Aug 272014

This is the third post in three days about the Iowa State Fair. We only spent part of the day there, but took in as much as we could. Among the sights was the Agriculture Building, a bustling forum for—as the title of this post reveals—honey, eggs, butter—and so much more. As those of you who have been following these state fair posts might surmise, Iowa is mostly rural, with just a few large cities sprinkled in between, mostly along the Interstate 80 corridor. The Iowa State Fair takes place in the state’s capital of Des Moines, where it showcases all things agricultural in the state. The fair is one of the oldest, largest and best known state fairs in the country—large enough, certainly, that many families camp adjacent to the fairgrounds, the parking lot always fills up, and residences surrounding the fairgrounds charge $5 or $6 a spot on their front lawns for the privilege of parking your vehicle there all day. After the fair, ticket sales are counted to gauge attendance. Last year, for example, there were 1,047,246 fairgoers who braved the heat, humidity and occasional rainy weather that is typical of August. Attendance for 2014 also tops the million mark. In 1987, the Iowa State Fair was named to the National Register of Historic Places.


But I’ve strayed a bit from the Agriculture Building, which is where Iowa’s farm producers share some of their produce and seek to educate the public about the importance of what grows on the land. As Iowa agronomist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug said, “Civilization as it is known today couldn’t have evolved nor can it survive without an adequate food supply.” So, downstairs in the two-floor Agriculture Building you’ll see ample evidence of Iowa’s food supply: award-winning pumpkins, squash, potatoes and more; displays of native Iowan flowers and plants; seed art produced by youth, and much more. Often you’ll also be able to taste samplings of beef and egg recipes from the the Iowa Beef Industry Council, and the Iowa Egg Council. You can pick up these recipes as well, or visit their Web sites.


In 2011, the Iowa Soybean Association—along with 35 partners from the soybean, corn, pork, beef, egg, turkey and dairy industries—created the Iowa Food & Family Project to acquaint Iowans with the farmers around them, and to develop a better understanding of how food is grown. In keeping with that goal, here are a few rural statistics about Iowa that you may not have known:

  • There are almost 93,000 farms in Iowa, and 10% of the world’s best farmground can be found in Iowa.
  • Iowa ranks first in the nation for soybean production, or 15% of all soybean crops grown in the U.S.
  • Iowa produces more pigs than any other state, about a third nationally, creating almost 40,000 jobs at the same time.
  • Iowa is especially known for its corn production, growing more corn than most countries; if Iowa were a country, it would rank 4th on an international scale.
  • The number one supplier for turkey meat to Subway and Jimmy John’s is Iowa, whose farmers raise 11 million turkeys annually.
  • Iowa produces 15 billion eggs annually, or more eggs than any other state, the equivalent of an egg for everyone in the world for two days.

The Agriculture Building bustles with activity, which is apparent from the photo below. The second floor is not a full floor, but instead a railed walkway that rings the perimeter of the building with educational booths about soybeans, butterflies, beekeeping, and other topics, and vendor booths that sell Iowa-made jams and jellies, nuts, cooking tools and cleaning products.


One of the booths was staffed by a gentleman who sold ostrich eggs and offered ostrich egg recipes. If you have never seen the shell of an ostrich egg, it’s sturdy, thick and shiny.


Another educational booth was about the migration patterns of monarch butterflies and their role in pollination.


We always stop at the booth of the Iowa Honey Producers Association, where we purchase Iowa-grown honey. Honestly, I don’t think our palate is sensitive enough to note the difference between this honey and store-bought honey, but we love it nonetheless. If you click on this photo, you’ll be able to zoom in on the recipes.


The Iowa Honey Producers Association encourages everyone to help honey bees pollinate by limiting the use of pesticides, and by using liquid instead of granular versions if you must, because bees sometimes mistake the solid form of pesticides for pollen and take it back to the hive. Additionally, people are asked to plant bee-friendly flowers and plants, especially perennials, such as buttercups, crocus, echinacea, geraniums, floxglove, hollyhocks, roses, sedum, snowdrop, pansy and other plants. You can download a bee care brochure from the Web site if you’d like to learn more.

Iowa Honey Producers

The highlight of our visit to the Agriculture Building, every time we come to the Iowa State Fair, is the Butter Cow and other sculptures. The first Butter Cow was sculpted in 1911 by J.K. Daniels as a way for the dairy industry to promote itself. The sculpting knife was passed several times to different people, with each person creating memorable sculptures. By the time John and I moved to Iowa late in 1991, Norma “Duffy” Lyons had been sculpting for 31 years. One of Duffy’s largest butter sculptures was a re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” sculpted from 2,000 pounds of butter. She was succeeded in 2006 by Sarah Pratt, and in 2011 the Butter Cow celebrated the century mark. The theme this year was “Field of Dreams,” based on the 1989 baseball/corn film by the same name, produced in Iowa.

