FUNNY BUSINESS: Land sakes! State Fair celebrates farms of all sizes

August 21, 2006

I take a back seat to no one in my love of the Indiana State Fair. I haven't missed one in about 35 years-including those years when the fair seemed outmoded, doomed to go the way of the Model T and the icebox.

I was there when it struggled through the Injun Andy mascot debacle, the concerts with attendance numbering in the dozens, and the shocking revelation that elephant ears did not come from actual elephants.

And so I have been happy and proud to see the fair transform itself into a runaway success, with record attendance, wonderful attractions, great programming and spiffy improvements to the fairgrounds. It has become an event to rival the legendary state fairs of Texas and Minnesota and Iowa. For me, it's the highlight of the summer and a wonderful celebration of our state and its people.

However ...

As a Hoosier In Good Standing (with Born In A Small Town and Family Farm Background bonus points), I am aware of a myth that ran rampant yet again this fair season-one where Indiana is a land where Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Jehosephat and Aunt Tarnation still work the farm, fetching things and heading out to the Back Forty, peppering their conversations with ruralisms like "Land sakes!" and "My stars!" and "Don't that beat all get out!"

I call it the Green Acres Phenomenon-the persistent urban belief that there exists a bucolic life near a place called Hooterville. Check your maps, folks. There is no Hooterville in Indiana. Well, actually, there IS a Hooterville, but I don't think a nightclub on Pendleton Pike counts as bucolic.

Now, most of our farms are still family farms-which, let's remember, is another way to say "family business"-and Indiana still has a powerful agricultural presence. We are the nation's No.1 duck provider and place fifth in production of hogs, laying hens and corn, according to the 2002 Census of Agriculture State Profile. But then, you probably knew that from having your own copy, right there on the nightstand.

Nowadays, farming in general, and that includes Indiana, has more in common with Archer Daniels Midland than Oliver Wendell Douglas, and it doesn't matter if Arnold Ziffel is the smartest person-I mean, pig-in town; he's still going to wind up as bacon.

In the years I have attended the fair without fail (I missed a few during kidhood), the number of farms in Indiana has declined from 103,000 (1972) to 59,000 (a week ago Tuesday). Looks to me like Grandma and Grandpa sold, either to that nice man with the plans for a subdivision or those folks from the food conglomerate. Uncle J and Aunt T might still live in the old house (Grandma and Grandpa moved to Florida), but they got jobs in town.

I know. Maybe they decided to buy out the neighbors and grow the farm into one of those multi-thousand-acre behemoths, big enough to have its own ZIP code, or started factory farming for the food conglomerates.

So where does the State Fair come in? Glad you asked.

Since we can see the farming of yesteryear at the beloved Pioneer Village (or, as I also like to call it, Amish Tomorrowland), maybe we should have another place set aside to reflect the new reality:

"Attention, fair-goers: Don't forget to visit the Worldwide Food Factory Farm Funland! Stop by Swoon Lagoon for our hourly presentations on Modern Manure Management (not to be confused with the seminar of the same name over at the Statehouse). You'll want to see our laugha-minute comedy show, Big Fat Fun With Corn Syrup, so stick around. And be sure to sample some of our fine factory farm products--Cheek-by-Jowl Bacon, De-Ranged Chicken and Milk From Discontented Cows!"

OK, maybe not. I just creeped myself out.

Besides, I saw a statistic from the Indiana Agricultural Statistics Service showing another transformation: Significant growth-that's right, growth-in small farms, those between 10 and 49 acres.

Some are play farms owned by Olivers and Lisas moving out from the city, sure, but there is a notable increase in niche farms, raising everything from elk and buffalo to organic foods and fresh flowers. They maintain close relationships with consumers and put the lie to the notion that the small farmer is doomed to extinction. The people who run them are nothing like the goobers you saw hanging around Drucker's Store on TV. They're smart, savvy, hard-working and committed to small farming, smart business and the state of Indiana.

Which may beat all get out. Or not. I can't say for sure because I don't really know what that means. I may be a Hoosier with a farm background, but nobody in our family ever talked like that. We spoke English.



Mike Redmond is an author, columnist and speaker, and a consultant on business writing and workplace issues. His column appears monthly.You can reach him at mredmond@ibj.com.
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