Why you should care
Get your deep-fried butter now, because state fairs are an endangered species.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
My fellow Americans, state fair season is upon us once more, and you know what that means: deep-fried Twinkie hamburgers. And deep-fried watermelon, deep-fried mac and cheese on a stick and, of course, deep-fried butter, a whole stick on a stick.
We’ve had to up our game to be competitive.
We’ve come a long way, baby, and the state fair shows it. Once a forum for farmers to exchange the latest in feed and seeds, the vaunted American institution is changing — thanks to the rise of big agribusiness and the decline of family farmers. Some state fairs will emerge victorious, agricultural missions adapted to our citified population. Some will shut down, victims of strapped state budgets and apathetic legislators. And still others will make themselves wholly about two things: extreme foods and keeping those extreme foods down on the Spin-Out.
“We’ve had to up our game to be competitive,” says Scott Munz, who’s been working for the Oklahoma State Fair for 25 years. “No longer can we be complacent and say, ‘We’re the fair, and people are just going to come here.’ ” (That’s one reason the fair is hyping its deep-fried giant gummy bear this year. It’s said to be akin to a jelly doughnut, but hot and heavy.)
At the heart of the crisis in fairs is a huge demographic shift. When the first state fairs started in the 1800s, much of America farmed. These cultivators had a lot to learn. They were newbies on alien land, far before the Internet and TV, let alone improved seed varieties. Fairs served to educate. Families gathered to share new technology, like pasteurization, and what we’d today call “best practices.” The fairs expressed a collective aspiration “to be better at what we’re doing,” says Julie Avery, a cultural historian and former curator at the Michigan State University Museum.
…it’s more about telling the story of modern agriculture to folks who live in the city and don’t necessarily know where their food comes from
Competitions encouraged agricultural excellence. Fairs paid prizes, or “premiums,” to those with the best Holsteins and hogs, the tallest corn. (The early 1900s also saw best baby contests, says Avery — “not the cutest babies, but the healthiest ones.”)
These days, the 4-Hers still show pigs, but most student farmers are not, in fact, Future Farmers of America, says Gary Slater, CEO and manager of the Iowa State Fair. “Once they get out of the youth shows, they’re probably not going to continue farming,” he says. And though plenty of shiny, new farm tech shows up at fairs, most farmers go to gawk, not buy. “You kind of look at the price tags and it blows your mind how much they cost,” says Slater. He describes 24-row planters, half-a-million-dollar combines and four-wheel-drive tractors that cost $300,000.
In 1900, 60 percent of the American population was rural. By 2000, only 26 percent was. Even those who live in rural areas might not farm anymore. As farms have consolidated over the past half century, fewer families are still in the game, says Slater.
That’s why fairs that want to hold onto their agricultural traditions must evolve deliberately. “Our purpose is still about the agriculture, but it’s more about telling the story of modern agriculture to folks who live in the city and don’t necessarily know where their food comes from,” says Brienna Schuette, the marketing manager at the Minnesota State Fair. Its Miracle of Birth Center targets kids who think hamburgers are made at the grocery store. There, kids can watch some 200 calves, lambs and piglets enter our beautiful world. (They don’t tell the exit story at the slaughterhouse.)
Another challenge: financing. As the farm population has declined, so has taxpayer support. State fairs that depend on legislative support are vulnerable, especially in hard times. State fairs in Michigan and Nevada closed in 2009 and 2011, respectively, victims of low attendance and strapped state governments. Virginia’s State Fair, in Fredericksburg, was auctioned off to Universal Fairs, a company that operates fairs for profit, in 2012. The Utah State Fair, meanwhile, is among those in danger: Attendance is dropping, it’s losing money, and the Legislature last year had to inject an emergency $600,000 to keep it afloat, in addition to an annual $675,000 subsidy.
Still, many are going strong, says Jim Tucker, head of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. In an annual survey of select members, more than 80 percent reported that attendance grew or held steady last year. Over the past decade, Tucker says, 70 to 80 percent of fairs in the sample reported steady or growing attendance.
You’ll never see deep-fried butter or deep-fried Pepsi or deep-fried lard here.
In Iowa, despite a decline in the state’s farm population, attendance at the State Fair rose about 35 percent over the past 30 years, to more than a million, says Slater. Some fairgoers attend, no doubt, to catch the “soap box,” where candidates for state and national office can sound off or, like Mitt Romney, declare that corporations are people, too. Like the Minnesota State Fair, Iowa’s takes no money from the state Legislature. Instead, it’s run by a nonprofit government agency and pays its own way. Its budget this year is $21 million.
The budget of the Minnesota State Fair is even more — $40 million — and Schuette says it will insist on keeping agriculture at the forefront. She envisions interaction between producers and consumers as people become pickier about what they eat and more leery of factory agriculture. “Consumers are demanding organic, locally grown, non-GMO food,” she says, if not always at the fair.
“You may see something deep fried or something on a stick, but you’ll never see deep-fried butter or deep-fried Pepsi or deep-fried lard here,” says Schuette.
To be sure, fair food has always reached for novelty and the extreme — fairs are credited with debuting ice cream cones and inventing the corn dog. Even Schuette says we shouldn’t pooh-pooh the excess. The state fair, she says, is a place “where you can check your diet at the door, come in and have a day without rules — and that won’t change.”