The Iowa State Fair no longer showcases the modern realities of farming. It's more about agritourism, nostalgia, and preserving memories.
It’s mid-August, the dog days of summer, and that means state fair season is upon us. Across the country, states from Alabama to Wyoming host their own distinct celebrations, typically timed with the harvest season of late summer and fall. Historically, state fairs were large-scale gatherings intended to demonstrate a state’s agricultural prowess, from the impossibly huge pumpkins and prize pigs raised on local farms to the fruit pies baked in country kitchens. Today, though, their character is changing.
We sent photographer KC McGinnis to the Iowa State Fair—one of the country’s largest and longest-running fairs, expected to host a million visitors between August 9 – 19. Unsurprisingly, the Iowans he encountered are still full of farm pride. And yet, as McGinnis describes in the photoessay that follows, Iowa seems to be slowly redefining its relationship to its agricultural heritage. While farming still dominates the state’s landscape, fewer and fewer Iowans are directly involved themselves. Maybe that’s why the event McGinnis encountered had a more nostalgic feel—it’s less about the modern realities of farming than preserving cultural memories of it.
Below, the people, foods, and farm animals of the Iowa State Fair—a state’s homage to its increasingly distant past.
— The editors
A sign displays a cow milking exhibition presented by the Iowa State University Dairy Science Club at The Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa on Saturday, August 11, 2018.
Ten-year-old Avery Wirth of Ames, Iowa milks a cow with help from Iowa State University Dairy Science major Macey Betcher of Plainview, Minnesota during a cow-milking exhibition. While today’s dairy farmers rarely milk cows by hand except for personal use, “the novelty of the fresh farm is well respected,” she said.
10-year-old Jace Donels of Centerville, Iowa, milks a cow. Donels says he lives in the country, but not on a farm.
Nine-year-old Lily Damian of Des Moines eats a lemon. Damian’s mother said her family usually spends most of their time in the carnival areas of the fair instead of the livestock attraction. “They’re still scared of the animals,” she said.
Cory and Jeanessa Meyer of West Union, Iowa pose for a portrait with their daughters Braelyn, 12, Kasydi, 13, and their eight-year-old niece Hallie Meyer of Postville, Iowa. The Meyer family is a seventh-generation Iowa farm family with about 100 acres of land for their 25 stock calves, which they exhibit and enter in competitions at the fair. Cory Meyer said he’s noticed fewer exhibitors entering more animals in competitions, which he believes is reflective of farm consolidation in Iowa, where fewer farmers tend more acres and raise higher volumes of animals.
Competition corn cobs line shelves on display.
A man dressed as Ronald McDonald gives a thumps up to audience members during The Governor’s Charity Steer Show, an event held to raise support for Ronald McDonald House Charities.
Parker Kray of Monticello, Iowa eats a serving of barbecue ribs.
Kray, a 21-year-old senior at Upper Iowa University, won the State Fair’s Grand Champion prize for restoring a late 1960’s Case IH Farmall 856 from the ground up. Kray and his father raise corn and beans on about 250 acres using pre-1980’s equipment. Kray is suspicious of newer equipment, which he said is more difficult to maintain and repair. “We know these tractors in and out,” he said. “It’s just old style farming.”
A family shares drinks at a picnic table near food vendors
Right, an attendee holds a corn dog. On the left, a pickle on a stick.
14-year-old Peter McKibben of West Des Moines, Iowa poses for a picture with a combine. McKibben does not come from a farm family but hopes to study mechanical engineering, which may land him in the agriculture industry.
13-year-old Esa Hamza of Lincoln, Nebraska drinks from a lemonade cup while wearing a doughnut hat. Behind Hamza, fair goers take the gondola over the fairgrounds
Hailey Swan of Bloomfield, Iowa waves to the crowd after being crowned the Iowa State Fair Queen.
Pat O’Rourke of South English, Iowa watches a horse competition with his daughter Greta O’Rourke.
The sun sets over concessions stands and gondola rides.
Night falls on the Iowa State Fair, where attendees line-up for last minute snacks—not homemade pies and fresh sweet corn, but Pepsi and funnel cakes.