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A fair education

Before the shopping mall, there was the fair – outdoor sites for trade and revelry with a history stretching back to the Romans and medieval church feast days. America's fairs have farm roots, starting in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1811. Today, those roots may need watering, so fairs are reminding visitors that beyond the rides and big-name entertainers, the fair also shows where food comes from.

Each year, the Indiana State Fair dedicates itself to one of the state's main commodities, with events and artwork scattered around the fairgrounds. It has highlighted corn, trees, tomatoes, pigs, and this year, soybeans. Next August, a day at the Iowa State Fair will be part of a prize trip that some lucky urban family will win in the Iowa Soybean Association's Be Our Guest contest. In 2010, the State Fair of Texas opened up Big Tex's Barnyard, a pavilion run by the state's agriculture department and farm groups where consumers can sample steaks and learn the fine points of grass-fed and corn-fed beef.

Education that's painless and fun

Many state fairs across the country are seeing the need to help city folks better understand agriculture, says Cindy Hoye, manager of the Indiana State Fair and the immediate past chair of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.

“I think it's our responsibility at fairs,” she says. “Now more than ever, it's a conversation on the importance of understanding the role we can play in consumer education.”

As head of her trade group, Hoye has urged fair officials to be informed about today's food debates and to not shy away from issues that leave 61% of consumers confused about food.

She encourages them to work with agricultural groups to answer questions the public might have about what it means for milk to be hormone-free or pasteurized, or the differences between confined and free-range chickens.

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“We have a golden opportunity to be even more relevant in our programming and education,” she tells them.

One innovation Hoye and her staff started at the Indiana State Fair is an annual emphasis on one of the state's main commodities.

This year is the year of the soybean. Farmers from the Indiana Soybean Alliance will be getting three key messages across, says the group's communications director, Megan Kuhn. The first is that soybeans are versatile, used for livestock feed but also in the carpet of a Habitat for Humanity home built on the fairgrounds. And it's in the biodiesel burned in the tractor pull.

The second message is, “Indiana farmers care for their families and their land,” she says. Soybean farmers will be at the fair all 17 days to chat with consumers.

The third message is how widely soybeans are used in food. “We want to talk to them about the food they're eating,” she says. “Most people don't realize that when they pick up vegetable oil in the grocery store, it's most likely soybean oil.”

State fairs readily copy and improve on ideas from others. Gary Slater, manager of the Iowa State Fair, says his state's Animal Learning Center was inspired by one at the Minnesota State Fair. Both exhibits let fairgoers see livestock and poultry being born. But the Iowa State Fair even has its own cow herd, which is managed by an FFA group at a nearby high school. Iowa's Little Hands On The Farm exhibit began in Indiana. It lets young children plant plastic seeds, harvest toy vegetables, sell them, and trade in their earnings for real food.

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“It's really geared toward children from 2 to 10, however, I think the adults learn a lot,” Slater says.

This year, a day at the Iowa State Fair will be part of a busy four days the Iowa Soybean Association has planned for the winner of its Be Our Guest contest.

One stop will be the turkey farm of Nathan and Betsy Hill near Ellsworth, Iowa. Nathan plans to show his guests “how we feed them and how we care for them in climate-controlled buildings.”

Betsy is planning a turkey dinner, too. And the visitors will learn that any time they buy a turkey sandwich at Subway, it probably comes from West Liberty Foods, a cooperative business owned by the Hills and other turkey growers.

The Hills have also had a brush with fame, raising two turkeys sent to Washington for the Thanksgiving pardoning by President George W. Bush in 2008. The birds were among a dozen that Nathan and his sons, Collin and Conner, raised separately from their 850,000-head commercial flock. “It's really like having a 4-H project,” he says.

Another farm on the tour will be the corn, soybean, cattle, and hog farm of Julie and Kevin Van Manen near Kellogg, Iowa, whose children, Jacob and Emily, also raise sweet corn.

Julie says she's looking forward to the chance to meet the visitors and to “show them we're just real people.”

Two other messages will be that the feeder pigs and Holstein calves they buy to feed are well cared for and that the Van Manens are good stewards of the land. “Looking at the baby calves always seems to be a hit,” Julie says, “and maybe we'll see the sweet corn patch if the weather is still good.”

All this shows that fairs can educate in a positive setting where consumers are just having fun. That's the approach taken at Big Tex's Barnyard, says Daryl Real, the Texas fair's vice president of agriculture and livestock. When explaining grass-fed and grain-fed beef, he says, “We remain very neutral as we present those facts. We present the pros of each side.”

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