The Butter Cow, sculpted by West Des Moines artist Sarah Pratt, is one of the most popular attractions at the fair. The life-size sculpture made entirely of butter has been the icon of the fair since 1911. On Sunday, Aug. 11, the animal-rights group Iowans for Animal Liberation attacked the sacred symbol of the Iowa State Fair — the Butter Cow. Fair personnel scraped the red-painted “Freedom for All” off the life-sized sculpture and applied a fresh coat of butter before the fair opened for the day, but still, Iowans were incensed. This was the iconic Butter Cow after all — a fair highlight since 1911. And this was the Iowa State Fair, sacred ground to beef producers and those who support them.
The Iowa State Fair is one of the largest in the country and the inspiration for stage and song. Phil Strong’s novel State Fair was written about the Iowa State Fair and spawned a Broadway musical and three movies. It’s listed in the New York Times’ “1,000 Places to See in the U.S.A. and Canada Before You Die.”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad orders his hot beef sundae from the Cattlemen’s Beef Quarters. Branstad says, “In Iowa, we do anything we can to support our beef producers.” More than 1 million people pass through its gates each year.
Yet, the Iowa fair remains at its heart a celebration of agriculture. The Ag Building, where the Butter Cow resides, is filled with corn, vegetables and honey. The barns are filled with animals, and five show rings stay active throughout the 11-day event. In all, more than 60,000 exhibits are on display.
“I think Iowa is very unique when you compare it to other states just in the way we do everything we can to get agriculture in front of folks, whether that’s livestock or crops or ag manufacturing within the state,” says Matt Deppe, CEO of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association (ICA).
Justin Stiens takes the day off from his full-time job at Nichols Farms to spend the day serving up beef at the Cattlemen’s Beef Quarters during the 2013 Iowa State Fair. Stiens is president of the Adair County Cattlemen, one of 70 county organizations that provide 1,200 volunteers each fair to staff the popular dining spot. For the ICA and the Iowa Beef Industry Council, the effort begins the first Saturday of the fair with the Governor’s Charity Steer Show, an annual event that raises money for Ronald McDonald houses. This year’s show raised $185,000 as 25 prize animals, led through the ring by celebrities like Gov. Terry Branstad, Market to Market host Mike Pearson and PRCA calf roping champion Billy Huber, were purchased by generous donors.