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Has the Indiana State Fair abandoned livestock ag?
Hoosier Ag Today
It is a year of change and adjustment at the Indiana State Fair. It is change driven by the much-needed and long overdue renovation of the centerpiece of the fairgrounds: the Coliseum. The temporary closure of the historic facility has forced the many livestock shows traditionally held in the cavernous arena to be moved elsewhere. To the credit of the State Fair Board, what could have been a chaotic mess has actually gone relatively smoothly. This is not to say everyone is happy and some toes have been stepped on. But recently the rural rumor mill has gone into action with stories about what will happen in 2014.

Shortly after the 2013 fair began, rumors began to circulate among the Hoosier livestock community that many, if not all, of the livestock shows would not be returning to the refurbished Coliseum in 2014. An editorial on the Indiana Prairie Farmer website poured gasoline on the smoldering fire. “What’s really at stake is which direction is the Indiana State Fair going to go, and who is going to control it?’ wrote Tom Bechman. “Is it going to abandon its agricultural roots, even if paid officials say otherwise, and opt for more concerts that appeal to an urban audience? Or is it going to remain one of the strongest agricultural state fairs left in America, and do all it can to encourage livestock shows?” Shortly after its publication, phones began to ring at County Extension offices with irate callers. This forced Purdue Extension to issue an advisory to all of its offices stating Purdue had no involvement in the scheduling of events at the State Fair.

The rumor mill and Prairie Farmer have failed to take two things into account: the big picture and the facts of the situation. The Coliseum, the mecca for livestock shows in Indiana, was literally falling down around us, thus a two-year, $53 million dollar renovation was needed. The dilemma facing the Fair Board was what do you do with all those State Fair livestock events. 
A temporary facility could have been constructed of a tent used in a parking lot,  but members of the State Fair Board and State Fair Commission had a grander vision: a second livestock show complex adjacent to the Coliseum. 

The new Youth Arena is a state of the art complex specifically designed for livestock shows and competitions. It has improved lighting, improved seating, and an improved PA system. I found watching a livestock show in this venue far more enjoyable than metal bleachers in the Swine Barn or wooden seats 250 yards away from the arena in the Coliseum. 

As for the accusation that the Indiana State Fair is moving away from an emphasis on agriculture, it is simply not possible for that to happen. As Steve Simmerman, president of the State Fair Board, explained to me the State Fair, by statute, is required to make agriculture and youth the centerpiece of the Fair, “Our mission statement is to support and promote agriculture, youth development, and education.” While I understand the history and heritage of the Coliseum to livestock exhibitors and 4-H, holding an event in a different, but equally as grand and perhaps more appropriate facility is not a slap in face or denigration of the event or the people who participate in it. 

Simmerman stated there WILL be livestock events in the new Coliseum including the Grand Drive and the Celebration Awards. However, not all of the livestock events will likely be scheduled in the Coliseum, “We are working right now on evaluating which livestock events will work best in which facility.” He said the determination will be made on the size of the show, the size of the animals, the crowd that is likely to attend, and safety considerations. There will be some livestock shows that will move to the new Youth Arena in 2014. Does this mean these events are less important? NO. 

In many cases having some of these events in the Youth Arena will actually improve the show.  

The Prairie Farmer article claimed that, “What happens when the Coliseum reopens in 2014 could set the stage for what kind of State Fair your kids will grow up with in the future.” This is true, the events held in the Coliseum will be a mix of livestock events and big name entertainment, which is what the State Fair needs to be. While agriculture will always be the center of the Fair, it also must have attractions that appeal of all Hoosiers. “The majority of the days in the Coliseum in 2014 will be filled with livestock events, animal events, and youth education,” said Simmerman. 

4-H is about “Making the best, better.” The changes taking place at the Indiana State Fair are motivated by the same desire. Following the tragedy in 2011, changes needed to be made. The changes being made, however, do not represent a backing away from reducing support or promotion of agriculture or livestock. I would encourage all in agriculture to strongly support their State Fair. In 2011 we saw just how much negativity there is in the general public toward state fairs. More than ever the farm community needs to be behind our state fairs and their support of agriculture.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers with questions or comments for Gary Truitt may write to him in care of this publication.
8/16/2013