Crown after crown is coming down on the heads of state beauty queens in the run-up to the Miss USA Pageant in March. Participation in such pageants is recovering nicely from a recession-era dip. But the same cannot be said for the rural festival pageant circuit: pecans, asparagus, watermelon. In addition to growing selling and eating them, many farming communities have also had a tradition of granting them monarchs, usually queens.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of contestants in these pageants is dwindling, and food festivals have been left scrambling. Lindsay Gellman wrote this report and joins us now to talk more about it.

Hi there, Lindsay.


CORNISH: So you started this story with the Mrs. Asparagus contest. It's run by the National Asparagus Festival in Oceana, Michigan. Tell us more about it and the problems they're having.

GELLMAN: So, the Mrs. Asparagus competition is one that has undergone a complete transformation. And that's because the pageant was in deep trouble about two years ago in 2012, when one of only two competitors dropped out just hours before the competition. They were left to crown the only remaining competitor by default.

That's something that is a huge problem for a pageant like this, because the goal of this pageant is to select a farmer's-wife type to represent the asparagus industry. And so, to not have a choice of women is something that's kind of awkward.

CORNISH: And I'm sure she was very beautiful.


GELLMAN: Oh, yes. Well, absolutely.

CORNISH: But the problem is like essentially you're saying that they want to be able to have the participation because it also shows interest in the industry itself.

GELLMAN: Absolutely, the participation level is an important indicator of the strength of the community engagement and pride in the cultural commodity that it's tied to. So in Michigan, in Oceana County, the pageant decided to throw out it's a wedding ring requirement and to allow unmarried women to compete. And once they decided that, they felt that they had to change the name of the competition, which had been Mrs. Asparagus, and call it the Asparagus Queen competition instead.

CORNISH: Now, tell us a little bit about some of the rule changes that these associations are making to bring in more contestants.

GELLMAN: So there is an Ohio Beef Queen pageant, or rather was. The pageant itself decided allows young men to compete. So they changed their name to the Ohio beef ambassador competition; sort of a gender-neutral, unisex title that would allow men to compete.

CORNISH: Did they actually get men applying to be Beef Ambassador?

GELLMAN: They got a couple.


GELLMAN: They did. And there's a Kumquat Festival in Florida that recently added a Mr. Kumquat title, alongside Ms. Kumquat which was sort of its version of the festival queen.

CORNISH: What did you hear from the organizers of these festival pageants in terms of why they're holding onto the tradition? I mean why is it so important to these communities?

GELLMAN: I think the communities are very tied to these agricultural commodities and the festivals celebrate those commodities. So, for example, in Louisiana there's a Shrimp and Petroleum Festival that crowns a Shrimp and Petroleum Queen, as well as a King. Those two industries are very much a part of Gulf Coast identity. And they had had sort of a dwindling in their number of applicants, as well. And so, the festival organizer decided to have the board call up qualified young women and personally invite them to compete.

And they saw applications rise because as the festival organizers said: It's very hard to turn down a personal telephone invitation.

CORNISH: Well, thanks so much for talking with us - really appreciate it.

GELLMAN: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: Lindsay Gellman is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Her article documents a shortage of contestants for food festival pageants around the country.



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