectator might think). Some cows had their hair trimmed so short the skin showed through making them look pink, as if they had spent too much time in the sun. Others had been washed and dried and their hair was standing up, puffy and confident.

In the swine barn, a woman guided a hog toward its pen. She tapped it on the shoulders to keep it moving in a straight line. It was freshly washed. In its pen, it sniffed the air and grunted every now and again.

In another pen, in the middle of the barn, the charity hog lay sleeping in the bottom of its pen. Each year, 4H picks a charity to benefit. They raise the hog and auction it off. Whatever the hog earns goes to the charity. This year, The True Grit 4-H Club selected the Paula’s Promise charity.

Paula’s Promise was started by Paula Cousins after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. Cousins is a 1992 graduate of Fort LeBoeuf High School. Tasha Mitulski graduated with Cousins. Mitulski now is the secretary of Paula’s Promise.

The group aims to raise awareness of ovarian and endometrial cancer. They also offer a helping hand to cancer patients and provide chemotherapy comfort bags. Other support services they offer include herbal teas, ginger candies, gas cards, delivery of casseroles, light housekeeping, lawn mowing, snow removal and handyman services. The group also provides two annual $1,000-scholarships to graduating students who have been impacted by cancer.

“We help anybody who is going through cancer, from babies to 85-year-old men,” Mitulski said. “We’re totally honored (to be selected for the charity hog). It’s hard to raise money in this day and age. It’s a blessing and it was very emotional for me (to be selected).”

The 4-H auction will be held on Thursday, Sept. 8. People planning to bid can register for a number beginning at 5 p.m. Opening ceremonies begin at 5:45 p.m. The first animal goes up for action at about 6 p.m.

The full fair schedule is available on the Waterford Community Fair website.

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Fair admission is $4 per person for anybody older than 8. A fair booster button costs $8 and comes with a week of admission. Parking is free.