A Weekend At The Iowa State Fair

The national media descended upon the fair to watch 2020 Democratic presidential candidates speak at The Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox. But only a few tents away, it was almost like they didn’t exist.

By Gabrielle Healy

Contestants in the sheep shearing contest at the Iowa State Fair (Gabrielle Healy / WAMU)

On Saturday afternoon at the Iowa State Fair, I found myself at the sheep shearing contest. I watched men drag the sheep out of their pens, hold them firmly and let the wool fall off them.

While presidential candidates often flock to the fair in hopes of winning over an essential voter base, and many members of the national media follow them, the fair serves a different purpose for some who attend.

As my guide to the sheep shearing contest, Carolyn Burk of Monroe, Iowa, told me: “Politics is politics, the fair is the fair.”

She works at the primaries and is involved in the caucuses, but the fair is a time for fun. She’s been coming for 26 years, choosing not to break tradition even after losing her husband a few years ago. She camps on the grounds and her grandchildren filter in and out. On Friday night, she said she had 15 kids around her camper, playing corn hole.

The fair was hot, so it was nice to sit down underneath gigantic fans and watch round after round of the contest — the task was to shear four sheep in the shortest amount of time possible. One competitor was 71 years old. And our commentator said he had probably sheared 300,000 sheep in his lifetime.

I was glued to my seat. I didn’t overhear any conversations about politics, even though nine presidential candidates were out at The Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox that Saturday and I saw hundreds of people turning out to hear high-profile contenders like Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Sheep shearing is just one of several competitions at the Iowa State Fair. There’s the grocery bagging contest, the Cowgirl Queen Contest, the favorite Book Desserts contest. I could go on.

And there’s another popular attraction drawing fair-goers like Carolyn: the floriculture competitions. Those displays are located right across from the famous Butter Cow.

I spent some time with two of the fair’s (unofficial) floriculture specialists: Barb Blair and Liz Pruisner. They were stationed at the information desk in the agriculture building as they explained the floral arranging competitions to me. Both women create designs and compete in the fair, as well as answer questions.

The three most common ones, Pruisner revealed, are “Where’s the bathroom?,” “Where’s the Butter Cow?” and “Where’s the water fountain?” But that’s not all Blair and Pruisner have to offer.

Barb Blair and Liz Pruisner (L-R). They both exhibit at the fair and answer questions at the floriculture information desk. (Gabrielle Healy / WAMU)

“You get discussions about who they thought should be first place,” Pruisner said — and that’s about how political the floriculture area gets. Pruisner did note, though, that it does get very busy when the political candidates come through the building.

Both Blair and Pruisner have placed in the contest for their designs. In many cases, they grow their own flowers, but when they can’t get something to sprout, they’ll go to HyVee or Trader Joe’s to stock up. And it’s not just women like Pruisner and Blair who enter.

“You have guys that enter. We have one couple that enters — it’s the dad and the daughter that enter. One family came in one night — the whole family did it. That was really cool,” Pruisner told me.

“I think the most [important] thing is to get involved, have some fun, do what you love, and just be creative,” she continued. “There’s no wrong or right with being creative. It’s just what you like.”

These anecdotes about sheep shearing and family-oriented floriculture and cow showing and horse competitions (two other events I also witnessed) sound nearly too good to be true amid a heated political race. But it’s not as if the spaces away from the Soapbox were completely politics-free. I noticed one sheep display that had a Trump/Pence 2020 sign and a Women for Trump sign adorning it.

When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) walked around the farm, passersby mostly cheered, although there were a few detractors (“Bernie go home” is one I heard).

The scrum of people taking photos and yelling questions around him was intense, and I was a part of it — regardless of whether fair-goers wanted to be.

As reporter Matt Fuller pointed out during a Kamala Harris event elsewhere in Iowa this weekend, all these photo opportunities — regardless of where the candidate is — are completely staged. As in, a major candidate is often looking at a gigantic bank of cameras and surrounded by staff, making it hard to meet people in an organic fashion at the fair. In turn, the photos usually present an inaccurate portrayal of the candidate’s day at the fair.

Regardless, amid politics and sheep-shearing, it was hard to forget that the majority of farms in Iowa are now owned by people who don’t farm, in lieu of the idyllic small family farms outsiders might associate with Iowa. Or that the devastating rates of addiction in Iowa continue, as writer and Cedar Rapids, Iowa resident Lyz Lenz noted on Twitter.

After a long night spent following the political circus to Clear Lake, Iowa — and talking to people at the fair about who they might vote for and why (even though fewer than 1 in 5 Iowans made it out to caucus in 2016) — I was in good company with people who know how to enjoy themselves despite being in a political hotbed.

As we watched the contest, Carolyn Burk told me that sheep shearing is a dying art. But inside the sheep barn, everyone seemed happy. Except maybe not the sheep.

This story has been updated to include a link to The Des Moines Register’s Soapbox coverage.

1A is the midday news show from @WAMU885 and @NPR. Find the podcast at npr.org/1a.

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