Iowa State Fair: Big Windfall for a Heartland State
Life + Money

Iowa State Fair: Big Windfall for a Heartland State

World-famous butter sculptures, crispy corn dogs, high-dive demonstrations and super-sized farm animals — not to mention free performances by country singer Keith Urban, ‘60s pop stars The Grass Roots and Davy Jones, and hip-hop legends Vanilla Ice and Tone Loc:  This year’s attractions at the annual Iowa State Fair are the makings of an economic and financial bonanza, likely to top 2009 attendance which was well over one million people. The price of admission:  $8 to $10 a pop (corn dogs not included). 

That makes the Iowa State Fair among the biggest in the nation. It’s certainly critical to Iowa’s economy, generously enhancing the state’s nearly $5.8 billion tourism industry. “We’ve been very fortunate to have had a combination of fairly good weather and very strong foot traffic” in recent years, said Lori Chappell, the fair’s marketing director.

This year’s fair began last Thursday and runs through August 22. So far, “we’ve had blistering heat and rain,” said Chappell. “We’re looking forward to the forecast that says, ‘Blue skies and milder temperatures.’” Early figures for this year’s attendance are still being compiled and officials have high hopes and fingers crossed.  

For the first time since it began in 1854, the fair sold advance tickets this year through Iowa Powerball Lottery terminals, which added a $1 “convenience fee” on top of the $7 individual fee for advance adult admission. Expanding the base for advance sales from about 235 outlets to 2,000 or so across the state annoyed some surprised fairgoers at a time of economic distress, when even the smallest unexpected fee is  magnified. The state receives about 40 cents of each dollar spent in those advance sales. About 60 percent of fairgoers come from central Iowa, with the rest hailing from 47 states and a smattering of other countries. 

The fair employs about 1,600 workers throughout the 400-acre fairgrounds, not counting concessions, exhibitors and other private staffing. That represents a ramped-up work force compared to a staff of about 60 during the off-season, said Chappell. “We hire skilled maintenance workers, as well as lawn maintenance staff and barn workers, who are typically minimum wage.” The fairgrounds are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so the fair has a Blue Ribbon Foundation, which since 1993 has raised over $80 million for preservation and renovation of the grounds.

Jody Rohlena, a New York magazine editor, grew up in Iowa and like so many others, has fond memories of attending the fair through the years. “A poem I wrote about selling the family farm in Fairfax, Iowa, was read at the Iowa State Fair in 1999,” she said.  “It was my proudest moment as a writer, merging the Iowa child who dreamed of being a writer with the grown-up me.”

An Unusual (and Important) Occupation
Sarah Pratt, 33, of West Des Moines, a teacher during the school year, is the fair’s official paid butter sculptor. She apprenticed for 15 years before earning the title, and this year, in addition to the famous butter cow, she’s been sculpting a representation of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Pratt works with about 1,000 pounds of butter, courtesy of the Midwest Dairy Association, and sculpts mostly with her hands. “The figures are kept in a 40-degree cooler, and after the fair, the butter is removed from its frame, put back in tubs, and kept in cold storage,” said Chappell. The butter is then recycled for other sculpting events and activities down the road. The age of this recycled butter?  Upwards of 10 years. 

But butter sculptures are the eye candy — not the steak. There are talent shows and contests of all kinds — including rooster crowing, wood chopping, and sheep shearing — Ferris wheels that seem to stretch to the sky, livestock shows, and food, all on a stick. All that’s needed is money, good humor, and a good pair of walking shoes.