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4-H members exhibited 4,085 livestock projects at the 2017 South Dakota State Fair. (Michelle Rook/Special to Agweek)

South Dakota State Fair stays true to its roots

HURON, S.D. — While many state fairs have changed over the years to cater to a more urban crowd, the South Dakota State Fair has remained rich in agricultural tradition.

Dating all the way back to 1885, the fair has held true to its roots.

"It's to showcase agriculture," says South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Mike Jaspers. "We are considered one of the true dirt fairs in the country here left. And that's really the whole reason for the fair — to showcase agriculture, have kind of a homecoming for South Dakotans to get back to our roots."

This year's South Dakota State Fair ran Aug. 30-Sept. 4, and the heart of the event continues to be the 4-H youth. From livestock shows to static exhibits, number were up this year with 15,336 total projects.

"State Fair is really the culmination of their project year," says Donna Bittiker, South Dakota State 4-H program director. "It's a chance to showcase what they've been working on all year and promote it to the general public."

Bittiker reports that 4-H members exhibited 4,085 livestock projects. While traditional livestock species like pigs and cattle are still popular, there is growing interest in small animals, especially chickens and meat goats.

"Those project areas that youth can do on small acreages and in urban areas are biggest growth areas," she says.

Farm groups use the fair to promote the agricultural industry. At their booth, the South Dakota Pork Producers are busy serving an average of 2,000 pork loin sandwiches a day.

"We'll go through roughly about 4,500 pounds of pork over the fair," says Ryan Storm, South Dakota Pork Producers Council President.

He believes it's a great opportunity to talk to consumers about the versatility of pork and show them, when properly cooked, how delicious it can be as an entrée.

"We're getting the product out to the public, so the public can see what tastes good," Storm says.

Some fairgoers already know that however, so they also have many repeat customers.

"We actually have a reputation, because people have been to our booth before and enjoyed a great delicious sandwich, and they remember us," he says.

Dairy producers also shared the importance of dairy in the diet through ice cream and milk sales, as well as cheese carving. Doug Dutenhoeffer was back for a second year to carve the South Dakota State Fair logo, and it took him several hours to complete the masterpiece.

He claims cheddar is the best cheese for carving and says it's both fun for the kids and a great way to promote the nutrition of dairy products.

"Cheese is a great product, and it's good for you," Dutenhoeffer says.

Thursday was Value Added Agriculture Day which featured various ways for farmers to diversify their operations in a time of low commodity prices. A wide variety of businesses exhibited their products including honey, wine and spirits, Aronia berry juice, hops, fresh produce and goat meat.

"We can have some higher value non-GMO soybeans, the ancient grains, things like that, that offer farmers an alternative to the traditional crops," says Cheri Rath, executive director for the Value Added Ag Center.

Rath says it also helps to provide an economic boost in rural areas.

"It's giving some revitalization to our smaller communities. We don't need to have the big companies — we can have some small farmers coming in and doing that," she says.

Plus, thousands of consumers learn how important farming is to the state through activities and livestock displays at the FFA Ag Adventure Center.

"We like to have activities that kids like and that they're going to learn something from, but we also want to educate the parent and make sure that they know where their food is coming from, and the importance of what farmers do every day," says Taylor Krause, FFA Ag Adventure Center director.

Krause says the new Cargill Learning Center was a popular attraction, as well as the livestock and poultry displays.

"The pigs would be the most popular," she says. "There's a lot of people stopping by and seeing if the pigs have farrowed."

Krause believes many fairgoers want to know where their food comes from, and the learning center may be their only experience with agriculture.

"It's also giving people who might not ever really get to visit a farm something that they can go and see. It's pretty realistic and representative of what they'll see at a real farm," she says.

The FFA Ag Adventure Center was new to the fair last year after a revamp of the old animal nursery, and since then, they have hosted thousands of fairgoers.