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Flavorful fun at Planty City fest

Braving cloudy skies, wind and cool temperatures, thousands of faithful visitors _ and some newcomers _ turned out for the opening of the 59th Annual Florida Strawberry Festival on Thursday.

Many people were bundled up in jackets, holding a plastic coffee cup in one hand.

"First I'm going to buy a hat to stick on my head," said a wind-blown Jeanette Sutton, who had just arrived on a tour bus from Avon Park with her husband, Ray.

It was the couple's first visit to the festival.

"We're going to walk around and see what makes it tick, maybe catch some shows," Ray Sutton said.

What makes this small city tick for the next week and a half is, of course, those sweet, delectable strawberries _ and lots of them.

St. Clements Catholic Church will use about 6,000 flats for its make-your-own shortcake stand, the church's annual fund-raiser.

Aside from the popular shortcake, there are muffins, shakes and pies made from the juicy red berries. Or you can take a couple of fresh quarts home.

Artisans weave the strawberry theme into their crafts, and face painters on the midway will paint the popular berry on your cheek, for a price.

The lineup of popular country music performers, which event organizers spend months putting together, also draws large crowds.

"We're going to see the Oak Ridge Boys," said Kathy Brown of Atlanta, who was visiting the festival for the first time with her husband, Charles.

"We try to see them at every opportunity," said Mr. Brown. "If we find them across the country we'll go to see them."

The Oak Ridge Boys played two concerts Thursday. Upcoming performers include Wynonna Judd, Wayne Newton, Barbara Mandrell and Billy Ray Cyrus. There are 10,000 free seats for stadium shows on a first-come basis.

Daily entertainment includes alligator shows, puppet shows, a ventriloquist and educational demonstrations. Among other attractions are a petting zoo, arts and crafts, art and photography displays, and animal exhibits.

4-H Club and Future Farmers of America members were setting up temporary housing for their dairy cows on Thursday.

Charles Ward, 17, who appeared well-informed on the subject of cows, fielded questions from curious passers-by.

"It's a lot of fun because older people ask questions and take pictures, and you get to get out of school," said the Plant City High School senior, who has spent the last year and a half raising 18-month-old Belle, a pregnant, 600-pound brown Swiss dairy cow.

According to Ward, there are five major breeds of cows, and the black-and-white Holsteins are the most common.

Dairy show judging takes place Saturday. On Sunday, the students and their bovine friends will attend a costume ball.

Charles and Belle will dress as British royalty.

Belle's show days are almost over, however. Charles said he plans to sell her before he starts college in the fall.

If you go

The festival is open from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. through March 13. The midway remains open until midnight. Admission to the festival is $5, and children 10 and under are free with an adult.