Giant vegetable competitions are a hotbed of rivalry, rule-breaking and out-right cheating, according to security experts who have investigated the murky world of village fetes.
In one of the most heinous acts, a competitor in the longest runner bean contest was disqualified after it was discovered that the entry was, in fact, two runner beans stuck together.
Cake-baking and flower arranging bring on similar levels of skulduggery, according to Dr Annie Maddison Warren and Rachel Daniels of Cranfield University’s defence and security department.
Dr Maddison Warren’s previous work includes reviewing information systems for RAF Strike Command and the Defence Procurement Agency.
Her paper on village fetes is not quite as serious - it was prepared for the Academic Archers conference, in which experts from various disciplines investigate themes raised by the BBC Radio 4 soap.
“There is always some sort of dodgy behaviour at the Flower and Produce Show in The Archers - suspected cheating, sometimes actual cheating. What would motivate you to cheat? It intrigued us,” she said.
The two colleagues embarked on a journey around the country, interviewing village fete committee members and competitors. They made some dark discoveries.
“Some people admitted to using cake mix, although apparently you can tell when you taste it. One mother and daughter got to the show and realised that not many people had entered the scones category, so they split their scones - the mother entered half, and the daughter entered half. She got first place and the mother came third.
“The most blatant piece of cheating was in a longest runner bean competition. Somebody had taken two runner beans, cut the ends off and placed them together on a plate.”
Common cheats include “inappropriate levels of help from parents”, with young children entering suspiciously accomplished bakes. The conference was also told that a model of the Queen made from vegetables had its head knocked off just before judging commenced. “Could this be sabotage? Was it high treason? We will never know,” said Daniels.
There is fierce rivalry and “the motivation to win increases if you are up against people you know, particularly your friends,” she added, and competitors take things very seriously.
“We had one man who maintained that he was a bit competitive. Then he took from his wallet a business card, and underneath his name it said: Grower of large vegetables.’ He had a work folder for his competition entries.”
A number of people told the researchers that they were driven by a need for parental approval. “A woman had been told by her mother that she couldn’t bake. Entering these shows gave her external validation,” Daniels said.
She added that there was a positive aspect to the competitions. “People really love these things as social events, and they bring a community together. Everybody in our village comes out to support it. In many areas of the country, participation is going up. The only area in which they struggle is getting children involved.”
The conference in Lincoln, now in its second year, also talks on birdwatching and masculinity in Ambridge, the efficacy of the village’s flood defences and the provision for lactation in women’s prisons, the latter inspired by Helen Titchener’s arrest for the attempted murder of her abusive partner, Rob.