My view of the Illinois State Fair has been historically, and admittedly, narrow: Let’s show cows.
Nearly every year for the last 35 or so, I’ve gone — first with my parents and then with my husband and children — and exhibited cattle. We’ve learned lessons like get up early, work hard, make friends. I sat in the Coliseum as a 16-year-old and learned that Becky Doyle was the first woman director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, wondering what that meant for me.
That’s what the state fair does for a kid: It broadens their horizons. It changes their perspective. And it makes them wonder at what’s possible.
But an interesting question emerges in 2018: What’s the compelling purpose for a state fair in the 21st century? Are kids and livestock and corn dogs enough?
State fairs began in the 1800s to promote agriculture through competitive exhibitions and displays of farm products. Historically, the Illinois State Fair has existed to showcase Illinois agriculture and offer wholesome entertainment.
In 2018, we need to consider what the modern point of a state fair really is. And in a state that’s strapped for cash in every corner, agriculture needs to make a compelling case for a state fair — one that undoubtedly relates to youth and holds a broader mission than just livestock exhibitions.
On the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, where we recently spent a week showing cattle, permanent signage alone shows they’re helping consumers make connections between cows and cheese curds. They’ve recently spent time studying and planning a large-scale exhibit that would focus on the future of food and agriculture, pulling back the curtain on the farm and driving interest without making it like a museum.
They’re looking for ways to connect people to their food, recognizing that food is an emotional experience and looking at how the time people spend thinking about, buying, preparing and consuming food has changed and will change in the future.
Sure, those fairgrounds are situated in the heart of Minneapolis-St. Paul, population 3.28 million (Springfield population: 116,000). But I don’t buy the argument that something like this can’t happen in Springfield — that it needs to be in the Chicago metroplex. Illinois plays a massive role in the global food system, with trading centers, food and ingredient companies, logistics and more, and it’s home to some of the finest agricultural soils in the world. And the finest farmers.
We have a lot of pieces of the food system in Illinois, and we have the opportunity, through a state fair, to connect dots for consumers and let them see how their supper got to them.
But the kids
Prairie Farmer has often reported on the Illinois State Fair from the viewpoint of kids and livestock and championed the two. We’ve been through years when the governor would barely set foot on the fairgrounds (looking at you, Rod Blagojevich) and years when the governor frequently strolled through the barns (my kids: “Hey, it’s Bruce!”).
Obviously, the purpose of a state fair still has to include young people, and if we don’t enhance their experience and agricultural perspective, the fair won’t serve the ag industry appropriately.
The state fair is an opportunity to help people see the bigger food picture. Can we show people — in and out of agriculture — that there are others around the world with different food needs and less money to spend on it? Can we use the state fair to help people think beyond themselves? Can we draw in the local food culture, and the desire for a farm-to-plate experience?
It’s worth considering how that could play out at the Illinois State Fair, and what we’d need to get there.
It’s worth considering what the true purpose of a state fair is in the 21st century.
Because when we both show livestock and connect dots for consumers, we’re building a future for young people in Illinois agriculture. And really, that’s a future for anyone who likes to eat.
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