On a stick or in a barn, Iowa State Fair attractions captivate

One of state's largest yearly attractions runs through Aug. 20

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DES MOINES — Five-year-old Barrett Clark stands 45 inches tall. The corn dog he wanted for lunch clocked in at 12.

“Do you think you guys can handle a corn dog that big?” mom Naomi Clark asked him and Liberty, his 8-year-old sister.

Thursday was the Clarks’ first time at the Iowa State Fair. The Dubuque family had seen plenty of food options before landing at the stand that proudly advertised foot-long corn dogs and Cheeze on a Stick as its main items.

“They’re tempting me,” Barrett said, looking up at his mom behind glasses and a mess of sandy blond curls.

They already had made the rounds through the carnival rides — “the Magic Maze!” Liberty said as she jumped up from her seat on the curb — and seemed settled on an enormous, battered, fried, on-a-stick dish.

“I think today is just about the experience, the quintessential fair experience,” Naomi Clark said. “And we’ll eat healthy tomorrow.”

The allures of the Iowa State Fair are many — the livestock shows, the legendary butter cow, the rotation of newborn piglets, chicks and calves. Thousands of Iowans and out-of-staters typically flock to the fair in Des Moines; last year’s opening day saw more than 70,000 people.

For Barrett, Liberty and scores of others kids in their last weeks of summer, the main draw on this year’s opening day was clear: the seemingly endless iterations of foods on sticks.

Around the corner from the corn dogs, Dublin Loy sat cross-legged on the ground and bit into a yellow, spongy, jammed-with-sugar treat.

“Deep-fried Twinkie,” Dublin, 11, sighed. “There’s not anything good enough” as it outside the boundaries of the fair, he said.

He and his brothers, 9-year-old Jonas and 7-year-old Hobson, all leaned into their fluffy snacks. Later, their dance troupe would perform to hip-hop, jazz and lyrical music.

“Usually your summers are sort of off for dance, so they get to get back together with their friends,” said their mother, Jill Loy of Des Moines. “They’re always happy to be back at it.”

BEEF, SHEEP AND SWINE

Seeing old friends and meeting new people was the draw for Ryan Orr, 17, who was stationed at the opposite end of the fair. His family has shown sheep at the fair for nearly a decade.

“The thing for me is, I like it because we’re all together,” said Ryan’s mother, Traci Orr, 48, standing with her son, daughter and husband. “Not just the four of us, but my brother and his family and my mom and dad. It’s something we all do as a family.”

She patted 6-month-old sheep Bryant — named for Chicago Cubs’ third baseman Kris Bryant — and his sheared hair, cut so short it was like felt to touch.

Back home in Columbus Junction, the family is awake at 4 a.m. most days to drive out to the barn where they keep their sheep and goats. It’s work, the family admits, but it makes them closer.

Competing at the fair “is just relaxing to me,” said Ryan as he held Bryant’s brother, Henry. “You just go out and do the best you can.”

That’s not to say it’s easy. The Sheep Barn was filled with the guttural sound of sheep bleating, handlers retrimming their stock and judges on loudspeakers examining those in the center of the barn. Walking through the place and dodging sheep droppings could be a sport in itself.

There aren’t handheld foods in the barn, but they’re not completely absent. The purpose of the sheep is made clear on educational exhibits inside — “Sheep are raised to give us meat and wool,” read a sign posted at a child’s eye-level, bold emphasis on the “meat.”

Just steps outside the Sheep Barn, the smell of manure is almost immediately replaced by the wafting scents of lamb burgers and lamb sausage — on a stick — sold by the Iowa Sheep Industry Association.

The food stand’s manager Chuck Johnson, 54, loaded sliced leg of lamb, lettuce, tomato and cucumber sauce into folded pita bread and handed it out of the stand window to a customer.

His stand usually is right outside the sheep barn, he said, “as a promotion for the meat.”

The realities of the state’s agricultural economy were scattered across the fairgrounds.

In the Animal Learning Center, a sow birthed 14 piglets throughout the day, as adults and small children alike crowded around to see the stumbling, 2-pound, pink animals suckling their exhausted mother.

Nearby, Rachel Stika, a 21-year-old Iowa State University veterinary student, stood by and answered questions from fairgoers, many of whom had never been so close to a farm animal.

Stika, of Cresco, said she hopes to work primarily with beef, sheep and swine.

“I really like working with farmers and producers because they are people with big hearts,” she said. “They’re passionate about feeding the world.”


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