State Fairs Are Taking Butter Sculpting and Animal Auctions Online

Though Texas and Minnesota have canceled their giant annual events, the state fair experience is adapting to new formats.
July 29, 2020, 5:20pm
Photo courtesy Minnesota State Fair; Photo Credit: Kevin Brown/State Fair of Texas

For the first time since World War II, the State Fair of Texas—the country's longest-running and largest event of its kind—has been canceled, event organizers announced this month. Instead, the near-month-long event will resume September 2021. Likewise, the Minnesota State Fair—the country's second-largest, with 2.1 million attendees last year—has also been pushed back to next August.

In any given summer, states across the country would be readying their ferris wheels and livestock, and preparing buckets of batter for frying just about everything. But as COVID-19 cases continue to rise nationwide, state fair season has been as disrupted as every industry. State fairs are adapting, though, and in the midst of the pandemic, what does a state fair look like, if it hasn't been canceled outright?

Enthusiasts of state fair food won't be totally at a loss. Just as drive-in movie theaters and drive-in restaurants have seen a social distancing-inspired resurgence, state fairs are also leaning on drive-thru to sell food. The canceled Wisconsin State Fair is making "corn dogs and cheese curds as well as some more outrageous food offerings" available in a drive-thru format, per the Milwaukee Business Journal. (It's also selling its famous cream puffs through curbside pick-up and traveling trucks.) Through the Minnesota State Fair's Food Parade, people can get their fix of foot-long hot dogs, egg rolls on-a-stick, and funnel cake from the safety of their own cars. Other state and county fairs have rolled out similar food plans. 

Still, the experience of eating absurd state fair food (on a stick!) in the solace of a car, as opposed to crowded fairgrounds, certainly won't be the same as what fans know and love. "Bring an empty stomach and patience for a long wait," Milwaukee Magazine's Marla Hiller recently wrote, adding that "nothing will ever be able to replace the full Wisconsin State Fair experience." 

What of those state fair oddities that don't exactly translate to the drive-thru iteration, like the beloved tradition of sculpting butter? While the Ohio State Fair is canceled for 2020, the American Dairy Association Mideast has launched a DIY kit to make a butter cow at home, as Cleveland Scene reported yesterday. Using at least two pounds of butter and with instructions from butter sculptor Paul Brooke, people can participate in a new sculpting challenge to win a YETI cooler. And though the Minnesota State Fair is canceled, the butter-sculpted Princess Kay of the Milky Way is not: the fair will still livestream its creation, the New York Times reported last week

Even real animals are online now, too. In Colorado, the Pueblo County Fair has gone mostly virtual, which includes its livestock and animal auctions. According to the Bent County Democrat, county fair judges worked from home to inspect hundreds of videos for entries in categories like "market dairy breeding and showmanship" and hundreds of pictures of rabbits and chickens. Then, in a new move for the fair, it's taken its animal auctions online, along with those of a handful of other county fairs.

Despite the cancellations of the country's largest fairs, some events are continuing as planned—with COVID-related updates. Along with more hand washing stations, South Dakota's Sioux Empire Fair has prepared about "1 million doses of hand sanitizer" for its week-long event that starts this weekend, the Argus Leader reported. Though some vendors and judges pulled out of the fair due to health concerns, the event will still have shows, concerts, and a rodeo, running at about 80 percent of its usual, president and CEO Scott Wick told the paper. 

Given the size and scope of many state and county fairs, cancellations mean a big hit for local economies. Cal Expo announced plans to lay off at least half of its staff after the cancellation of the California State Fair; workers in Dallas are bracing for a financial hit without the influx of seasonal work; and the loss of the New York State Fair is adding to the stress of gig workers who are still reeling from the restrictions on theater, concerts, and events. Even politicians who rely on hopping through state fairs as campaign stops for mingling and being photographed mid-corn dog will be forced to shift their plans. 

There's still hope on the horizon, however. According to the countdown on the State Fair of Texas' website, next year's event is a mere 400-something days away.