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A fair education

DANIEL LOOKER 05/04/2011 @ 10:40am Business Editor

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.

“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.”

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