Butter Sculptures

Sarah Pratt carved her ninth Butter Cow at the fair this year, and taught her daughters a little bit about the basics of butter sculpture. She describes her process, which involves praying, in the video profile below from Iowa Public Television (IPTV).

Ice carver Bill Gordish, who as a hotel chef for 18 years did ice carvings for weddings and banquets, creates fantastical sculptures at the fair. They last the entire eleven days in a refrigerated case. The photos are impossible to shoot without reflections, as are the butter sculptures, because lights are shining directly on them. In the upper right photo, you can see a working clock with a swinging pendulum.

Ice Sculputures

In this 2011 Iowa Public Television video, which profiles Bill Gordish during the fair’s 100th anniversary, he uses a chainsaw to carve his beautiful sculptures. It takes Bill about 15 to 20 minutes to make each carving.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll share with you our fair finds, the items we didn’t think we’d purchase but got “sucked in.” It’s all part of the fun!

© 2o14 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Aug 262014

Even if you only spend five hours at the Iowa State Fair, as we did a couple of weeks ago, there is so much to see, hear, experience and taste that you can’t possibly write about it in one post. This is my second blog post about our visit, and today’s focus is about a slice of the outdoor life at the fair. Everywhere you go, when you look up you see the Sky Gliders.


The fairgrounds are filled with all kinds of ground sculptures, including botanical ones. The flower cow below is called “Gert,” in memory of businessman Earl May’s wife, Gertude. His business, Early May Seed & Nursery, celebrates its 95th anniversary this year. The cow’s frame is wire, filled with sphagnum moss and 700 plugs, or plants. The plants are polka dot plant and silver falls. The plants at the base of the cow are Bolivean (also known as wandering jew). The belly of the cow is hollow.


Food is one of the major reasons that many people come to the fair. On the first day of the fair, a seven-year-old girl won a bacon-eating contest at the Knapp Learning Center, claiming the secret to her success was “shoving it all in.” She announced that this was only the first of several eating contests she planned to enter, with the pie-eating contest being next. Food-on-a-stick is also a huge attraction, with 69 varieties available this year, among them such strange foods as Hot Lips (breaded chicken breast smothered with hot sauce, served with blue cheese dressing), Griddle Stick (turkey sausage wrapped in a pancake), and Pineapple on a Stick (fresh pineapple dipped in funnel cake batter and deep fried). Many of the fair foods are fried, as a walk down Grand Avenue will prove. Make sure you click on the photo below to see a close-up of the food combinations—truly a guaranteed recipe for WeightWatchers’ membership.

Fair Food Collage

John and I didn’t eat any of the fried treats, but I confess we did eat a nut roll not too long after the Barksdale’s cookies we inhaled at the Varied Industries Building. I suspect we ingested more sugar that Friday than in an entire month!

Too Much Sugar and Salt

Unless you choose to take in a show at the Grandstand, all musical entertainment at the Iowa State Fair is included with the price of admission. And there is a lot of it, too: eleven free shows at the Fairview Stage, five at the Anne & Bill Riley Stage, nine at the Bud Light Stage, and eleven more at the Susan Knapp Ampitheater. At the Grandstand this year, where you pay for individual events, there were eight different musical events including—among others—the Newsboys, the Jake Owen & Eli Young Band, Lady Antebellum, and Foreigner and Styx. The stars of A&E’s Duck Dynasty shared insights into their family life and the filming of the show. And finally, for vehicle enthusiasts, there was a tractor and truck pull, a demolition derby and figure eight event, and hot laps for winged sprint cars, late models, sports models, stock cars and dirt trucks. Honestly, we weren’t at the fair long enough to take in any of this entertainment, but while we enjoyed our nut rolls, we sat on a bench in front of the Anne & Bill Riley Stage, where the Jeff Arrandale Band was tuning its instruments. The video quality of the clip below is terrible, but it’s the sound I was trying to capture.

When our son was younger, we always took in a few rides at the Iowa State Fair, but these days walking past these entertainments suffices. You see the flashing lights, hear the screams of the roller coaster enthusiasts, can almost feel the air being churned as you pass swiftly rotating swings and wheels, and can watch the carnival sellers pulling in risk-takers to toss rings, balls and coins to win large stuffed animals in neon colors.


