After a year of canceled events and meetings, the National Asparagus Festival’s Queen’s pageant returned this year, Saturday, June 5, and Tara Oomen has been crowned the 2021 Asparagus Queen.
“I’m very passionate about asparagus in general. A lot of people that don’t understand asparagus find it kind of strange,” the Hart native admits with a bit of chuckle, “but I’ve grown up with it my whole life, and I absolutely love sharing anything I can about asparagus with those people.”
Oomen was born and raised on a fruit and vegetable farm in Hart that produces about 225 acres of asparagus, and it was her family at the Oomen Veggie Company who sponsored her run. She also received a lot of support from the Oceana County Farm Bureau, of which she is the president, and from friends who have run in the past. Being a Hart native, she has been familiar with the National Asparagus Festival and the asparagus queens ever since she was young.
“I knew about it when you still had to be married to be the asparagus queen,” she said, “A lot of things have changed since then.”
Tara was crowned by Alysha Sullivan, the 2019 and 2020 Asparagus Queen, in the Shelby High School auditorium. Being able to even have the National Asparagus Festival’s Queen’s Pageant is the return of a welcomed tradition, but it doesn’t mean that things are totally back to normal after a very long and strenuous year.
“I’m really disappointed that there’s no actual (complete) National Asparagus Festival this year,” the new queen said, “so hopefully we can get that back for next year.”
But she is still looking forward to representing Michigan asparagus, and specifically Oceana County asparagus, in any way she can.
Many of the same sentiments were shared by the previous queen when she came on the stage prior to the results of the judging panel.
“I am thankful for everyone’s hard work and dedication that made all of these events possible, and I am saddened by the events I missed due to the pandemic,” Sullivan said, stopping occasionally to keep from crying. “I am so glad the pageant is back up and running again for our community, and I am happy to pass the crown to the next year’s Asparagus Queens,” she added before going on to thank her fellow queen, Lori Beggs, for all of her support.
This year we saw Tara Oomen running against only one other contestant, the Asparagus Queen first runner up, Grace Huffman. “I’m really excited,” Huffman said. “I’ll be beside Tara at a majority of events, doing everything I can,” and although she was not born on an asparagus farm like the newly appointed queen, Huffman still brought a wealth of knowledge to the pageant, proving that the two of them will make a fantastic duo through the next year. “I think together two people can conquer more and do more together,” Oomen said of her runner up, “and that’s my plan. To do everything together and promote together.”
Aside from being born and raised in a farming family, Oomen also got her bachelor’s degree in agribusiness management from Michigan State University with a minor in agronomy. She currently works for BASF, a company which produces chemicals for the agricultural industry. When asked about her role there as an agronomic solutions adviser, Oomen explained, “I go on farms and try to help them with what products my company sells that could benefit their farms.” She also explained that she works with “specialty crop” which includes a large range of things, such as asparagus, cherries, broccoli, zucchini, potatoes and squash. Recently, Oomen was accepted into Purdue University and Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business for a joint master’s in agriculture economics and MBA program, but she decided to wait until next fall to start her classes due to her new job — a decision which coincides nicely with her newfound responsibilities as asparagus queen.
Despite the fact that there were only two contestants, the race seemed exceptionally close this year with the judges taking a lengthy deliberation period, during which the contestants answered several pop questions, one of the most interesting of which was how would they make an asparagus-based dessert. Huffman said she would give the asparagus a coating of melted sugar, taking inspiration from a Japanese dessert called tanghulu. Oomen on the other hand said she would try making ice cream somehow. We also learned that her favorite way to prepare asparagus was by grilling it. But not every question was culinary. One of the questions Tara was asked was, “One of the most popular varieties of green asparagus is named after whom, and who is related to whom?” To the layman, this almost sounds like it could be a riddle, but Oomen went above and beyond, explaining that they are referring to the Martha Washington variety of asparagus, named after the wife of George Washington. “This variety was really popular a little bit of time ago,” the contestant added, “but the Jersey line is more common now, and actually the Martha Washington line is a part of the Jersey’s now.”
After a lengthy deliberation, the judges finally delivered the envelope containing the winner to Jessica Woodworth, the pageant coordinator, but she paused when she discovered a note. “There’s a note here, and it’s got a ton of stars next to it, so I think I’m supposed to read it,” she informed the audience, who responded with laughter and general amusement. This final word from the judges, just before announcing the winner, said: “Extremely difficult decision for us as both candidates did a phenomenal job.” Following this, the long growing anticipation of the audience was finally abated as Grace Huffman was officially proclaimed the runner-up and Tara Oomen the new asparagus queen.
Although everyone is glad to have the pageant again this year after it was canceled in 2020, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the future. The newly crowned queen and her runner-up said they had received a list of events that they will be attending, but that it is largely tentative due to the ongoing pandemic. Some of the upcoming confirmed events include the Spear-It 5K run this Saturday, June 12, the White Lake 4th of July Parade and the Shelby Area District Library’s Princess Party. But according to Woodworth, “the plan is to attend as many events as we can,” and she encouraged anybody hosting events that they would like the queens to attend to get in touch with her.
