New to the Cowichan Exhibition: weed. For real.
They have added a marijuana contest to September's fair, giving the Vancouver Island's finest amateur dope-growers a chance to strut their stuff, just like the onion-picklers and Holstein-raising 4-H kids.
"To the best of my knowledge, we're the first in Canada to do this," says Bud James.
Bud - no, I'm not making up that name - is the one who came up with the idea of adding a cannabis category to the 151-year-old fair.
"Trudeau legalized it, and I thought: 'This might be fun,'" he says.
So, James took the idea to his fellow exhibition board directors, who ran it past the Mounties, who scratched their heads and looked over at North Cowichan council, who giggled a little, and the next thing you knew there it was in the just-released CowEx catalogue - Division 17, Cannabis, nestled among the laciniated dahlias and yearling heifers.
"We thought: 'It's agriculture, and what we do at the fair is promote agriculture,'" says the exhibition's executive director, Shari Paterson.
The competition is open to any non-commercial grower who is at least 19 years of age.
The cost is $1 per entry, one entry per person. Entrants must supply three buds in a clear, Ziploc-style bag. The marijuana will be judged on its uniformity, scent, moisture and colour, but will not be smoked or otherwise ingested.
"The buds will be returned in excellent condition," James promised.
I refrained from pointing out that this seems a bit like rating a wine without tasting it. I have discovered in the past that fair folk get a tad prickly when it comes to adjudication of the rural arts, so it's best not to criticize.
People take this stuff seriously. I narrowly avoided being shanked with a pie fork after judging last year's Metchosin Day pastry competition.
Also, not everyone thought Paterson was showing sufficient gravitas when her entry in the 2018 Cowichan Exhibition fruit pie contest consisted of a store-bought pastry shell filled with her old BlackBerry phones.
"I didn't win a ribbon," she said, "but I know where they're kept, so..."
For it's not just the lavish prizes ($5 for first place in the cannabis category, $3 for second, ribbon only for third) that are on the line at fall fairs. It's bragging rights, the ability to spend a year swaggering around the Island, like Mike Tyson showing off his Heavyweight Champion of the World belt. That's why family recipes are guarded so jealously. It's why blunt-talking farm folk - people who would without compunction demand the intimate details of your medical records/tax returns/sex life - stammer like Trump at a spelling bee when asking a neighbour to divulge her winning mustard pickle recipe. An outsider who innocently makes such a request is just asking to perish in an unexplained tractor tragedy.
Those of us who spend our working lives in Cubicle Hell are particularly enamoured by country fairs. There's something comforting and down-homey about them. Years after living up north, Times Colonist business writer Carla Wilson still waxes on about the Bulkley Valley Exhibition and the legendary fruit pies of the Quick Women's Institute, a wonderfully named organization whose members hail from the community of Quick, not far from Telkwa.
It brings to mind that story out of England where the Ugley Women's Institute was retitled the Women's Institute of Ugley.
Carla's colleague Darron Kloster gets dewy-eyed at the memory of his Saskatchewan boyhood where the highlight of the fair was guessing the weight of the fattest guy in town.
That last bit illustrates another reality.
The farther from the city you get, the earthier the fairs become.
Fewer corporate logos, more cow-pie bingo.
If you get drunk and barf at an urban event, you get arrested.
Do it at a country fair and you get a mop.