As the sun sets, especially on a Friday night, more fairgoers pass through the fair gates, making their way to the grandstand with its flags waving overhead, or to the beer tents on Grand Avenue.

After the Sun Sets

When the evening crowds arrive, we discover we have eaten and seen just about everything we planned, so it’s time to head home. Return tomorrow for a post about honey, eggs and butter sculptures at the Iowa State Fair!

© 2014 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Aug 252014

Two weeks ago on Friday, John and I returned to the Iowa State Fair after an absence of four years. Why so long? Up until 2010, we had attended every state fair since we moved to Iowa late in 1991. But in 2010, my father’s health took a turn for the worse, I was recovering from an appendectomy, and John had lost his job. So, we didn’t attend that year, nor the three years that followed. There was always a reason, and for the last two years the reason was the hot, humid weather that is typical of August in Iowa. Two weeks ago, however, the skies were overcast and it had been raining, in our minds perfect weather for the Iowa State Fair because it meant smaller crowds and cooler temperatures. But we limited ourselves to a late afternoon and early evening, as John was working earlier in the day.


After walking the equivalent of six city blocks to the fairgrounds on the east side of Des Moines because the parking lot was full, we made a beeline for the hand-squeezed lemonade stand. Then we strolled down Grand Avenue until we reached the Varied Industries Building. The Varied Industries Building is where, I swear, every home improvement vendor in the metro area and beyond has a booth, and every college and university recruiter in Iowa passes out pens, pennants and key rings in an attempt to get you to talk with them. Outside the building, if you work in the agriculture industry, you’ll find every variety of John Deere equipment, plus every other major farm equipment manufacturer. My brother-in-law and our son prefer to split logs by hand with an axe, but even so, I suspect this log-splitting monstrosity would capture their attention.


John and I wound our way up and down the aisles inside the Varied Industries Building to end up in front of Barksdale’s, where you can buy a bucket of fresh-out-of-the-oven mini-chocolate chip cookies whose taste can’t be beat. The line for these popular cookies blocks an entire aisle, so if you’re not going to buy any cookies, you may as well skip that side of the building. An entire baking sheet of cookies is scooped up and piled in the plastic bucket.


Thankfully, they give you a lid. John and I ate just enough cookies so we could snap on the lid, and then he tucked the bucket inside his backpack to take home.


At one of the entrances to the Varied Industries Building is a marvelous sand sculpture made just for the fair. Every year there is a new sculpture. In earlier years, the sculpture was located in the center of the bottom floor of the Cultural Arts Building. For all I know, there may still be one there, but we didn’t make it up the hill to that building during our visit. The sculpture this year was created from 50 tons of sand by sand sculptor Greg Glenn. When you walk around it, each side of the sculpture celebrates a different aspect of Iowa farming and teaches the lesson that no matter where you get your food, it all begins at the farm. I enjoyed the kids’ perspective about the sand sculpture in this video from Iowa Public Television (IPTV).

You can see all the different sides of the sculpture in the collage below.

Sand Sculpture Collage

Upstairs in the Varied Industries Building is the Fabric and Threads Department, where sewists and needleworkers of every age and skill level display their competitive entries. It has been quite a few years since I entered one of my own items; success here and encouragement from my husband prompted me to eventually open multiple shops on Etsy to sell my handmade products. I still enjoy seeing the fruits of everyone else’s labors, though, so upstairs we marched to take in the colors and textures. Every year there seem to be more quilts than any other category, so I tend to focus on the “underdogs,” paying special attention to crocheted, sewn and needleworked goods. A selection of a few interesting items can be found below.

Fabric and Threads Collage 1

Fabric and Threads Collage 2

Fabric and Threads Collage 3

At the foot of the stairs leading to the Fabric and Threads Department is a room devoted to a charitable endeavor, the sewing of quilts for needy children. The State Fair Sew-In, coordinated by the Des Moines Area Quilters Guild, makes quilts that are then distributed to Iowa organizations that help kids. Anyone can enter the room, sit down to cut strips of fabric, iron it,  and assemble it into a quilt—and you can stay there as long or as briefly as you wish. While we were there, a bell was struck to announce that 216 quilts had been completed at the 10-day Iowa State Fair as of that moment. The State Fair Sew-In has been operating at the Iowa State Fair since 2009, and during the last five years completed 1,294 colorful quilts. What a great project!

State Fair Sew-In Collage

We did of course visit other areas of the fair, but I am breaking up our visit into separate posts. Return tomorrow, when I’ll share some of the outdoor sights and sounds at the Iowa State Fair.

© 2014 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.