It's been one of the staples at the State Fair since 1965, a competition with distinct Minnesota roots.

It's crop art -- art made from the seeds of crops or cultivated plants that can be grown in Minnesota. Some categories at the fair also allow use of stems or "fruiting bodies" from such plants.

The legendary Lillian Colton was the queen of the craft until her death at age 95 in 2007.

The throne has been empty since then, but is Darlene Thorud the new queen of crop art?

Thorud, of Bloomington, who knew Colton for 40 years, laughs at the suggestion that she's next in the line of succession.

"Lillian Colton was the queen," she said firmly.

If Darlene won't promote herself, her husband, Dick, isn't afraid to mention that a few years ago, Thorud swept every State Fair crop art category she entered and won the best-of-show and sweepstakes awards as well. "That's the only time that's happened," he said.

Thorud, 72, has been entering works in the State Fair crop art competition for 45 years. Last year, she competed in 10 categories and took first in six of them.

Her interest in a competition that is among the fair's quirkiest is simple. "We are fair people," she said. "We are competitors. It's always exciting to go and see what you got."

The Thoruds, married for 50 years, have never missed a State Fair in that time, even though one year Darlene broke her foot and had to attend in a wheelchair. They used to take Dick's elderly parents along. They'd plop his father down in a lawn chair in the cow barn, where he would happily watch cows for hours while the younger couple went on to the Horticulture building to see what Darlene had won.

The crop art competition at the fair was in its first year when a friend in Darlene's garden club told her she should enter something. She did -- a seed fish on a piece of blue linen -- and she won a merit award.

She kept working at it, getting increasingly ambitious in her designs. The Thoruds' home had no air-conditioning in those years, and on summer nights she would retreat to a table in the cool basement to work on her crop art. The $25 prize for winning pieces was significant for a stay-at-home mom with three kids, she said.

A breakthrough of sorts occurred in 1970, when she devised a crop art totem pole that later earned a mention in Karal Ann Marling's State Fair book, "Blue Ribbon." At the time the Thoruds lived opposite Indian Mounds Elementary School, and Darlene said that may have planted the idea for the pole in her head. The three-dimensional, almost sculptural pole broke the pattern of flat, framed crop art pieces at the fair and earned the sweepstakes award.

Crop art now hangs on walls in almost every room of the Thorud home. Darlene begins her new projects in June, covering the dining room table with a cloth that is littered with jars of seeds, glue bottles and tin pans. All year, she keeps an eye open for images that will make interesting art or borders for pieces.

While some recent fair crop art entries have been kitschy and even politically outrageous, Darlene sticks to traditional subjects. She has done a few portraits, including Jesse Ventura and Bill Clinton, but those aren't her favorites. Some of her pieces feature big seeds like beans or even hosta seeds (State Fair rules require that seeds can be grown in Minnesota), but she likes working with smaller seeds.

Her favorite work, an extremely detailed piece built around a Pilgrim couple and a verse from Psalms called "All Thy Works," is made from thousands of tiny seeds and was inspired by a church bulletin cover.

This year's masterpiece

Darlene's big work for this year's fair was inspired by a photo she saw in the Star Tribune of the Minnie and Paul shaking-hands sign at the new Twins ballpark. Dick scanned the picture on his computer and then blew up the image. They mounted a black-and-white version of it on some fiberboard that Darlene rescued decades ago when someone was throwing it away. It is still her favorite backing for her art.

Darlene liked the currency of the Twins theme as well as the image. "I figured with the new stadium, it's going to be popular," she said. "I could enter it in the special occasion category, or irregular shape."

She is using blue poppy seeds for the lines in the pattern and red millet for sections that would be red, like Minnie and Paul's sleeves. Although some crop art categories allow painting of seeds, she prefers to leave them their natural colors. Amaranth, German millet, white Dutch clover and shelled millet will be added to the Twins piece later, and then it will be varnished to protect it.

Darlene works out the colors in her head.

"In your mind, you have to think about the contrast," she said. "If one part is dark, you may need white next to it."

How it's done

Drawing a line of glue on the fiberboard, Darlene placed grains of millet in place, piece-by-piece, with a set of tweezers, turning each so that tiny points on the grains face the same direction. The tweezers, a favorite tool, belonged to her great-aunt.

Darlene used to make Dick stop at grain elevators when she was looking for certain hard-to-find seeds. One year amaranth was on her Christmas wish list.

When she couldn't find anyone who would sell her a small amount of German millet, she bought a 50-pound bag. "We have a lifetime supply of that in the basement," she said with a laugh.

She has no behind-the-scenes intrigue to share about Colton. "We were good friends. I'd send her birthday cards," Darlene said. They competed for almost 20 years until, in the mid-1980s, fair officials asked Colton to display her art and demonstrate her techniques at the fair.

Some of the Thorud children, who got involved with crop art when they were young, still dabble in it, as do some of the grandchildren. Thorud hopes the art attracts more newcomers. "We need new blood to keep it going," she said.

Dick wants her to keep doing crop art for at least five more years so she can reach the 50-year participation mark. Almost all of Darlene's projects are stored or on display in the house. She has rarely sold her work and hopes that maybe family members will want to hang onto them.

"We have plenty of shelves," Dick said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380