Strawberry Girls Reign Over Winter Strawberry Festival

Crown Holder Sports 'The Queen's Dent'

It was Shakespeare who wrote "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," and for Lauren Der, the strawberry queen, it's quite literal. The crown is huge and weighs more than you would expect.

"It is very heavy. There's something that all the queens know about. We call it the queen's dent," Der says. "And after a full day of wearing that, you literally have a dent in your head from where the crown has been sitting."

She's a size zero and barely five feet tall, but she herds cattle with her father. Daddy's little girl also is a poised hunting partner. In her bedroom, she proudly displays the skull of a buck she shot with a 243 rifle. Both of her strawberry queen sashes hang from the antlers.

Der's grandparents planted acres and acres of orange groves that they still maintain and sell to orange juice conglomerates. She grew up playing in these orchards. As queen, Der embodies the small town sensibility. Behind her impossibly long lashes and dazzling smile is a whip-smart mind that holds wisdom beyond her years.

"Agriculture literally is the backbone of our country. I've learned hard work and a responsibility and a sense of integrity and being proud of where you come from," she says.

'You Can Be Current and ... Very Tasteful'

But as newly appointed ambassadors to that tradition, the queen and her court are given a crash course in etiquette.

They learn how to pass bread, which utensil to use at dinner, and even how to properly greet people.

Sandee Sytsma is equal parts den mother and corporate CEO. Still the only female member of the Strawberry Festivals board, she is the keeper of the flame.

For Sytsma, it's important the young women represent their community with class.

"They don't smoke, they don't drink. Foul language isn't approved of, [or] public displays of affection. The girls don't live with boyfriends," she says. "No high dresses and cleavage. I don't want little old ladies, but you can be current and you can be very tasteful."

'Ladies and Gentlemen...'

Over 70 years, this little country fair has blossomed into a multimillion-dollar, 11-day extravaganza, all in homage to the humble strawberry.

In their own private hair and makeup room known as "the palace," the ladies prep, primp and pump themselves up with the kind of enthusiasm only a festival royalty can exude.

Five-hundred-thousand people pay the $10 gate fee to see everything from motocross racing to pig-swim races and big-name country music stars. But the real stars of the festival are all dressed in their strawberry best.

Everywhere they go, they get the royal introduction: "Ladies and gentlemen ... the strawberry queen and her court!" an announcer bellows when they make an entrance.

Newsome, one of the court members, says, "People recognize you, and the little kids look up to you, and that's a great experience in itself."

Feaster points out that "everyone looks forward to it every year and every girl dreams of being in it."

She attended as a child and says, "I've probably been [to the festival] every day of every year."

'Festival Represents What's Good About America'

During the Florida real estate boom, it was easy to dismiss the festival as a quaint produce event, but people might yearn once again for what can feel like sturdy bedrock under an avalanche of foreclosures. Even one of the main sponsors, a car dealership, went belly up.

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