Iowa State Fair

Iowa Press | Episode
Jul 5, 2024 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Jeremy Parsons, Iowa State Fair CEO and manager, and Peter Cownie, executive director of the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation, discuss how the fair is evolving, what's new this year, renovations and more.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, and Linh Ta, reporter for Axios Des Moines.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa and Iowa Bankers Association.

Recorded: July 2, 2024



The 2024 Iowa State Fair is just a little more than a month away. We'll talk with State Fair Executives about what is new at the Fair this year and how the Fair and the Fairgrounds continue to change on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite's 1,600 employees are our company's greatest asset. A family run business, Elite supports volunteerism, encourages promotions from within, and shares profits with our employees.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at


For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, July 5th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: We'll begin this episode with a little quiz for you at home. What Iowa exposition has been the subject of a 1932 novel, three movies and a Broadway play? If you guessed the Iowa State Fair, give yourself a blue ribbon. Our guests today are two people who are in charge of the blue ribbons that will be handed out at the 2024 Iowa State Fair in August. They are Peter Cownie, he is the CEO of the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation. He has been there since 2013 I believe.

Cownie: Yes, thank you, great to be here.

Henderson: Welcome. And Jeremy Parsons is the CEO and General Manager of the Iowa State Fair since March of 2023. This will be year number two.

Parsons: Correct.

Henderson: What are the dates?

Parsons: August 8 through the 18th. I've got that right to start with, I think.


Henderson: Well, joining our conversation about all things Iowa State Fair are Linh Ta of Axios Des Moines and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Jeremy, we wanted to ask you, the livestock industry right now is dealing with the bird flu outbreak, which this most recent outbreak has infected cattle, dairy cattle herds. Tell us about steps that are being taken and what preparations are being made to manage that and avoid the spread of that among cattle herds as cattle exhibitions come to the Fair?

Parsons: Yeah, obviously the Iowa State Fair is kind of the cornerstone of the whole Iowa County Fair system and more than 100 county fairs in the state. That's a whole other conversation on 99 counties and more than 100 county fairs. But those county fairs right now are feeding into the Iowa State Fair and having their own exhibitions. So, guidance of course came out from the State Veterinarian and the Iowa Department of Agriculture on some guidelines specifically for dairy cattle. Obviously high path avian influenza transmitting into dairy cattle and so we want to keep those dairy cattle herds safe. So, as the county fairs adjust with some new testing that has been put out by IDALS, we at the State Fair are evaluating our programming right now and we'll soon be making some announcements. Obviously, it's easily transmissible between dairy herds. And what do you do at a Fair? You bring a lot of dairy herds together. So, we're just working through some things right now that there will still be a dairy show at this year's Iowa State Fair. Some of the other features though like the milking parlor and the Boulevard of Breeds might look a little different, but definitely still be representing the Iowa dairy industry this year.

Murphy: And to that, there is some time between now and August 8th. Is there the potential that those exhibitions may have to be constricted even more if not canceled all together?

Parsons: Yeah, I think that is a question obviously for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and obviously guidance changes. But yes, you're correct. If you think back to a few years ago with the poultry industry, some fairs had those poultry shows, some did not as guidance changed and all those types of things. So, again, always in close communication. Our job is to showcase all of Iowa agriculture at its peak and so we want to make sure we're keeping those livestock safe.

Ta: Last year the Iowa State Fair required vendors to start using credit cards. It felt like a major change for the Fair. Can you talk a little bit about kind of what has come from that? Have you guys been able to have more financial transparency or has it eased the process for people visiting the Fair?

Parsons: Well, I think the first question everyone says is, has the Iowa State Fair gone cashless? And the answer to that is no. We accept all payments. And to your point, we just allowed vendors to be able to accept credit cards. And really the main reason we did that, quite frankly, is the changing consumer. Obviously more people today are cashless themselves. They want to pay with a card. And so really, we wanted to be responsive to our fairgoers' needs. Through that though obviously in our Clover system, which is basically the behind-the-scenes credit card processing system, we're able to track those transactions that are occurring and really gather more information on what fairgoers are eating and drinking and enjoy, which helps us from a planning perspective as well.

