Even though the fair wasn't officially held last year, 2020 was not an uneventful year at the Iowa State Fair grounds. The Iowa 2020 Special Edition Livestock Show was held at the grounds in place of the fair, giving Iowa youth a chance to showcase their livestock projects.
Mindy Williamson, Iowa State Fair marketing director, says the 2020 livestock shows drew strong numbers across the board — with 244 4-H and FFA volunteers, 1,588 4-H exhibitors and 893 FFA exhibitors participating.
"That's spreading it out over three weekends over the time that would have been the Iowa State Fair, and with limited capacity in our barns," Williamson says. "It was one of the few things we did get to do last year, so we were glad to do it. That's the cornerstone of the fair."
Meanwhile, the fair board and fair staff were also hard at work prepping for 2021.
Visitors to the 2021 State Fair will find the Richard Jacobson Exhibition Center — otherwise known as the Jacobson 4H Building — completely renovated. The renovations, which were completed in the summer of 2020, were funded with the help of a $6 million donation from the Jacobson Foundation, along with interest from a $4 million donation that can be used for any of the four buildings sponsored by Richard Jacobson at the state fairgrounds. The renovations increased the size of the building by about 30,000 square feet.
"The building was probably 60 years old. It hadn't had a lot of upkeep. We did air condition the building about 15 years ago, but it still had the old CoRayVac heat system in it. So we installed all new HVAC heating and cooling," explains Gary Slater, Iowa State Fair manager and CEO. "We didn't repour the floor, but we polished the concrete on the floor. All of the inside walls are new and painted. It now has a sound system throughout the whole building."
"We added a big garage door to the south end of the building, and we raised the trusses that were on the ceiling, so anything that comes through that door can now come through the center of the building. Before, we had a big door, but we had a truss in the way — so if we wanted to put a big piece of equipment in there, we couldn't," he adds. "The concession stand was in the main part of the building. We added a bump-out on the south side for the concession stand. Then we renovated all the restrooms and created all new restrooms, and we added four classrooms on the west end."
FFA makes garden grow
Of course, ag education has always been a mainstay at the Iowa State Fair. Until recently, however, most of these ag attractions have focused on animal agriculture. The newest addition to the fair's ag attractions is a garden, bringing a focus on row crop agriculture and fruit and vegetable production.
"We've always had the discovery garden at the fairgrounds, which concentrates on the flowers," says Emily Wynn, Iowa State Fair ag education coordinator. "Over the last two years, we thought we should do something that addresses vegetable gardening, growing produce and also incorporating commodity crops at the fairground."
The garden, which is on the fairgrounds at 34th Street just north of Grand Avenue, features corn and soybeans, as well as information on the history of corn and soybean production. The garden includes alfalfa and different kinds of vegetables — tomatoes, onions, kale, peppers, green beans, eggplant, squash, brussels sprouts, and cucumbers. In addition, there are fruit crops, including pear and apple trees.
The garden is maintained with the help of the Bondurant-Farrar FFA Chapter.
"Most of the FFA chapters within the metro area are involved in some way with the Iowa State Fair." says Caitlin Remington, Bondurant-Farrar FFA advisor.
For example, North Polk FFA Chapter helps with the Avenue of Breeds; Southeast Polk FFA takes care of the cows at the Animal Learning Center year-round; Waukee FFA and Dowling Catholic FFA chapters help with Vet Camps, which teach youth at the fair about animal health, welfare and being an animal veterinarian. "This is our foot in the door. Being a new chapter, we wanted to take the first step in doing something big with the state fair," Remington says.
Bondurant-Farrar's FFA program began three years ago, when Remington became the ag instructor; the program continues to grow, with the chapter's latest project giving students a chance to put some of Remington's teachings from plant science into practice.
"We go out every other week and go out twice during that week. We do two time slots, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., so we can allow different students to come out and help. Sometimes I have parents or younger siblings come out when we're weeding and watering," Remington says. "During the state fair, we're going to be working all 11 days, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. So we're trying to get kids scheduled in. I'm having some of my officer team help me recruit kids to work those times."
"A lot of it is learning time management, but it's also about being able to also communicate to the public and advocating for agriculture in the best way possible," she adds. "Some of my students took plant science last year. We grew some plants indoors, but this is more hands-on and intensive. We can call back to some of those plant sciences lessons. The FFA motto is, 'Learning to do, doing to learn, earning to live, living to serve.' We learn to do in the classroom. This is the doing to learn part."
