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Fairgoers, officials set right example (commentary)Fairgoers, officials set right example (commentary)

Joy Philippi 1

September 12, 2014

4 Min Read
Fairgoers, officials set right example (commentary)

LAST year, when vandals attempted to destroy the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair, fair officials chose to play it cool. The cow was repaired, the paint mess was cleaned up and the show continued.

One year later, Iowa State Fair manager and chief executive officer Gary Slater explained, "There was no reason for us to make a big deal out of the incident. We were confident those responsible would step forward in the media."

That is exactly what happened. The cow attackers had to issue a press release to claim responsibility hours after the vandalism was discovered. What this extremist group did not expect was to have its message countered by thousands of activists who would purchase "Butter Cow Security" T-shirts last year and again in 2014 to express their support for agriculture.

These authentic pro-agriculture activists did not jump on a soapbox and emotionally condemn the actions of the offenders. They understood that doing so would merely open the door for extremist groups to use their own emotional rhetoric to mislead the public.

A few veteran exhibitors at the fair's Agricultural Building thought the lines to view the butter cow and the companion exhibit were longer this year. Some speculated that it was the result of last year's incident, while others thought it was because Kevin Costner starred in the movie "Field of Dreams" in the companion display.

While waiting in line, one farmer from northeast Iowa said, "This is Iowa, this is our cow and our state fair tradition." His butter-yellow shirt made all the statement that needed to be said.

His sentiment was easy to understand. Many multigenerational family photographs were posted in front of the butter cow. There was no pushing, shoving or yelling as the line paused to see these photos. The cow belongs to everyone who views her and is a fair tradition.

Slater reported that a few precautionary security changes were made to the Agricultural Building this year.

"The amazing thing about the incident last year was the immediate show of support by fairgoers. It was important to make changes that would protect the display and maintain the traditional atmosphere in the building," he explained.

Five artists have sculpted the butter cows, including the current artist, Sarah Platt. Platt took over the duties from Norma "Duffy" Lyon after being an apprentice for 15 years.

Slater called Lyon "a one-of-a-kind individual. As an artist, she was dedicated to creating the butter cow and the companion displays for the enjoyment of fairgoers. Before a fair ended, she was already thinking about the theme and design for the next display."

It was Platt who responded in the early morning hours the day the cow was covered with red paint. "Sarah was here within minutes to begin removing the red paint," Slater reported. "She, like the rest of us, understood that returning the display to its original form was important to our visitors, to agriculture and to Iowa."

The frame of the butter cow is covered with low-moisture, pure-cream Iowa butter and weighs about 600 lb. According to fair officials, that is enough butter to cover 19,200 pieces of toast. Much of the butter is recycled and reused for up to 10 years, putting to rest the concerns of those who think sculpting with butter is a waste of food.

Athletes, actors, astronauts, scientists and historic events of importance to Iowa and the nation have been sculpted in the companion displays since 1996. The companion display offers the opportunity to fill the communication gap that can exist in a state known for its diverse opinions about agriculture.

Noted public administration scholar C. Northcote Parkinson once said, "The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel and misrepresentation."

The butter display is just one of many venues at the Iowa fair dedicated to filling the communication void and turning the rhetoric of extremists into positive conversations about agriculture.

Last year, Iowa State Fair officials made a good call. They filled the void first with positive actions that were reported to the media without issuing a press statement speculating which group might be responsible for the vandalism.

Parkinson is right that the void needs to be filled. The positive actions by fair officials and the pro-agriculture activists in Iowa who want to honor, serve and protect the heritage represented by the butter cow are good examples of how to get it right.

*Joy Philippi is a fourth-generation Nebraska farmer and pork producer and partners with her parents in Philippi Farms. She has been active in agricultural advocacy for many years and is a former president of the National Pork Producers Council and Nebraska Pork Producers Assn. and a past board member of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture.

Volume:86 Issue:38

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