Ta: Are there any interesting trends you learned from last year?

Parsons: You know, I think what's interesting is more and more people going cashless. One of our problems at the Iowa State Fair was the fact that we didn't have enough ATMs, obviously put your card in and getting cash out, that usage is declining because as people can use cards more. And again, I think you're just seeing that ultimately the Fair is a business like any other business and so you see that whatever the consumer wants, that is the direction we need to go.

Henderson: Peter Cownie, the Foundation that you lead was launched in I believe 1993 and you've raised about $200 million dollars. What, when I go to the Fair in August, will I see that is brand new, redone? And what is the next project you're aiming towards?

Cownie: Sure. Well, thank you. Yes, the Blue Ribbon Foundation is 31 years old. We are the fundraising arm of the Iowa State Fair. We raise funds for all of the capital improvements on the Fairgrounds. And it has been a great story to tell because of the generosity of Iowans who have helped rebuild the Iowa State Fair, literally. And it's an interesting story. It kind of started about 31 years ago because of an editorial written in the Des Moines Register that brought the Fair to task for how it was falling apart and how the Iowa State Fair is supposed to be a showcase and a celebration for the great state of Iowa, but we go out to the Iowa State Fairgrounds and we see roofs leaking, we see sidewalks crumbling and this is supposed to be the showcase and this has become an embarrassment. So, I really do credit the Des Moines Register with that and I do credit the generosity of Iowans for helping revitalize the Iowa State Fair to what it has become today, the idol of the nation. But for this year specifically, we're undergoing kind of a historic renovation of all of the livestock barns, horse, swine, cattle and sheep. And we're going to do opening ceremonies at the sheep barn, which is going to be very close to being done. And then we're going to make an announcement at that time for the next renovation of a barn. So, I'll keep you in suspense for that. But the renovation of these barns, it really represents what the Iowa State Fair is all about, 4-H, FFA youth, showing at the county fair system all summer long to be able to climax at the Iowa State Fair and for us to be able to continue that tradition with the generosity of Iowans is really pretty special.

Henderson: Are any of those barns on the National Register of Historic Places?

Cownie: They are. The Iowa State Fairgrounds itself is on the National Registry. What I like to say about the barn renovation, it's more of a restoration. They are going to be maintained in the shape that they are in, but they have major infrastructure improvements that have been needed and neglected over the past 100 years. We have water issues, we have electrical issues, we have roof issues, bathroom issues, that's a big deal at the Iowa State Fair to be able to provide new bathrooms. So, we're going to do all of those types of things at these barns and fairgoers are going to be able to see this with their own eyes.

Murphy: I wanted to talk to both of you gentlemen about this. Jeremy, I'll start with you. If you look at maybe at a parallel in the secondary education system where students are being asked to shoulder a little bit more of the burden, the costs of going to college, you've got kind of different pots of revenue and sources in a state fair's operating budget. Do state fairgoers, as the costs of fairs continue to increase like anything else, will state fairgoers see that? And how do you manage those different pots in relationship to each other?

Parsons: Yeah, that's a great question. Like any business operating in the state of Iowa today, inflation has affected us, whether that is more costs for employees, for salaries, whether that is more costs for utilities, whatever it might be. And so, we're very pleased this year at the Iowa State Fair to hold the line in terms of admission price. There was no admission price increase for this year. So, it costs you the same to get into the Fair as last year. In fact, our focus this year really is on building that value for the fairgoer. So, you're going to see additional free entertainment offerings. For many years, the Fair has charged a separate admission price to the nightly horse shows in the Jacobson Exhibition Center. This year those will be free for fairgoers to attend. So, trying to build that value. Across the board, though, you look at really the Fair is a combination of a bunch of small businesses, all of those vendors selling food or those vendors selling items in the Varied Industries Building, they are independent mom and pop operations themselves. So, their pricing is adjusting based on what they're seeing.

Murphy: And Peter Cownie, does your organization feel an obligation to meet a certain level of fundraising each year and maybe have to top yourself year after year to help in all of this?

