Iowa State Fair
People in Iowa are proud of their fair. That was something common to everyone we talked with today (though this was of course a self-selecting audience—perhaps Iowans ashamed of their fair stayed home). Everyone we spoke with came to the fair each year, and the vendors agreed that of the several fairs they went to every season, this was the best. When asked why, an answer they agreed upon was friendliness. It’s a friendly fair, rooted in the history (as evidenced by the size and solidity of the buildings) and heritage of Iowans.
Yet for me the fair was also a strange patchwork of competing narratives. It was often difficult, especially in places like the agricultural building and the food exhibits, to differentiate between what was agricultural or culinary exhibition and what was commercialization and advertising. They bled into one another and created what often felt like parallel but separate fairs occurring in the same space. When we visited the agricultural building, for instance, the section of produce and floriculture was roped off, preventing a close look at the products of agriculture. Instead, lines of visitors were tightly bunched along the peripheral vendors. There was a divide: the casual visitors milled around the edges or shuffled through the exhibition halls, while a simultaneous, largely unseen process of judging and competition occurred among fair participants. We had a similar experience in the food exhibits, where rows of refrigerator displays alternated baked goods for judging (products of fair participants) and packaged, processed foods (apparently for advertizing to fair visitors).
Which leads me to the question of audience, voiced by someone in our debriefing discussion at the end of the day. Who is the fair for? Is it simply for creating a self-congratulating identity for the Iowans who visit? And does it accurately reflect the true nature of farming in Iowa or an idealized, cultural version of the farm that may no longer actually exist?
Part of what prompts this question is the disconnect I experienced between what I saw yesterday and today. Yesterday I saw miles of corn and soybean, and I heard a farm manager talk about industrialized farming. Today the closest I came to the corn I saw yesterday was probably the corn syrup in the Coke I had for lunch. The diversity concentrated at the fair and displayed in the agricultural building or the horse, cattle, and swine shows seems a cultural margin not reflective of the actual Iowan landscape.
And maybe that explains in part the patchwork disjoint I felt. The commercialized exhibits, the vendors, and the deep-fried fair food—that’s all part of the industrial machine built on corn and soy. The varieties of corn, potatoes, and fruit on display and judged in the agricultural building, the FFA kids with their animals—that’s a cultural remnant celebrated as heritage. But they seem two very different worlds, and it’s unclear to me how they can continue to coexist.
I kept waiting to be surprised. I grew up in the Midwest, so this rolling landscape of corn and soy dotted with towns and suburban spillover from larger cities—this is all very familiar. This looks like home. The economic patchwork is clear: soy and corn on a grid, nearly flat, to the horizon. The fields are quiet this time of year: no tractors or combines combing the rows. (Human figures would be lost on this scale.)
We stop in a town called Bondurant that in a nutshell illustrates the ebb and flow of the local economic tides. The concrete pillars of grain elevators dominate the center of town like monoliths. There’s a small train depot in their shadow that has now become a park. The railroad is gone, replaced by a bike trail running into the heart of Des Moines.
This was a farm town, and though still surrounded by corn and soy, it’s now clearly an appendage to Des Moines, which is a fifteen-minute commute away. This explains the glut of new housing developments. The downtown holds several buildings for rent, a hair salon, dentist office, and a single pub. There’s no commercial center, though there is a brand new library and community center, as well as a new high school and elementary school. It feels like a community being pulled into the suburban orbit of Des Moines.
“The farmer on a small farm,” a local farm manager tells us, “doesn’t make money because he isn’t disciplined or motivated.” Small farms grow or die. The same thing seems to happen to small towns. “Everything in this country comes back to income.” And yet he claims to manage many heritage farms, where absent landlords view their property as something more than simply an investment.
In all of this, I’m trying to understand the cultural ties to the land, be it small town, farm, or suburban. Who invests in the land for its cultural value? And what’s the value of culture when crops are seen as commodity?
My surprise finally comes when we pull off the road to a “Public Area,” a space carved out of the grid-work of corn and soy and allowed to revert back to prairie. What strikes me is the soundscape: birds and the various chirps, whirring, and buzzes of insects. We had stopped in a cornfield earlier, and compared to this the cultivated land was deadly silent, as the loud life around me now would be considered pests in the fields of corn across the street.
“They say,” my group’s facilitator tells us, “that when the first plows pulled up the prairie grasses, the roots were so deep and strong that it sounded like shotguns going off when they pulled them out.”
I try to imagine that sound, giving way to the absolute silence of growing crops. Monoculture is quiet. Diversity is loud.
The same thing holds true of neighborhoods, I think. We pass housing developments where the homes look like they’ve fallen from the sky into the subdivision that was recently a field. No sidewalks, no families on porches, no baseball in the street. There’s not much diversity in these neighborhoods, either of culture or architecture that I can tell. In these suburbs, where the houses push right up against the cornfields, whatever is growing inside is growing silently, like ears within the husks.