I have a confession. Up until this year, I was terrible at state-fairing. I always went with grandiose plans to learn new things, experience the unknown and eat modestly. In the end, the cheese curds won, my digestion lost and I would end up in the poultry building in a sort of grease induced hallucination totally enchanted by the cacophony of bird noises.
This year, I had a firmer resolve and went out to the Minnesota State Fair on the first day with great plans to tour around and have a wholesome fair experience. It started out great! I did not get carried away by the crowds, my first meal was a jerk chicken roti wrap, I wandered around the Creative Activities building gazing at woodwork and pies, and made it to the Eco-experience building without a single deep fried morsel residing in my belly.
The Eco-Experience building is one of the newer ones on the fair grounds and is located in the northern section of the fair, near the North Woods (think lumber jacks and meat!) This makes it a nice option for the times when the fair is really crowded, for it seems like the northern part of the fair is always a bit less busy. The new building is also quite airy and cool with free water and nice restrooms!
Once there, prepare to be overwhelmed with options. From electric cars and motorcycles to chicken coops and rain gardens, this one building really does host just about every element of what is happening in the "green" world. Before you even enter, there are folks outside ready to show off solar panels and wind turbines.
Once inside, you will find the building divided up and featuring sections dealing with: air, water, solar, transportation, recycling and compost, local foods and farms, a kids area, model green homes and products, live native plantings for rain gardens, and two stages. When I was there, Mark Dayton was presenting awards to companies for environmental advancement and action, while the other had a chef doing a demonstration about grilled fruit.
Within each of these areas of focus, there is something interactive to engage the onlooker and often someone to facilitate the experience and answer questions. For example, in the local foods area there are large displays made of wire and wood with big picture questions and an opportunity to write your answers on cards and hang them for all to consider. The water area has a tool demonstrating water clarity and a table for kids to "make" streams and learn about water flow.
The hands on quality of everything really does seem to work to pull people in and engage them in green issues. I heard countless conversations start up between curious observers and the experts available in the building. The chicken coop with live chickens was really popular as people commented, "Wouldn't that be fun to have backyard chickens...what a good idea!".
My favorite aspect of the Eco-exprience building is, of course, the food corner. Particularly the CSA spotlight, where a different CSA farm gets to put photos on display and has a sign-up form for new members. According to Brett Olson, Creative Director of Renewing the Countryside, the CSA farmers who were at last years event had quite a bit of luck recruiting new members. In the Healthy Local Foods area, you will also find samples of local food, from apples, milk and coffee, to whatever the current chef behind the demo area is cooking up.
I had some time to speak with the folks of Treasured Haven Farm in Rush City, Minnesota. They see the opportunities at the fair as two-fold. While they gained eight new members last year, they made it clear that of equal importance is the opportunity for their members to come and meet them face to face.
As I left the Eco-Experience building, feeling really good about myself and determined to get some backyard chickens and grill some peaches, I suddenly found myself in front of a cheese curd and frozen lemonade stand. I was weak and of course I gave in. It was the end of me. All plans to continue on to the Articulture Horticulture building were derailed and I was left wondering how the smell of fried foods can have so much power over me. (Even now, I am trying to decide whether I will get the fried green tomatoes or a fried pickle next time.) Oh well, at the fair, it is all about little victories, and in the case of the Eco-experience, there are important little victories happening daily.