Ron Kelsey spied the yellowing newspaper on eBay a few years ago and snapped it up for about $3. There, at the bottom of an old Minneapolis Journal, was an advertisement for The Great Minnesota State Fair.

"Don't fail to come," it reads. "It is a pleasure you owe yourself. A duty you owe your state."

Nearly lost in the ad (among $60,000 racing premiums and daily flights of Wright Bros. & Curtiss Aeroplanes) is a single line: First Northwestern Corn Show.

The date was Aug. 29, 1910.

Now that corn contest is in its 100th year, and Kelsey is proud to lead the centennial celebration out of his corner of the Agriculture Horticulture building.

He's the State Fair's farm crop superintendent, as well as its resident historian, and oversees the judging for corn, seed art and the scarecrow contest.

To city slickers ignorant of such matters, Kelsey will gently point out that the corn competition is not about taste. But what is it that makes one ear shine when compared to hundreds of others?

"It's a beauty contest, really," he said.

This is field corn, which is used mostly for animal feed and ethanol, but also gets ground into cornmeal for cornbread.

The beauty is in straight rows, plump kernels, consistent sizes and nary a hint of cob peeking through the top.

A corn-fueled life

Kelsey, 70, comes by his corn creds honestly.

His family farmed corn and other crops near Lewisville, in southwestern Minnesota. His father, Dale, showed corn at the fair for 53 years, and took home dozens of championship ribbons, plaques and cash prizes. Three of Kelsey's sisters -- he's one of 10 kids -- have followed in their father's footsteps as champions.

One of those sisters, Char Knaak, has entered the State Fair contest for 15 years and has come away with a prize every time. This year, her Pioneer Hi-Bred ears took the "best in show" in the professional, open class.

"I've done this so many years, I know before I even take the husks off the corn I've got something good," she said.

Knaak, 68, and her husband, Jerry, have a 310-acre farm in St. James, Minn. They rotate corn and soybeans.

She'll pick through 200 or so ears to find the cream of the crop to enter the contest.

"It's like a job," Knaak said with a slightly guilty giggle. "But it's really fun when you find a good one."

The corn is drawn from last year's harvest, because much of the state's corn crop is still in the field when judging starts in August. (A sample of "new" 2010 corn gets judged in a separate category on Sept. 2.)

Those who compete in the cutthroat competition must plan ahead, and tend to their potential prize-winning ears accordingly. That means no storing in outbuildings over the winter, where mice and other varmints could spoil the fun.

Although contestants are allowed to enter only 10 ears, Knaak picks out twice that many, in a couple of different varieties -- "some a little shorter, some longer" -- so she'll have a choice come contest time. Sometimes kernels fall off or the ears just don't hold up well.

Then she wraps each ear in newspapers, paper towels or "whatever's handy" and stores them in the extra bedroom.

Crop judge John Murray, 76, and his baby blues can spot a champion ear in about two seconds flat.

"Well, maybe leave it at 10 seconds," he said, on second thought.

Murray has been judging corn for at least 40 years as a former agriculture teacher and state supervisor through community colleges.

He's one of three State Fair crop judges, to reduce bias, and often weighs in on Future Farmers of America entries and the open classes.

The corn competition is split among amateurs and professionals, and divided into five geographical zones so that southern farmers aren't competing with north-central ones. Within zones, the competition is spliced further into maturity dates, which generally range from 75 to 115 days.

Winning is more about bragging rights than getting rich. Depending on how many people enter, blue-ribbon winners take home $12 to $18.

Murray said the quality of a 10-ear sample this year is "probably the best overall that I've seen." He credits better genetics, herbicides and fertilizers, plus some TLC from Mother Nature.

Turning to the rows upon rows of prizewinning corn on display at the fair, Murray talks about their "showmanship," "uniformity" and ears that are "tall and ripe."

The biggest challenge he ever faced as a judge? "Working with Ron Kelsey," Murray said recently, without missing a beat, and the two friends fell out laughing.

Kelsey is indeed a mainstay. He hasn't missed a year at the fair since he was 7, when his dad first brought him to the crop area.

That yellowing newspaper ad along with photos of the Kelsey family's prizewinning corn hangs on a wall near the crop art.

While the standards for a nice piece of corn haven't changed over time, the size of the contest has ebbed and flowed, Kelsey said.

This year's competition drew about 260 samples of 10 ears each, he said. That's about double the entries from a decade ago, thanks in part to Kelsey's proselytizing.

"Being a corn person, I go to county fairs and I promote it," he said.

No doubt, he's laying the groundwork for the next 100 years.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335