State Fairs Serve as a Common Ground

When most people hear the words “state fair” they generally think of carnivals, concerts, attractions, and fried food. For those of us lucky enough to work in agriculture, we probably tend more toward thoughts of livestock shows, local produce exhibits, and ribbons. (At least, the former 4-H and FFA member in me thinks of that.) Both are accurate images of what a state fair is all about. What many people don’t realize, though, is that state fairs are often a fantastic common ground between agriculture and consumers. I experienced this mentality at its best out in California last summer.

A sow and her litter of newborn piglets at the 2011 California State Fair.

A sow and her litter of newborn piglets at the 2011 California State Fair.

I had the opportunity to wander through fair displays for each county in California, many of which proudly showcased samplings of goods they grew or produced, with some featured in hands-on cooking demonstrations. In a nearby trade show and flea market area local growers sold their farm-raised products. You could buy a souvenir or an As-Seen-On-TV item, then walk next door and talk to a person who grew the garlic they are selling right there at their booth. Agriculture was everywhere at the fair, and it was integrated so skillfully, that many people probably didn’t even realize they were getting a helping of education with their California table grapes and cheese. Many visitors to the California State Fair couldn’t help leaving the event without at least a vague understanding that their food came from somewhere other than the supermarket (and much of it from right in their region).

Milking cows by hand at the 2011 California State Fair.

Milking cows by hand at the 2011 California State Fair.

California isn’t the only state fair where agricultural learning experiences abound. Many state fairs (California among them) include exhibits where spectators can watch livestock giving birth, milk a cow (either a real or a simulated), and learn about how these livestock are cared for. At Agriland, a section of the Kansas State Fair, children and their parents can learn about seeds, soils, and animals through some amazing interactive activities. Many state fairs feature butter sculptures that celebrate the relationship between the dairy industry and the state’s local culture. Often times, commodity and check-off groups will have booths selling the food product they represent, while also giving away information, recipes, and stories about the men and women who produced it.

This just grazes the surface. In reality, each state fair has its own unique and dynamic way of engaging the public in some sort of agricultural interaction. Each approach is (and should be) tailored to fit the region and its products. There is an unquantifiable value to the ability for these events to hit home with their state residents. As communicators for the agriculture industry, we need to be cognizant of other efforts going on to connect with people. And, we need to be looking for ways to improve public understanding of agriculture.

As legislation, and demand change in regards to ag, we need to find creative ways to engage the public in a dialogue about how their agricultural resources are produced and managed. Many, many state fairs (and even county fairs) can offer a degree of ingenuity and creativity in connecting people with their local agriculture. So, let’s take a moment to appreciate the work state fairs are doing for the industry. They may be one of the most time-tested and innovative platforms for this cause.