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New OC Fair judge has years of his own veggie tales

For 20 years, Joe Ott's picture-perfect fruits and vegetables won blue ribbons at the Orange County Fair.

This year, however, Ott is putting down his spade and garden hose and picking up a clipboard and pen to judge other agricultural contestants who submit the best of their gardens.

He plans to judge youth categories for ages 6 to 18 with the intent of passing along his knowledge and love of agriculture and farming to younger generations.

"I'd rather help somebody else who has a bit of that passion," said Ott, 40. "You can kind of see that twinkle in their eye when they say, 'I want to grow that.' You can tell if they really want grow it or raise it as opposed to just talk about it."

As a judge, the Huntington Beach native will closely examine hundreds of onions, apples, tomatoes and other produce.

"What you're looking for is how it would look in a perfect-world scenario, like something you'd see in an ad," he said. "You're looking for uniformity, something bright, clean, grown properly, no blemishes, something you'd want to take and cut up to put on your salad or sandwich."

Ott, who works in campus security at Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove, may be judging the youth division, but that doesn't mean he'll be giving special passes.

"We're not quite as harsh on the kids, but I think if you're too easy on them, they'll think they can get away with it," he said. "I want them to have that passion to make it better."

Ott got involved with assisting young growers in 1994, when he volunteered with the Westminster chapter of the Future Farmers of America, helping out at an 8-acre farm nestled between Westminster High School and the 405 Freeway. Just 20 years old at the time, he helped sponsor students entering cattle into the fair and also fostered a passion for agriculture.

The more Ott became involved with farming, the more he learned that farmers weren't foul-mouthed cowboys with Southern accents. He started competing as a way to break those stereotypes.

Jerry Gragson, who was the agriculture specialist for the FFA chapter at the time, is happy that Ott is mentoring younger growers.

"I'm glad he's doing that, and I think we need more people willing to do that kind of encouragement for young people," said Gragson, 63, who now lives in Wyoming. "It's interesting because kids start finding out how little they know about farming, and the more they know about it, the more interested they get. It's so hard to learn about it, even with just gardening in that area because backyards aren't big, but you can do things just like Joe has proven."

Fair officials told Ott that he could enter this year's competition since his judging in youth categories won't conflict, but he declined so he could focus on his judging duties.

Being able to spot near-perfect produce has its drawbacks, namely at the grocery store.

"It takes me three hours to pick stuff because I'm going through the whole bin," he said.

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