Cownie: I think about it, I try not to put that out there because fundraising is cyclical, fundraising the economy macro factors affect fundraising no doubt. But we are totally blown away, excited, happy with the generosity of Iowans. People want to support the Iowa State Fair. They want to support the Blue Ribbon Foundation because they want the memories that they had as a kid for their own children and grandchildren to be able to have as well. So, every time you support the Iowa State Fair and you support the Blue Ribbon Foundation, you're helping everyone. And it's just as simple as that. To be able to have these new improvements, this air conditioning, restrooms, these things that sometimes are taken for granted, they're expensive. Everything is expensive. You talk about inflation, cost of construction has gone up considerably for us at the Iowa State Fair. And so that is our role to be able to help that for all fairgoers.

Murphy: And I'm just curious -- and help me, I can't get rid of the state government and politics reporter in me and I'm thinking about political campaigns - the State Fair, the Foundation fundraising, is it reliant on big dollar donors? Or is it the little five dollar, ten, twenty-five dollar donations?

Cownie: Yes, the Blue Ribbon Foundation, we were created by Iowa Code, the legislature back in 1993. And we are a 501c3, we're a separate entity technically from the Iowa State Fair authority and we are audited separately, we have a separate office, we have a separate bank account, separate funds. And we don't get any money from the state. Jeremy and I work hand-in-hand together, very well together, and I will say that is extremely important for the relationship and for the future of the Fair. But we raise money from, you can give, put your name on a brick. We have over 10,000 bricks. It costs $100 for a brick to put the name of yourself or a loved one. 10,000 bricks on the Fairgrounds, up to seven figure naming rights on a building for a major restoration. And that has all equated to over $200 million dollars in our time. We are extremely proud of that whether it has come from a five dollar gift up to a million dollar gift or more. And it takes a village.

Ta: Jeremy, the Iowa State Fair is one of the largest events in our state annually. With that comes making sure everyone is safe with it. Can you talk a little bit about some of security enhancements you guys have made over the last few years and if there is anything new that people can expect this year in comparison to last?

Parsons: You know, security is our number one priority at the Iowa State Fair. If people do not feel safe at the Iowa State Fair, they're not going to come. You think about that with your families when you go someplace you want to feel safe. So, we have made some huge strides over the past few years. Obviously when you come to the Fair this year, you'll again see the magnetometers, the metal detectors as you walk through the gates. We're fortunate at the Iowa State Fair, again we received permission several years ago to create our own in-house police department, so the Iowa State Fair Police Department fully certified like any law enforcement agency in the state. But then during the Fair we supplement with Iowa State Patrol, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, all sorts of state and federal agencies participate in helping us keep people safe. Those individuals plus new technology, more than 250 cameras are operating on the Iowa State Fairgrounds, really help us give this, create a safe place really for everyone. And really the focus has been over the past several years a $2.6 million renovation in addition to our public safety building that really has allowed us to go to the next level to have the facilities to keep our fairgoers safe.

Ta: And Peter, just talking about safety, it's hard to not think about severe weather, especially with the last year that we've had so far in the state. Can you talk just a little bit, how does it work at the Fair if there is severe weather that comes up? Are there buildings that people can go to? And are there any new infrastructure needs that you guys are looking at?

Cownie: Sure. Weather affects the Iowa State Fair. We all know this. We talk about whether it's a water day or a beer day depending on how high that temperature is or how low that temperature is. We all have funny anecdotes of seeing what it is. But when I think about the weather, and we all talk about attendance at the Fair, how many people are the Fair, how is weather going to dictate it? But I've kind of come to learn, when a family has made up their mind they're going to go to the Fair, they're going to go to the Fair no matter what that is. And you kind of see that. Even if it is rainy, they stay. You don't see a parade of cars getting out of there. So, it's kind of interesting. Everyone should sign up for the text alerts and we have a PA system as well, to where we try to direct people. It's kind of organic that people, the Varied Industries Building gets very popular during a rainstorm, no doubt. Vice President Pence got caught in there during a rainstorm two years ago.

Murphy: As did some reporters.

Henderson: There you go.

Cownie: Unbelievable timing of that situation. But yes, that is generally what happens.

