Behind the scenes of the State Fair

by Marni Ginther

Behind the fun and games of the Minnesota State Fair, there is a million-dollar business that makes the cheese curds sizzle and the Ferris wheels go ’round.

Make that a $30.8 million-dollar business.

That was the fair’s total revenue in 2005. Although the price of planning, hosting and operating the fair that year was $29.5 million, that left a $1.3 million net operating gain, which could buy a lot of cotton candy.

But the Minnesota State Agricultural Society, which runs the fair, puts all that profit back into funding the next year’s fair and improving the fairgrounds, said Brienna Schuette, communications supervisor for the fair.

The society, according to its Web site, is a “semi-state” and “self-governing” organization.

“A lot of people think the state runs the state fair, but it doesn’t,” Schuette said.

The society’s “semi-state” status simply means the only government funding it gets is for employee benefits, Schuette said.

The society’s 12-member board of managers is the governing body of the state fair, Schuette said, with members representing districts from around the state. Two of the 12 members are from the Twin Cities, but act as nonvoting members.

“This ensures the board’s decisions remain agriculturally focused,” Schuette said, “which is where the roots of the state fair are.”

The society was formed in 1854 and conducted territorial fairs before Minnesota even became a state in 1858, said Jerry Hammer, the society’s executive vice president.

“The very first fairs were designed to attract more people to move to Minnesota, and you do that by showing off all the wonderful agricultural products,” he said.

A hundred years ago, Hammer said, 60 percent of Minnesota’s population lived on a farm. Now that number has dwindled to less than 2 percent.

Because of that shift, the fair’s focus has also shifted over time toward educating people about agriculture rather than simply exhibiting it.

Producers’ associations from various agricultural industries will set up stands like the Moo Booth, where people can try milking a cow and learn about Minnesota’s dairy industry.

Tours of livestock barns and programs like Little Farm Hands, in which children “plant” and “harvest” products to sell at a pretend market are also examples Hammer mentioned of ways the fair educates attendees about agriculture.

“If we would have had those things here a hundred years ago, we’d have been laughed out of the place,” Hammer said.

Over time, the definition of what a fair is has changed too, he said.

“Toward the end of the 19th century, the great World’s Fairs started happening. There was one in Paris Ö and there was one in Chicago in 1893 where the first Ferris wheel was,” Hammer said. “As a result Ö a lot of the North American agricultural fairs started to take on more of that flavor Ö where (the fair) isn’t just agriculture, it’s industry, it’s art and it’s the latest and greatest of all these things.”

A variety of exhibits, rides and concessions melted with the fair’s agricultural history to form the fair we know today.

There are about 2,025 applications turned in each year by people who want to sell their products, exhibit their inventions or promote their causes, said concession and exhibit supervisor Pam Simon.

And though the fair has evolved over time, if one word can sum up an experience at the fair, it’s variety.

“There are so many trade shows out there that we have to make ourselves different,” Simon said. “People come here, and we have to provide something for everyone; we’re here to entertain different kinds of crowds, so variety is very important.”