What I Learned at the Iowa State Fair

Lessons about authenticity, experience, and deep-fried food.

The main stage in the Iowa State Fair’s Pioneer Hall featured a variety of homegrown entertainment — including a bewilderingly talented teen fiddler.

Having spent my life in the Northeast, it’s taken me a long time to make it to one of our great American state fairs, but that shortcoming was remedied this past weekend, when my wife and I visited family in Des Moines — a trip that not at all accidentally coincided with the opening of the iconic Iowa State Fair. We spent all day Friday there, soaking up the blazing sun and the friendly Heartland ambience, touring livestock, agriculture, and craft exhibitions, riding crazy carnival rides, and, most especially, sampling an artery-choking buffet of fried delicacies.

For a lifelong Yankee, it was something to see — like a colossal, corn-fed version of one of the Italian street festivals I grew up going to, with the same sense of fun and food and community, plus a life-sized butter sculpture of a cow. For someone who covers meetings and events for a living, it was even more. Here are a few of my professional takeaways:

Butter cow1. An exhibition by any other name is still an exhibition. And it’s clear that’s where the Iowa State Fair’s roots are. In addition to offering acres upon acres of games, rides, food, and entertainment, the show serves as a showcase for the Hawkeye State’s farmers and artisans, at least partly to give them commercial exposure. Tom and Nancy McDonald, who raised this year’s Biggest Boar (Big Mac, weighing in at 1,166 pounds), and Alan and Brenna Zellmer and Jim and Denelle Skarvedt, who raised the Super Bull (Sampson, 2,893 pounds) — they’re in it for more than the blue ribbon. Ditto Sarah Pratt, the fair’s official butter sculptor, who this year carved the usual 600-pound milking cow as well as a human-sized Mr. Monopoly, celebrating the 80th anniversary of the board game.

2. Successful events are always about unique experiences. Okay, so lots of state and county fairs feature ribbon-winning farm animals and cholesterol-empowered food. But Iowa (a) offers that on a nearly unmatched scale; (b) is infused with an “Iowa nice” sensibility; and, because of the state’s early caucus system, (c) serves as a high-profile platform for presidential candidates in run-up years like this, when Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and other contenders show up to stump at or around the fairgrounds. All of that combined to create an experience I’d never had before. The corn-dog-style bratwurst, deep-friend cheese curds, and deep-fried Twinkie I had were just gravy.

Cute sheep3. Joy is an underrated ROI indicator. So much of the fair is about getting people to smile or laugh out loud. After a day of ordering crazy food, riding crazy rides, listening to a bewilderingly talented teen fiddler, watching my daughters squee and melt as they looked at newborn piglets, calves, and lambs — surrounded by people who were having the same experiences — I felt light and happy. And because this was something that my family and I did together, we’ll always have these bright memories. It made me realize that, while how good your meeting makes attendees feel might not be the most quantifiable metric out there, you can’t and shouldn’t discount it. That said, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to offer deep-fried Oreos for your next snack break.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.