Henderson: We've got a lot of things to talk about. Jeremy, how has booking Grandstand events changed over the years?

Parsons: Oh, tremendously. I think my previous role at the Clay County Fair in Spencer, then here in Des Moines, obviously more competition for the entertainment dollar. When you think back to several years ago, arenas, casinos, festivals really didn't exist. And the Fair, especially the Iowa State Fair Grandstand, really was the centerpiece of entertainment in Des Moines. So, the nitty gritty behind all of this is what is called radius clauses in our industry. And what that means is that if an act has committed at a certain venue, you draw a circle geographically so many miles out and that artist can't perform again in that area. And so, you think about this year, the challenge at the Iowa State Fair we've had with George Strait's big concert up in Ames and all of the entertainment out at the Iowa Speedway, it really makes competition within the venues in central Iowa much more. But for us this year, again, the Fair made a commitment several years ago to expand the Grandstand, which allows us to bring in the bigger acts and this year I'm really pleased with the fact that we only have three nights of country music in the Grandstand. And people probably say, well that's odd. But I think that speaks to an increasingly diverse Iowa. Not everybody is a country music fan. And so, this year we have really expanded the gamut of the type of entertainment we have in our Grandstand for sure.

Murphy: So, beyond the acts, what else is new at the State Fair this year, Jeremy? That could include is there any new policies that state fairgoers should be aware of? Any vendors? Any facility changes? What, for those folks that come every year, what might look different this year?

Parsons: Well, we hope this year you notice our renewed focus on what I call creature comforts. Obviously, when you come to the Iowa State Fair, as we've talked about, we want to be safe, whether the weather or those types of things. But we also want you to enjoy your time and be comfortable. So, when you come to the Iowa State Fair this year, you're going to see double the amount of handicap accessible parking spaces, paved spaces. You're going to see new sidewalks for accessibility. You're going to see new shade areas, shade structures. Picnic tables, we had a $100,000 line item in our budget this year for picnic tables and benches, so more places for you to sit. A brand new shower house up in the campgrounds for our huge camping community. Remodeled restrooms. So, all of these things that really don't look shiny necessarily, but yet will help your stay at the Fair. So, I think you'll notice the increase on creature comforts, as I mentioned before, value to fairgoers, more entertainment, more free entertainment specifically. So, I think those are some times. And then next week we're going to tell you about the 40 new foods that will be at the Fair.

Murphy: I was just going to ask, so you're not ready to talk about the new food yet?

Parsons: Not quite yet.

Murphy: Or the butter sculpture?

Parsons: The butter sculpture will be announced soon as well. Last year was extremely popular. Butter Caitlin Clark was very popular. But we've got some exciting announcements coming soon. But food is important for sure to fairgoers.

Murphy: Absolutely.

Henderson: Speaking of campgrounds --

Ta: Yeah, one of the things that is probably the most fascinating about the Fair is the campground culture and how into it that people are wanting to camp there, the long lines, things like that. Can you talk a little bit -- what makes the campground culture so appealing? And how long is the line to get in right now?

Cownie: You haven't seen the Iowa State Fair until you've seen the Iowa State Fair campgrounds. No question about it. It's a true melting pot of Iowa. It's quite special. I love showing people those campgrounds who have never seen them before, but have been going to the Iowa State Fair their whole lives. You hear the same thing, I never knew this existed. I've never seen anything like this. It's quite amazing. I think we have about 3,000 camp spots up there. We were just told this morning by our director of the campgrounds, there is a waitlist. There's turnover about 15 who got in there this year. You can put it in your estate to pass onto your kids and grandkids and what not and you see some people they have been in there for decades. They have been in there, we have some people who go back to I believe the 40s and 50s who have been at the same spot. It's quite amazing. And it is their summer vacation to come to the Iowa State Fair and camp out at our campgrounds. It's really pretty neat. About half of the real estate at the Iowa State Fairgrounds is the campgrounds.

Henderson: Jeremy, speaking of the Fairgrounds, some states have their fairs in rural areas and I'm looking at Nebraska. What value is there in having it be in an urban setting?

