Behind the scenes, organizers and judges scramble to get their work done in time

Morgana Brissenden was panicking.

It was 4 o'clock the afternoon before opening day of the Del Norte County Fair. Judges would be plying their trade in the morning, expecting to see blossoms and bouquets, but the floral supervisor had few entries.

"There weren't that many coming in," she said. "I put out a plea for extras. They brought in buckets of flowers."

Outside, people lined up for funnel cakes and corn dogs. Kids ran from one crazy carnival ride to the next, screams filling the air. But inside the floral building, classical music and the fragrance of hundreds of blossoms provided calm in the middle of chaos.

Brissenden found space for roughly 396 entries by the time the fair opened Thursday. At one end of the floral building were the flower arrangements, the first-place entry a cluster of red roses, white sweet peas and a tall gladiolus. At the other end were the cut flowers, bursts of sunflowers and dahlias, and the orchids.

Brissenden, who has been floral supervisor for 15 years, said she received fewer entries this year. Last year there were more than 425, she said. Even though color and greenery filled the room, Brissenden pointed out that many of the plants were for display only.

"It takes a lot of hours to put this together," she said. "We usually come together two weeks before the fair so we can take time doing it, but it takes a lot of people. It's a lot of work, and I'm getting older and can't do it as fast as I used to do it."

Earlier on Thursday, Suzy Twist-Powell, a horticulture and design judge from Grants Pass, was one of three to scrutinize the entries and bestow ribbons. Twist-Powell said she has been a judge for three years, working as a student judge with a master judge for the first two years. She has been an official judge since October 2012.

Judges take courses in horticulture for two years, pass several tests and shadow more experienced judges before becoming certified with National Garden Clubs Inc., Twist-Powell said. To pass the final test, one must get at least 75 percent of the answers correct, she said.

"I passed my final exam in the middle of chemotherapy," Twist-Powell said. "It was my second time of breast cancer, that's why I say, 'If I can do it, you can do it.'"

When it comes to cut flowers, the judges take into consideration the entry's freshness, its color and form, Twist-Powell said. The entry could have been fresh the day before, but if it's drooping when it's being judged, it will receive fewer points, she said.

For floral arrangements, judges look at the balance of colors and whether an observer can tell what its theme is without reading the card, Twist-Powell said. Entries are docked points if they appear overcrowded.

Twist-Powell, whose favorite flower is the peony, said a friend encouraged her to get into floral design.

"My friend said, 'you'd be good at this,'" she said. "You fall in love - you don't realize how much. I have a four-car garage with design equipment."

Next door in the Home Arts Building, Audrey Souza sliced into a double-crust apple pie, lifted the top layer of pastry with her knife and moved aside the filling to make sure the bottom crust was cooked.

"My big concern is the crust," she explained. "If you can't eat the crust then it's just fruit."

Every year Souza and her husband Jesus Garcia, who hale from Amador County, taste their way through California from Monterey to Del Norte, judging cookies, candies, cakes and pies at 30andndash;35 fairs. Souza said she has been a judge of baked goods for about 30 years. Her husband has been a judge for 20.

On Thursday, more than 100 entries, ranging from three-tiered wedding cakes to chocolate truffles, were scattered throughout the buildings. Most categories had already been judged, but Souza still had work to do.

Three double-crust pies and a lattice-topped pie lay in front of Souza. One confection looked like it had too much crust but tasted nice, she said, giving it a second-place ribbon. Souza said the lattice pie was pretty, but the crust had been handled too much.

"The first thing I'm looking at is appearance. For example, the appearance of the cookies have to be the same shape," she said. "The next thing is flavor. You can have one that looks lousy but tastes good. Personal preference is the very last thing. It comes if everything else is equal."

Souza said she and her husband were in Del Norte to judge the baked goods and visit the Historical Society's museum. She and Garcia will judge baked goods in Yreka and in Woodland next week.

"The damnedest thing I ever had was a peanut brittle that had jalapeandntilde;o in it," Souza said. "That was very unusual to say the least."

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