For some, it’s their first trip to visit the butter cow, take in the agriculture exhibits, and enjoy the rides, the food and the entertainment. For many others, however, it’s an annual trek, a long family tradition, that includes spending time at the 4-H events, the livestock shows, the horse races and the tractor pulls.
And while some make it a day or a weekend trip, there are many for whom the fair experience has been a year or more in the making. They’ve been raising their cows, sheering their sheep, grooming their horses, canning their jams, and perfecting their recipes in anticipation of the fair’s many agricultural shows and contests.
But no matter why fairgoers come or what they expect, the state fairs in Illinois do not disappoint. For 160 years, they have served as a showcase for Illinois agriculture. That’s because although much has changed across the Land of Lincoln since 1853, the state’s prominence in the agriculture industry has not.
About 75 percent of the land in Illinois is still devoted to production agriculture. The 76,000 farms in the state are the foundation of a multibillion-dollar industry. In addition, the state is home to more than 2,500 food companies and hundreds of agribusinesses that provide the tools farmers need to produce their commodities, from seed, chemical and feed companies to equipment manufacturers and implement dealers. Together, these agriculture-related businesses employ nearly one of every four Illinois workers.
One of those employees is Amy Bliefnick, manager of the state fair in Springfield. She says that the agriculture focus of the fair makes it a fun, educational and hands-on experience for families.
“We have nearly 10,000 animals at the fair, including some of the finest livestock in the country, and we have over 8,000 competitions, the majority of which revolve around agriculture,” Bliefnick says of the Springfield fair. “You can go into any of the barns during the fair and talk with families that have competed for generations. The fair has been, and continues to be, an important part of Illinois history.”
Bliefnick says the fair provides the perfect opportunity for young and old, rural and urban residents to learn about the state’s agriculture industry in a way that makes a real impact.
For children, there’s Farmer’s Little Helpers, a hands-on experience where kids do the tasks of a farmer on a small, simulated scale – gathering seed, feeding pretend animals, harvesting vegetables, selling produce, and reaping the benefits.
Adults get hands-on experience at the fair, too.
“You can milk a cow, get an up-close look at the implements farmers use to plant and harvest their fields, talk to young people about caring for animals, and sample and buy Illinois agriculture products,” Bliefnick says. “Once you’ve had that kind of experience, it helps you better understand the work, the investment and the dedication of Illinois farmers.”
While Bliefnick acknowledges that many fairgoers come for the entertainment, she says they’ll actually come away with a lot more than that. “The fair started as a way to showcase agriculture, and it’s still the heart of the fair,” she says. “If you come for the rides and the concerts, we make sure that while you’re here you get a taste of the agriculture industry and an understanding of how it impacts you.”