Parsons: Tremendous value really for two things. One, I think that helps push the Iowa State Fair out more to the state, obviously Des Moines being kind of the center of the media market of the state. So, I think that is key, that exposure you get being in the capital city. I think a little bit of traveling into Des Moines maybe from rural Iowa makes that important as well. But second, it allows us really to reach the maximum population. As we know in the state of Iowa, as rural population declines, they are moving more to the metro, specifically the Des Moines Metro area. So, that brings us more fairgoers, but also a chance to educate people more about agriculture. Where is my food coming from? And that really is the mission of the Iowa State Fair.

Murphy: Jeremy, how much -- again as a government reporter I am often at the Fairgrounds in the off-season covering events that are held in the different buildings. How much of that activity happens in the off season? And how much does that support kind of what sliver the pie is that of your annual revenue?

Parsons: Sure. So, you just look at the Fairgrounds this summer so far. In June, we hosted the World Pork Expo. We just finished the National Junior High Rodeo Finals. The Good Guys Car Show is going on. Oh, and then we'll get ready for the Fair. So, we host more than 200 events at the Iowa State Fairgrounds throughout the year. They might be a wedding reception or a quinceƱera or it might be a huge livestock show or a rodeo like we just completed. So, when you look at our operations, it's about 15% of our total revenue, not enough quite frankly. The fairs are unique businesses. If you went to a banker and said, I'm going to start this business and I'm only going to be open 11 days a year and I'm going to generate all of my revenue from 11 days and oh, I'm going to do it outside, I don't think you'd probably get the loan. So, we need these non-fair events to help us sustain ourselves throughout the year.

Ta: Peter, one of the things I feel like I love watching on Tik Tok are people eating Iowa State Fair food and whatever bizarre thing has come out. Can you talk a little bit about how has digital culture in the digital world changed how we interact with the Fair and how the Fair interacts with us?

Cownie: Sure. We have a very large online presence at the Iowa State Fair no doubt. That is the quickest and best way to reach in market to a possible fairgoer and to the fairgoers to educate them on what is coming up new this year and what will remain. We were talking about the butter cow sculpture. We will have the butter cow. I can tell you that much. We will have the butter cow. But it's the best way to do it and that has changed in my 11 years at the Iowa State Fair, no doubt. We talk about, you just look around yourself at fairgoers with their phones in their hand. We want to increase the Wi-Fi capability on the Fairgrounds. We have charging stations on the Fairgrounds. We send out, I mean, I would be remiss, but hundreds of press releases, put on Facebook and put on your email, to get the word out. The text message alerts are important. You can get a text message of when a baby calf is going to be born in the Animal Learning Center. It's quite amazing. If you would have said that 30 years ago of how things were operating at the Iowa State Fair, you would have gotten a blank look back at you. So, we are trying to evolve with the times. I believe we are doing it quite well and will continue to.

Henderson: We have about a minute left, Jeremy. The theme of this year's Fair is Fair Fever. For those of us who aren't as cool as others, what is that about?

Parsons: Well, it's just that we want you to catch the fever. Obviously, we want you to get excited. But it's a little bit of a throwback, a 1970s logo when you see the design. But it really is the ultimate throwback to the fact that this is the 170th anniversary of that very first State Fair held in Fairfield in 1854. So, that is where the graphics come from a little bit. But really Fair Fever is just -- we had some conversations is it too close after COVID to catch the fever, to spread the fever? But we thought it would be okay we thought this year.

Henderson: Just a real quick question for both of you. What is the one food that you need to eat first at the Iowa State Fair? Peter?

Cownie: Yeah, I go to Cattleman's for the steak sandwich.

Henderson: And Jeremy?

Parsons: Corn dog with mustard, no ketchup, with mustard.

Henderson: Okay, well let that be the record for this year and years to come. Thanks for both of you for being here today.

Parsons: Thank you.

Cownie: Thank you.

Henderson: You can watch every episode of Iowa Press at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching. And watch Fair coverage coming up in August.



Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

Elite Casino Resorts is a family-run business rooted in Iowa. We believe our employees are part of our family and we strive to improve their quality of life and the quality of lives within the communities we serve.


Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at