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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016 12:20 am

Fair deal

Turning the state fair into an expo of real rural life

When the Illinois State Fair was first staged in 1853, country people went there to see other country people. Later, city people went to see country people. These days  –  well, I’m not sure what people go to see at the fair. For decades, managers have tried to stage a one-size-fits-all fair, a combination agricultural exposition, summer music festival and carnival and did none of them very well.

In my view, the fair languishes for want of imagination and location, but if you believe all the talk from state officials, it’s for want of decent shingling and wiring. The two state fairgrounds we are told, need $180 million of repairs. Amanda Vinicky of WUIS quoted one old-timer who said, “It’s embarrassing when you walk by a sheep barn or a pig barn and the roof . . . . leaks.” Wet sheep are an abomination, I agree, but while that might keep sheep away from the fair I don’t know what it has to do with the decline in human attendance.

Any problem that you think you can fix looks important, I guess, and the governor thinks he can fix the problem of the fair by setting up a foundation to attract enough “charitable” donations from ag-related industries to pay to rebuild and maintain the fairgrounds. That will win him the sheep vote in 2018, but the rest of us have reasons to be skeptical. In a state in which so much capital-letter stuff – Education, History, Science – is underfunded, does it make sense to tap what limited free money is out there for Fun? As for the spending that might be made possible by the new fair foundation, who will set the priorities. The public? Fair managers? The donors?

As has been pointed out by alert citizens, the governor’s mansion has had a foundation since 1972 and the place is falling apart. The state historical library has had a foundation for more than a decade and the library can’t afford to staff itself. The Illinois State Museum has had a foundation since 1877 which does provide a substantial part of the museum’s funding, but only because a substantial part of the budget of an underfunded institution is not that much money.

A larger question is, why would the state’s agribusiness giants donate to such a foundation at all? The big ag businesses already stage farm progress shows that appeal directly to their customers; showing their latest combines to a bunch of slickers won’t add a penny to their stock price. However, sponsoring the fair would buy these firms a lot of goodwill, thus softening the beaches for the next assault on the state treasury by agribusinesses like ADM looking for tax breaks.

In effect, Rauner wishes to turn the state fair into lobbyists’ lunch. Fine; he bought state government, so he has the right to do with it what he wants. But if the sole purpose of the fair is to promote private industry, then he should lease the fairgrounds to private industry and let them use it however they want.

Or we could find a new public purpose for the fair. Its value as an exposition has been mooted by improvements in rural transportation and digital communications and by farmers’ own sophistication. These days, it is the slickers who are the rubes, at least when it comes to knowledge about the Illinois that lies between the interstates. How about we let the Deeres and Monsantos and Cargills have their say in return for the public’s getting a say. I see a fair that is not a trade show or a petting zoo or food mall like the present version but a kind of Abe World devoted to contemporary agri-industry that exploits all the whiz-bang possibilities of digital tech to teach fairgoers about real life in the contemporary Illinois countryside. Imagine a tent devoted to the flow of excess fertilizers through the ecosystem, another that charts the costs of subsidies and tariffs that prop up the fuel ethanol industry, yet another that uses animations to show the emptying of rural precincts since the Civil War.

Think of it. An exhibit that compares urban and rural populations by weight and age and education and consumption of public monies, and IMAX-type films recalling the myriad creatures like the monarch butterfly that are becoming rare because the countryside has been plowed and sprayed from county line to county line. Mixed with the food stands would be interactive kiosks explaining what really goes into our favorite foods. Rather than display prize hogs raised on velvet cushions, set up a hog confinement operation on the grounds so the slickers can see (and smell) what it costs the pigs to put those yummy Bacon-Wrapped Pork Wings in your tummy. It would be a midway of marvels, a farm fair for the 21st century that even a Montanan like Bruce Rauner could be proud of.   
Contact James Krohe Jr. at


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