Len Stubbings takes vegetables seriously. Running a hand through his white beard, he has been peering at a plate of white potatoes for nearly half an hour.
Few people can have shown such an interest in the root vegetable since the Irish potato famine, but Mr Stubbings has a reason to be thorough. He is one of eight judges who gathered at yesterday's National Vegetable Society championship to decide which Britons had grown produce worthy of being declared the best in the country.
Pulling a tape measure from his briefcase, he says: "I've been judging for nearly 20 years, but this is the first day they've let me judge a national. It's great to get the chance to handle such fine vegetables."
The championship, which was held this year in a corner of the Dorset County Show in Dorchester, is the most competitive day in the vegetable-growing calendar. Those not convinced of just how cut- throat the world of cultivation can be need only look at Torquay. An outbreak of vegetable vandalism last week saw prize pumpkins, carrots and other ready-for-show produce destroyed in the dead of night at the town's Southparks allotments – all for the love of a rosette at a local contest.
Thanks to the week's events, the society was keener than ever to ensure that yesterday's judging was seen to be thorough and fair. For Barry Newman, show manager, this strip-lit marquee is his fiefdom.
Standing at the head of the prize table wearing a club tie bearing a leek-and-onion coat of arms, he wants nothing short of hushed reverence while judging takes place.
"You're going to have to be quiet," he whispers, as I walk through an unambiguous "Keep Out" sign to watch the judges keep score.
Casting a concerned glance at the earnest men pondering rows of vegetable perfection, he insists that "the judging process must not be disturbed", before thrusting an inch-thick green rulebook into my hand and ushering me towards a seat.
Leeks, according to the book, should be "tight-buttoned, non-bulbous, turgid and with no sign of ribbing". They must also reach a minimum length of 14 inches and have a "substantial girth".
To qualify for a voluntary judging position, you must first learn the entire society's rulebook, and then pass a 90-minute written exam, as well as a two-hour practical. But to become one of the prized eight who preside over the final you have to work your way up through years of village, county, then regional shows.
It is no surprise, then, that the men, each armed with a tape measure and – most importantly of all – a rulebook, are finding it difficult to make a decision. "Oh no, not those carrots. There's a lump in the shoulder and these ones are much better for kinkiness," says Clarence Thomas.
His colleague disagrees. After peering at a row of carrots for 35 minutes, Gerry Edwards utters the alarming words: "They are much of a muchness." He then begins another round of sniffing, peering and prodding.
But if passing judgement on the nation's produce seems a complicated affair, that's nothing compared to winning a rosette. Any of the NVS's 2,500 members can enter the national contest, but it is only a self-selecting group of hardline growers who can tolerate the late nights and ritual tending required to win a coveted trophies.
"It's a very small proportion that are up to the standard needed for the nationals," explains Mr Newman. "Normally, all the entries are at that level, but occasionally you'll get entries from people who don't know what's required; just look at that set of white potatoes over there." And there is indeed one plate of potatoes whose skins are distinctly brown and speckly.
After three hours of intensive examination, the judges are finally ready to announce their decisions. Prizes range from £100 for first place to £5 for fifth, but after all the time and money invested in growing and driving their produce across the country, pride is the main thing at stake.
When the show director gives the nod, the trestle table is moved from the doorway and the eagerly awaiting entrants file in to see the results of their labour scored and ranked.
Andrew Jones is disappointed. He got just two hours' sleep after driving from the Welsh border yesterday evening, in time to set out his 19 exhibits, and not one has come first.
The 38-year-old sheep-shearer, who travels to the championships every year with his mother, said: "I got quite a few seconds, but no firsts, which is a shame. I really hoped my shallots would make the cut."
Yorkshire postman Graeme Watson, 49, took home the most coveted rosette of Best in Show for his parsnips. "When I started entering contests I never thought I'd get this far. After nine hours of driving and five hours' laying out my veg, it's all been worth it."Reuse content