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Fair provides fertile ground for new roots

My begonias tell the world I'm a Florida rookie. Planted in sand with a 1-inch layer of Kmart topsoil, their parched leaves are casualties of a woman with Indiana gardening skills.

There are other telltale signs of a Midwest experience: The hankering to wear wool just because it's February. The need to keep a stock of firewood on hand.

The refusal to be comforted by the words: "Oh, everybody has Palmetto bugs in Florida."

This week, four months into my Florida residency, was a chance to compare my new home to the old on a level playing field: the county fair.

I'll admit, I expected it to be an unfair comparison.

Horticulture entries grown in rich, Midwestern soil versus rocky sand. Swine who spend their lives in huge hog-farming operations versus backyard pens that accommodate one pig.

The license plate-advertised "Sunshine State" versus "Amber Waves of Grain."

Cracker versus Hoosier.

Really, I thought. There's just no comparison.

Finally, in a steer and swine barn with an odor reminiscent of the Huntington County, Ind., 4-H Fair, I found a commonality.

Actually, Larry Rooks, superintendent of the steer show at the Citrus County Fair and a lifelong county resident, found it for me:

"It's not just about raising livestock," he said.

Responsibility, commitment, seeing something through to the end. County fairs and Four-H projects teach the same value anywhere.

Huntington County has twice as many hogs at its 4-H Fair as Citrus County has children enrolled in 4-H. Many of those Huntington County kids are from farming families, where they are taught to breed livestock as much for their future careers as for a fair project.

That's not always the case in Citrus.

Take Robert Parker, a 9-year-old boy with a big pig named "Gator." Gator chews bubble gum, eats Popsicles and even enjoys the occasional Lifesaver.

Few Citrus County kids _ including the 200 enrolled in 4-H _ will grow up to be hog farmers. But, as Rooks says, that's really not the point.

"I hope these kids go on to be doctors and lawyers and rocket scientists and brain surgeons," he said, "because I want them to say, "I know what it takes to get that food on the table.' "

I found other similarities Friday: In the swine barn, the familiar smell that lingers on a hog farmer. In the cattle barn, angry steer flustered by a busy traffic day at the fair.

My Florida gardening attempts are, of course, still frustrating. I made my way back to the horticulture exhibit, hoping to find some help in flower-growing.

Pete Dobbs, a master gardener at the exhibit, offered simple advice:

"You need to raise what will do well here instead of what you're used to in the Midwest," he said.

You just don't understand, I protested. My dad used to farm tomatoes and sell Harvestore silos. A Midwesterner like me should be able to grow anything down here.

Aren't green thumbs hereditary?

"That was the Midwest," the master gardener consoled. "There's no comparison, no comparison, no comparison."

Yeah, I thought. That's what I used to think.