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Mon February 3, 2014
The Salt

All Hail The Asparagus Queen! How Ag Pageants Lure New Contestants

Originally published on Mon February 3, 2014 7:33 pm

Forget Miss USA and Miss Universe.

Think you've got what it takes to be the Asparagus Queen?

Mainstream beauty pageants still get tons of applicants every year (even after the dip in participation during the 2008 recession). The same can't be said for the rural festival pageant circuits, The Wall Street Journal's Lindsay Gellman tells Audie Cornish on All Things Considered.

Be it pecans, asparagus or watermelons, many farming communities have also had a tradition of granting their prized commodity crops their very own monarchs. However, interest among young women is waning and the crop of candidates is dwindling, says Gellman, who covered the phenomenon in a recent story.

The reason is partly financial strain — the tab for the dress, jewelry and professional makeup services can easily add up to hundreds of dollars. Gellman adds that there may also be a changing attitude toward pageants that makes them less appealing for younger women.

"The participation level is [also] an important indicator of the strength of the community engagement and pride in the cultural commodity it's tied to," says Gellman.

But local communities aren't giving up on the traditions just yet. And many have turned to changing the rules to spice up the competition.

Take, for example, the annual pageant held by the National Asparagus Festival in Oceana, Mich.

For years, the title of Mrs. Asparagus was traditionally reserved for farmers' wives. But there wasn't much of a competition two years ago when one of only two participants dropped out at the last minute. By default, the crown went to the one remaining candidate.

"The goal of this pageant is to select a farmer's wife-type to represent the asparagus industry," Gellman says. "And so to not have a choice of women is very awkward."

So organizers decided to throw out the wedding ring requirement, change the title to Asparagus Queen and open up the competition to both single and married women.

They're not the only ones, though. Other pageants are also finding ways to garner more interest: The Ohio Beef Queen has become the gender-neutral Ohio Beef Ambassador; Ms. Kumquat is now crowned alongside a Mr. Kumquat in Dade City, Fla. And the board members of Louisiana's Shrimp and Petroleum Festival are personally calling up qualified young women to compete.

The number of applicants for the Shrimp and Petroleum Queen rose because, Gellman says, "It's very hard to turn down a personal telephone invitation."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Crown after crown is coming down on the heads of state beauty queens in the run-up to the Miss USA Pageant in March. Participation in such pageants is recovering nicely from a recession-era dip. But the same cannot be said for the rural festival pageant circuit: pecans, asparagus, watermelon. In addition to growing selling and eating them, many farming communities have also had a tradition of granting them monarchs, usually queens.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of contestants in these pageants is dwindling, and food festivals have been left scrambling. Lindsay Gellman wrote this report and joins us now to talk more about it.

Hi there, Lindsay.

LINDSAY GELLMAN: Hi.

CORNISH: So you started this story with the Mrs. Asparagus contest. It's run by the National Asparagus Festival in Oceana, Michigan. Tell us more about it and the problems they're having.

GELLMAN: So, the Mrs. Asparagus competition is one that has undergone a complete transformation. And that's because the pageant was in deep trouble about two years ago in 2012, when one of only two competitors dropped out just hours before the competition. They were left to crown the only remaining competitor by default.

That's something that is a huge problem for a pageant like this, because the goal of this pageant is to select a farmer's-wife type to represent the asparagus industry. And so, to not have a choice of women is something that's kind of awkward.

CORNISH: And I'm sure she was very beautiful.

(LAUGHTER)

GELLMAN: Oh, yes. Well, absolutely.

CORNISH: But the problem is like essentially you're saying that they want to be able to have the participation because it also shows interest in the industry itself.

GELLMAN: Absolutely, the participation level is an important indicator of the strength of the community engagement and pride in the cultural commodity that it's tied to. So in Michigan, in Oceana County, the pageant decided to throw out it's a wedding ring requirement and to allow unmarried women to compete. And once they decided that, they felt that they had to change the name of the competition, which had been Mrs. Asparagus, and call it the Asparagus Queen competition instead.

CORNISH: Now, tell us a little bit about some of the rule changes that these associations are making to bring in more contestants.

GELLMAN: So there is an Ohio Beef Queen pageant, or rather was. The pageant itself decided allows young men to compete. So they changed their name to the Ohio beef ambassador competition; sort of a gender-neutral, unisex title that would allow men to compete.

CORNISH: Did they actually get men applying to be Beef Ambassador?

GELLMAN: They got a couple.

(LAUGHTER)

GELLMAN: They did. And there's a Kumquat Festival in Florida that recently added a Mr. Kumquat title, alongside Ms. Kumquat which was sort of its version of the festival queen.

CORNISH: What did you hear from the organizers of these festival pageants in terms of why they're holding onto the tradition? I mean why is it so important to these communities?

GELLMAN: I think the communities are very tied to these agricultural commodities and the festivals celebrate those commodities. So, for example, in Louisiana there's a Shrimp and Petroleum Festival that crowns a Shrimp and Petroleum Queen, as well as a King. Those two industries are very much a part of Gulf Coast identity. And they had had sort of a dwindling in their number of applicants, as well. And so, the festival organizer decided to have the board call up qualified young women and personally invite them to compete.

And they saw applications rise because as the festival organizers said: It's very hard to turn down a personal telephone invitation.

CORNISH: Well, thanks so much for talking with us - really appreciate it.

GELLMAN: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: Lindsay Gellman is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Her article documents a shortage of contestants for food festival pageants around the country.

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