Although Oomen is disappointed that there won’t be a full National Asparagus Festival this year, it doesn’t change her attitude at all when it comes to being the queen. Coming from a family of asparagus farmers, she is still incredibly passionate about the role. “Anything I can do to help promote and advocate for our growers in Oceana country, I’m going to be excited and happy to do,” she said. In fact, Oomen’s mother prepares asparagus every day when it is in season.
Tara Oomen has invested much of her life and time into the agricultural business of Oceana, but when she’s not working or studying, she still likes to get outdoors and enjoy some leisure activities, such as hunting, snowmobiling, archery and hiking. She said that she plans to donate her $1,000 scholarship award to Michigan State University, and she looks forward to her reign as the asparagus queen.
James Keith Collins, a Pentwater native, was appointed as the district judge for Boulder, Colo. In an article from the Daily Camera, it stated Collins was one of three finalists for the position.
Collins will serve a provisional term for two years. Afterward, if approved by voters, he will serve the standard six-year term. He is currently working as a magistrate with the 20th Judicial District Court where he handles civil, domestic relations and dependency and neglect matters.
Before becoming a magistrate, Collins served in the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office. He was a part-time magistrate in Denver and a judge pro tem in Westminster. Additionally, he is a founding partner of Collins, Rafik and Johnson, which is a law firm in Boulder.
Collins was an undergrad at Davenport University and received his law degree from the University of Denver.
Kevin McCleary wanted to be a soldier all of his life. He achieved his dream when he became one at 17 years old.
“Because I joined so early, I wanted to make sure I was making the right decision for the rest of my life, so I got out of the Army,” he said. “I was out two weeks, and I wanted to go back in.”
McCleary tried to join the Army for the first time when he was 13. Four years later in 1988, he joined out of Muskegon and was sent to Fort Sill, Okla. for basic training. From there, he was sent to Europe where he stayed four years. Throughout his entire career in the Army, McCleary spent nine years of it in Germany.
McCleary was in Europe during the Gulf War running European Watch. He was in a nuclear unit on base. During this time, he worked on top of a mountain in Germany where his unit’s job was to hold back the Russians if they came across. McCleary did not start going to war until Iraq. He said he practiced his art while in Europe.
“We’d go practice shooting targets all day, we practiced hand-to-hand combat all day, we practiced driving our vehicles in and out of maneuvers,” he said.
He remembers driving to the Berlin Wall when it came down in 1989. In his extensive collection of European mementos, McCleary has two pieces of the Berlin Wall. One piece he grabbed when it fell, the other was a gift from a foreign exchange student. He called the two pieces his pride and joy.
“I remember the day when they came down, and it was just swarms-it was like ants coming out-and it was people,” he said. “To see freedom that close — what you’re doing does matter, it makes a difference.”
Holding the piece of the Berlin Wall was astounding. The larger piece, the one McCleary grabbed from the site, was lighter than expected, but knowing the history made it feel heavy. McCleary doesn’t think there was a dry eye in Europe when the Berlin Wall fell. He will never forget the looks on people’s faces that day. He said their faces just said, “Thank you.” He remembers feeling people’s fingers digging into his skin when the German civilians hugged him.
“I tell you what, I have never been kissed and hugged by so many women in my life,” he said. “We had men hugging us and women hugging and kissing us.”
McCleary said the Army is not a job, it is a lifestyle. For his entire military career, he lived on base where the standards were tighter. He said the yard grass could not exceed three inches in length on any part of the base. For 24 hours a day, McCleary was a soldier. He said one of the hardest things he had to do was become a civilian again.
“I never once in my entire career felt like I had a job, because it was just the way it was,” he said.
In addition to his time in Europe, McCleary has an extensive record within the Army. He was in Operation Intrinsic Freedom and Operation Desert Thunder in Iraq. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, McCleary was hit three times. He developed PTSD from serving in the war. He used to take 13 pills every day for his PTSD and the brain damage he received.
“I had a Vietnam vet sit me down one day and he said, ‘Kevin, try this,’ and he handed me a joint, and it changed my life,” he said. “The voices stopped, the fear that someone’s going to kill me at any second went away.”
McCleary is a big advocate for medical cannabis for veterans with PTSD. He knows many veterans in the area with cancer and brain issues who benefit from it. He doesn’t want them to mentally suffer because he knows how it feels.
McCleary and his wife are service officers with the American Legion. He always carries his service officer pack with him, and makes himself available to help veterans with their paperwork.
“We help them file for their compensation, medical records, DD 214, stuff like that.” he said. “We always do that anywhere we go, I’ve got my service.”
In addition to his service officer work, McCleary volunteers often. He served for 18 months on the Army’s burial team, so he is able to assist in funerals. Since his retirement, he has been involved in three funerals. He and his wife hand food out twice a week. For the holidays, he and his wife will go to Family Dollar and clear out the shelves. They will then give those items to the children in the area who do not have much.
“Anybody in town knows that they need something, that’s what we’re here for,” he said.
McCleary also volunteered at Operation Phoenix in Grand Rapids, a housing unit for veterans. It has since been shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
McCleary retired from the Army at 37 years old. He and his wife go to Europe when they can because they love traveling over there. They recently celebrated their 29th anniversary. From his time in the service, McCleary received a Bronze Star medal, a Meritorious Service medal and a Purple Heart. He said he is living his life happily and enjoying his retirement. He tries to give more than he receives to the surrounding veteran and civilian community.