Bart Anderson has run the agriculture and horticulture exhibits at the Utah State Fair for two decades but he still gets a thrill from the "strange stuff" Utahns are able to grow in their gardens.
This year's shocker?
"I've got an okra in there you cannot believe," he said.
When a guy brought it in a behemoth 3-feet-long Anderson told him it couldn't possibly be an okra.
"But it is," Anderson said, as he hoisted the vegetable from a table crowded with the "largest" fruits and vegetables.
Another surprise? A loofah squash.
"The kid that brought it in didn't think I'd know what it was, but I used to grow them," Anderson said.
Anderson, 81, worked at the Tooele Army Depot for 36 years and two months before retiring 26 years ago. He was roped into the job at the fair after organizers sought help managing the competition from the Master Gardeners Association. For many years it was a team effort with wife Shirley, who passed away in 2006.
Anderson's work started in earnest on Tuesday, when he dropped in to see that the exhibit hall was properly set up. For six hours on Wednesday, beginning at noon, Utahns dropped off their entries. The judges, mostly current and retired extension agents, arrived Thursday morning to pick the winners.
"The first days are hectic but after about the first four days it settles down and it's just visit and teach gardening and talk to folks," said Anderson, who on Saturday looked every bit the master gardener in his red ball cap, red shirt and blue jean overalls, a toothpick tucked in the left corner of his mouth. Even his boots sported laces that were red the theme color for the 2013 fair.
Fickle weather too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry always is a factor in what turns up at the fair. Overall, entries were down about a third this year.
"It's been hot, hot and then we got a little cool spell when it was supposed to be growing," he said.
Oh, and there was this, too.
"I have a guy who entered 130 items, at dollar an item. I bet his prizes were close to $400," Anderson said. "This year? He forgot."
When someone reminded Keith Pedersen it was fair time, he ran out into his garden and dug up some field beets better known as sugar beets, Anderson said.
"Nobody grows sugar beets in the state of Utah but him," Anderson said. "He does it just for show. And, he's a West Jordan guy and West Jordan is where sugar beets come from."
This year there were no elderberry entries. The biggest pumpkin, grown by Brandon Bevan, weighed in at 620 pounds, about two-thirds the size of the gagantuan that took the $50 top prize a few years ago.
"This is the first time [Bevan] ever tried it and he's really happy," Anderson said.
There are 10 categories for honey; this year, the number of jars entered doubled, a sign of the growing popularity of backyard beekeeping in the Beehive State.
It apparently was a good year for onions. Crowding the end of one table are pickling, yellow Spanish, green bunching, red marble, yellow copra, white sweet, yellow sweet and red candy onions. Shallots are elsewhere.
For some fairgoers, a trip to the agriculture and horticulture building is an education, a chance to find out about fruits and vegetables they had no idea existed or have never seen before from kohlrabi to horseradish and Jerusaleum artichokes. Giant pumpkins, he'll tell you, aren't really pumpkins but squash.
To check the ripeness of a watermelon, place a straw on its surface; if it spins the same concept as in water witching it's ready. And a 3-foot-long okra is "stupid okra," a novelty but not food.
As always, Anderson has made careful notes in "Bart's Bible" about the year's entries, which will help shape next year's categories and regulations. This year, Anderson received several requests for an egg category from backyard chicken aficionados good enough to give it consideration for next year.
"You don't start a new category for just one person," he said.
Anderson says he lives in Hunter not West Valley City, he makes sure you understand and his own garden once covered an acre, with 25 fruit trees and more than 100 tomato plants. He has scaled back to one-third of an acre since he is "a little older and less energetic."
He is known as the "Tomato King" and among the 30 varieties of tomatoes he still grows are Glaciers and Burpee Long-Keepers and Hillbilly heirlooms and Howard Germans and Sweet Chelseas. Plus, one he developed himself.
It started when a neighbor gave Anderson a German variety of tomato in 1980.
"They tasted good but had rough shoulders and cat facing where they crack on the bottom and bugs get in," he said.
Anderson saved seeds from the very best plant and used them the next year. He did it again, using seeds from the one plant with nearly perfect tomatoes. He did it again, and again and again.
After 15 years, Anderson had a plant with smooth shoulders, no cracks and a delicious taste.
That tomato is Bart's Best.
Utah State Fair
It opens daily at 10 a.m. through Sept. 15 at 1000 W. North Temple in Salt Lake City. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and youth and free from children ages 5 and younger.
For the daily schedule and more information, go to http://www.utahstatefair.com.