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The Great State Fair Conundrum

With fair season in full swing, organizers weigh entertainment against agricultural tradition.

Deep in the woods of upper Midwest, amid cedar glens and cherry groves, the Northwestern Michigan Fair reflects a piece of Americana as timeless as overalls and as modern as Madonna.

On one side of the grounds, children shuffle through stables brimming with stallions, rabbits, and pigs and stands selling the "best cherry pie baked by a woman." On the other side, lights, action, and rides - from the Tilt-a-Whirl to Starship 2000. In between is Becky, a young girl from nearby Benzonia.

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"Mommy, can we hurry through the animal pens so we have more time for the rides?"

The question encapsulates a dilemma that has been an increasing concern for fairs: How do you balance pure entertainment with the display of prizewinning tomatoes and champion cattle?

Attendance at America's 3,200-plus fairs is climbing, and they have become big business, with high-paid country acts and high-tech rides pushing aside the real reason fairs were born to be annual reminders of the nation's agricultural heritage. Indeed, with popular artists such as Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, and Garth Brooks on show, many urbanites are sidestepping the prize sheep and heading straight for the grandstand.

"The portent hanging over the future of state fairs is that they could become an anachronism to the majority of Americans who no longer live on the farm," says Ron Matson, professor of sociology at Wichita State University in Kansas.

Location, location, location

Studies done by his university examining which agricultural displays, rides and food vendors, and entertainment get placement near the main pedestrian walkways show that, more and more, agriculture displays are being pushed to the fringes.

"The emphasis has shifted ... the midway [the place for rides and games] is primary, while sheep and cattle are secondary," Matson says. And while that may sound somewhat trivial, Mr. Matson says the move is significant. First, it means that America is losing a prime venue for its diverse populations to come together to recognize a common heritage. And second, the urban majority is losing its connection to the land.

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"Many scholars find a serious malaise present in today's society that comes from disconnection related to the environment," he maintains. "The further you get away from realizing what the earth provides, the easier it is to corrupt and kill it."

Because of such concerns, the International Association of Fairs and Expositions has begun sponsoring special programs aimed at reminding Americans of their farm heritage. Encouraging state fair boards to upgrade and emphasize education about horticultural issues, they have joined with organizations such as 4-H in several states.

A yearly awards show in Las Vegas rewards the best efforts. Entries might include live-birthing pens where the fairgoers can watch horses or sheep give birth. Others might include ways to allow urban youths to literally pick corn or apples, till fields, or milk a cow.

"The odd thing about urbanites ... is that if you can get city folk off the midway and into a place where the animals are, they love it and they change their whole reason for coming," says Lewis Miller, president of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.

Midway madness

His sentiments are echoed by many adults standing in line for rides at the Northwestern Michigan Fair. "I wish the midway wasn't even here," says one woman at the bumper-car ride. "My kids were having a great time with the animals until they remembered all these rides were here."

Yet for the most part, Michigan seems to have escaped the midway madness.

Just outside Traverse City, the Northwestern Michigan Fair is loaded with exhibits on animals from llamas to wolves. Wearing Nikes and mesh-front beak caps, baby carriage-wielding dads and moms scarf down Hobo Joe's deep-fried veggies and batter-fried weenies while they ogle displays on the dos and don'ts of raising rabbits or why llamas make great pack animals.

"The kids and grandkids love coming here and looking at animals they don't get to see any other way," says Sandy MacConnel, a physical therapist who grew up in Traverse City. "It's one of the best and cheapest ways for a family to go out together."

And between farm animals and dust, the carmel apples and sausage barbecues, the most complex of state fair enjoyments is free and floats in the air. "The smell. I come to state fairs for the smell," says Ronald Jackson, a father of two from Empire, Mich.

Despite the general erosion of interest in farm issues, the steady emphasis on farm life as a way to develop character in many rural areas has been successful.

"You get an 11-year-old to spend a year raising his own animal, show it in public, invite buyers, and pocket the money and you've instilled self-knowledge and confidence that lasts a lifetime," says Joyce Einodshofer, a Michigander who has been showing animals at this fair for some 40 years.

She looks forward to the yearly ritual in which farmers from all over the state gather for several days at the perimeter of the 80-acre fairgrounds here and camp in tents and small trailers. When the fair moved here to this location in 1974, there were 15 trailers. Today there are more than 300.

The same growth is happening nationwide. America's 3,200-plus state, county, and regional fairs are expected to draw 158 million visitors - a 10 percent increase over three years ago. "The trend has been that state fairs are doing very well and that seems to continue because they only come once a year," says Thomas Powell, an analyst for Amusement Business Magazine in Nashville, Tenn. "No matter what else is going on, people plan other things around making it to the state fair."

Animal treatment

Yet one issue has been raised at state fairs in recent years: the treatment of farm animals. A new organization, the National Livestock Ethics Council (NLEC), was formed 18 months ago to educate the public about animal exhibits, competitions, display, and ethical treatment.

"We are trying to serve as a catalyst for those on all sides trying to identify issues and solutions while collecting and disseminating information," says Blake Aldridge, a coordinator of education for NLEC.

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