Making more room for livestock
Then there's the Avenue of Breeds. With market hog show entries on the rise, the fair initially planned to put the Avenue of Breeds on hold for a couple years to make room for 150 pens needed in the Swine Barn. However, with the help of the North Polk FFA Chapter and North Polk High School Alumni Association managing the Avenue of Breeds, and a sponsorship by the Iowa Banker's Association, the fair has created a new space on the southwest side of the fairgrounds.
"You can put the Avenue of Breeds somewhere else, but you can't really put entries for the hog show somewhere else, because the show ring is in the Swine Barn," Slater says. "Thank goodness we are able to keep the Avenue of Breeds and still gain those 150 pens in the Swine Barn, because our 4-H and FFA entry numbers in market hogs are up by about 400 head. So the barn was already full. Now we can keep those 150 pens and still have the Avenue of Breeds outside the renovated 4-H Building."
In fact, market hog entries have grown by 20% over the last five years, and continue to rise.
"4-H is up to 2,600 to 2,800 head, and FFA up to 2,200 to 2,400 head. Twenty percent is quite a bit over five years. This year, it's not a terminal show. So we wondered if that might limit entries a little bit, but it didn't at all," Slater says. "Meat goats are housed in the same barn as market hogs, and meat goats are up too. We went from having 100 meat goats to around 400 in our show now. They're the big new item. They don't take up as much space, and they're fun to work with."
Whether this translates to a high turnout at the fair this year remains to be seen, however — especially coming off of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Williamson, the fair's marketing director, explains that the fair uses several predictors for attendance. One is historical attendance. Historically, anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 people a day attend the fair.
"COVID threw those models for historical attendance out the window. We did two surveys across Iowa, and less than 35% felt comfortable attending the Iowa State Fair in 2020. That included our very loyal fairgoers. We knew it was going to be a challenge, because we'd still have the same costs, only 35% attending, and all the activities we couldn't do due to COVID restrictions," she says. "We did a survey in May this year asking people how comfortable they felt. Statewide, only 11% were hesitant about coming in 2021. I think that number would be a little lower now."
While it's hard to say what total attendance numbers will look like this year, Slater notes there may be a bigger crowd due to pent-up demand. With COVID-19-related restrictions eased in Iowa, crowds expected at the fair and vaccinations available, Slater encourages fairgoers to get vaccinated.
"If you want to come to the Iowa State Fair, get vaccinated. Then you don't have to worry. You can come and enjoy the fair," Slater says. "Yes, there are going to be crowds here, because people love the fair and there's some pent-up demand —I think there may even be bigger crowds. So get vaccinated. Then you can come, and just enjoy yourself and not have to worry about social distancing and wearing your mask and the kinds of things that an unvaccinated person would need to worry about."
Ag education at the State Fair
Ag education has long been part of the fabric of the Iowa State Fair.
"Ag is what separates us from a theme park," Slater says. "We're ingrained in agriculture, we embrace agriculture, and we want do as much ag education for those who are not directly involved in agriculture as we can."
This includes the Avenue of Breeds, which showcases various breeds of livestock and exotic animals; Little Hands On The Farm, which educates children and parents alike on livestock agriculture; Have You Herd? — a new exhibit that aims to explain animal care of show livestock to people from non-ag backgrounds; I Milked A Cow, a program hosted by the Iowa State University Dairy Science Club to educate visitors on dairy production; and the Animal Learning Center, which hosts live birthing of various livestock.
For 2021, Wynn has also organized several 21-and-over ag education events, including Fair After Work from 6 to 8 p.m. on Aug. 17, and Fair After Dark from 9 to 11 p.m. on Aug. 20.
"The Fair After Work event is 'Beef, Beer and Bingo,' sponsored by Iowa Beef Industry Council. Participants will move across the site, talking with beef farmers and filling out bingo cards along the way, and end up at the craft beer tent," she explains. "The Fair After Dark event is 'Moos and Brews.' It's all about dairy cattle and the dairy industry, and will take place on our Boulevard of Dairy Breeds. Participants will learn how to judge dairy cattle. They're going to do butter sculpting with butter sculptor Sarah Pratt, cheese tasting, and there will be boozy milkshakes available."
There's also an opportunity for fairgoers to participate in chores at the Animal Learning Center.
"Cuddles and Snuggles Chore Time is at our Animal Learning Center from 8 to 9 p.m. on certain dates at the fair," Wynn says. "They can buy a ticket for a family to help with chores, talk with Animal Learning Center vets and get a chance to see what it takes to care for all animals that are housed there."