From Aug 6th to August 22nd my day began at 4:45 AM and I usually got home around 5:00 PM. I had the opportunity to work with some great people and for the first time saw the State Fair on a daily basis and watched it change over its duration. The 4-H competitions for cattle, rabbits and swine gave way to dairy cows, poultry and draft horses then finally dogs. Each animal classification brought its owners. The cattle slept outside and we watched as entire families arrived at 6:00 AM to retrieve them and walk them back to the cattle barn. Families literally slept with their dairy cattle. As I walked through the barn each morning there were countless individuals asleep on hay bales under bright lights. Children as young as 7 were showing their prize pigs. I discovered that a pig will grow from birth to market weight of around 275 pounds in about 6 months. An average pig of that size will get about $140 on the hoof. The farmer will spend around $100 for feed, straw, and heat to get the pig to market. Not a lot of room for error especially if the cost of corn goes up as it did last year during the ethanol boom.
I also watched as individuals made cedar shingles with 100 year old equipment, observed pumpkins that weighed more than I did, and helped around 100 contestants get their apple, cherry, blueberry and other types of pie to the right location at the right time for the annual contest.
Of course there was the food. I sampled the pork burger, the rib eye steak sandwich, the grilled corn on the cob, the corn dog, and the shakes and ice cream at the Dairy Barn over the course of the run. I watched as others indulged themselves on elephant ears, pigs in the mud (deep fried bacon dipped in chocolate), deep fried vegetables (some folks said this was healthy) and finally deep fried butter.
For this city boy it was a Fair to remember.
As I mentioned when I began this experiment I wanted to immerse myself in the Fair and to see and experience it from the inside. I learned a lot about the Fair, about the people that run it and individuals and families that support agriculture in Indiana.
A few things;
- I have a newfound appreciation for the men, women and children that raise the food we eat. It takes a lot of work to raise the meat many of us find ready for sale at Kroger. The learning process starts at a very young age. Everyone in the family chips in.
- The State Fair has been around for years. Change comes slowly. Not a bad thing. Many of the children entering contests at the Fair are following the same path that their parents did 20-30 years ago. It is a right of passage. It is how we train the next generation.
- The Fair is a well-oiled machine. Many individuals come together to pull off the next to impossible. I watched as numerous individuals and equipment worked to transform the cattle barn from a building full of over 300 dairy cows (complete with a milking facility) and tons of soiled straw to a steam cleaned, wide open space where the dog show took place. They went from last cow to first dog in about 18 hours.
- The individuals that work at the Fair come for all ages and all demographic groups. For some life is an ongoing battle. Many of things I take for granted such as safe shelter, good medical care, and reliable transportation are things that others struggle with on a daily basis.
Overall the Fair was a success.
The attendance for the 17-day run was 952,020, which was 21,882 less than last year. This decrease was blamed on the weather. We had 7 days where the temperature reached at least 92 degrees. This was the longest heat streak in Indianapolis in over 20 years.
That said I saw and experienced what I had already thought from the onset. Many of the individuals that come to the Fair are enthusiastic customers and/or participants that have attended State Fairs since childhood. They were here with their children and grandchildren because they valued the experience. They will continue to come with their friends, children and grandchildren for the foreseeable future.
So how do we make it better?
As I mentioned change comes slowly to the Fair for good reason. That said I think there are many opportunities to increase awareness of the Fair to encourage new customers to visit and current customers to visit more often and tell their friends. Technology that exists now and the popularity of social networking allow us to communicate much more easily with our customers and also make it easier for our customers to pass the word virally. We know that 952,020 individuals came to the Fair this year but do we really know who came, where were they from, how many times they came, what they thought of the Fair, what changes they would suggest and what would make them want to come more often? There are ways to find out. Excited customers will tell us without asking for much in return.
Using this information we can continue to improve the Fair for guests, participants and sponsors. This should generate increased revenue and guarantee the State Fair will be alive, vibrant, and current for generations to come. The challenge for the future will be to make it happen.
Until next time – all the best!