CARP – The entries are in and even as we type, certified judges are pouring over submissions to award the coveted red ribbons in the Carp Fair 2020 Showcase.
For Carp Fair regulars, which includes every single resident in West Carleton, a highlight of every visit, every year, is wandering through the exhibit hall, attending an agriculture show and perusing the best of the best in the Homecraft and Agriculture Divisions.
This year’s Carp Fair was a COVID-19 casualty, but the Carp Agricultural Society (CAS) volunteer board wanted to make sure the 157-year-old tradition was honoured in some way on the famous fourth weekend of September.
Enter the Carp Fair 2020 Showcase which will continue to honour the best of this community’s homecraft and agriculture skills. Community members dropped off their submissions last weekend (more on that below) and yesterday (Sept. 21) and today (Sept. 22) several certified judges descended on the Carp Fairgrounds to judge the entries and hand out their final decisions.
West Carleton Online dropped by the Carp Agricultural Hall early this morning to watch syrup superstar Michael Walters pick out this year’s winners in two divisions.
Walters has been judging the Carp Fair’s maple syrup competition since 1996.
The Stittsville resident used to operate 1,700 taps on 100 acres in the Burks Falls area just north of Hunstville, ON area when he started tapping trees in 1984.
“I had sponsored a fair day and in my conversation with (then CAS general manager) Joyce Trafford we started talking about maple syrup,” Walters told West Carleton Online while getting ready to get to work. “She asked me if I would judge.”
At the time he didn’t realize it was going to be a lifetime gig.
“When the phone call came a few years ago, I was saying, I think I’m going to pass the responsibility on,” Walters said. “They said, ‘Mike what are you talking about?’ You’re here until you die. And I pray that happens after maple syrup season.”
Making syrup is something Walters has always enjoyed.
“I’m not really a connoisseur of maple syrup,” he said. “I’m a connoisseur of making maple syrup. I just love doing it. When the pumps are off, I love the silence.”
A lot of West Carleton residents love making the sweet stuff too. Usually there are more than 100 entries in the hard-fought category (not all are from West Carleton – the contest is open to all). Due to COVID-19 and the challenges of organizing the showcase on little notice, entries are significantly down this year to just more than a dozen. But there can only be one winner (per division).
“By the time I would roll out of here, I couldn’t eat sugar for a week,” Walters said.
For Walters, there are technical aspects to judging and one taste test.
“The first thing I check is the Brix, the sugar content,” he said. “It has to be a certain percentage (66 per cent) or it’s not syrup.”
CAS board director Jennifer Higginson has been running the maple syrup competition for “the last couple of years” or “forever” depending on who you talk to.
“Several are usually knocked out just because of the Brix,” she said. “You don’t want to taste them if they don’t pass the Brix. Not sweet enough.”
Walters also checks the colour. He checks carefully for sugar crystals in the syrup that may collect at the bottom – which is a strike against.
“If I have any bias, it will be taste,” Walters said. “Maple syrup from trees in low lying, marshy areas will taste different then syrup from trees growing in rocky areas. I prefer the rocky trees. They have a bit of a smoky taste. I look for a smooth taste with no bite to the back of the throat.”
Higginson says she loves looking after the sweet competition but will be missing one of the categories this year.
“We’re missing the maple butter this year,” she said. “I love the maple butter. Pretty much on anything. On a spoon.”
Walters agrees but says the work that goes in to producing the sweet butter “is a labour of love.”
West Carleton Online also dropped by the fairgrounds Sunday afternoon, to see the drop-off process and give Eve Leavoy-Davies, 8, a lift so she could drop off her cupcakes submission.
We had the chance to speak with Carp Fair Homecraft President Patricia Boyd.
“It’s going really well,” she said from the show ring where cars were able to drop off their submissions in a COVID-19 safe manner. “Lot’s of excited kids and adults.”
About a half-hour before the deadline to drop off submissions, volunteer organizers say they had a little more than 500 submissions in the various categories but “we haven’t really kept a running tally.”
During a ‘normal’ Carp Fair year, organizers receive anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 entries. While organizers want to encourage as many entries as possible, this year’s numbers have made for a smooth delivery.
“Everything was spaced out very well,” Boyd said. “We didn’t know how that would go, but it’s worked out.”
The CAS Decorating committee came out before the drop-off began to “spruce up the grounds” and give it the Carp Fair flair visitors are used to seeing this time of year.
“I’m excited,” Boyd said. “Some of the kids were so excited they got to enter something. People are loving this drive-thru system. Drive in, drive out, you’re done.”
West Carleton Online spoke to Ashley Keefer, 13, who was dropping off some freshly harvested potatoes for judging before heading off to a West Carleton Talons soccer practice.
Ashley says she submits something to the Carp Fair “pretty much every year.”
“Always different things,” the Carp-ish resident said. “I’ve submitted cursive samples. Arts and crafts.”
This is the first time for potatoes and Keefer says its been a “pretty good” growing year.
Meanwhile, mom Bonnie Keefer was also dropping off zucchini, maple syrup and bread for the showcase.
“This was the first year we started when we should have,” Bonnie told West Carleton Online. “With COVID-19, we were stuck at home.”
In the nearby showbarn, CAS director Charles Caldwell, in charge of fruits and vegetables, shows West Carleton Online the largest pumpkin category. This is strictly judged on weight and the winner was already known by Sunday afternoon.
For the third year in a row, Ryan Cooney has won the red ribbon with his 925-pound behemoth. For the second year in a row, Cooney will be presented with the Grand Champion Field Pumpkin Connor Engelberts Memorial Trophy.
Engelberts was a regular Carp Fair volunteer who used to grow the giant pumpkins himself. Engelberts passed away following a work accident in 2019 at the age of 36.
This year’s winning pumpkin will be auctioned off with the money going to Engelberts’ daughters’ scholarship fund.
Caldwell says the pumpkin competitions is always popular at the fair and several regular competitors were happy it was going to be on again in this strange year.
“There’s not a lot you can do with these big pumpkins,” Caldwell said. “I tried to grow one this year, but it didn’t grow.”
Competitors get special seeds from a pumpkin growing association and it’s a lot of work to make them big. Caldwell says some competitors give their plants 100 gallons of water a day. They go from baseball- sized to softball to beach ball in days.
This year’s Carp Fair Showcase winners will be unveiled later this week online at carpfair.ca as well as on the fair’s Facebook page.
The Carp Fair is also running an auction to raise badly needed funds for the CAS. You can view items on the fair’s auction Facebook page here (make sure to bid on the one-year West Carleton Online subscription).
And don’t miss Saturday night (Sept. 26). While the Carp Fair gates will be closed, Carp Fair organizers will still be putting on a show. The CAS is hosting a fireworks’ show that will light up the entire village. Click here for the original story.