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How The State Fair Gave Us The Best And Worst Day Ever


It all started with the 15-foot-tall sunflower. My four-year-old planted it this spring. It grew so tall that it towered over the back garden, casting a long shadow across the yard. The kids dubbed it “the beanstalk sunflower” and fantasized about climbing it into the clouds.

They were so proud of that sunflower that a thought occurred to me. Would it be possible to enter it into the Minnesota State Fair? Don’t they hold special competitions for children? They do, but none were quite appropriate to our purpose. You can win a prize for massive sunflower heads, but not for super-tall plants. I suppose 15-foot sunflowers present something of a challenge when hosting a display.

My research time was not wasted, however. Some other ideas began to germinate. Why not enter some of my own vegetables into the fair? I love my vegetable garden. I love the state fair. What was there to lose?

There was no charge to enter the amateur gardening contests. Entries also came with a tantalizing perk: as an exhibitor, I could get free parking right on the fair grounds. If you’ve ever juggled four small kids and a double stroller on a park-and-ride shuttle bus, you can understand why that put it over the top.

I registered. A week before the fair, my official parking passes and exhibit tags arrived in the mail. We were doing this.

Going For Blue

On the morning of the fair, I woke up at 6 a.m., packed up my exhibits, and drove to the fairgrounds. Feeling like a rock star, I parked in the official Ag-Hort parking lot, waltzed right through the gate, and checked in my entries.

The set-up was really quite fun. The agricultural pavilion was bustling with people bringing their enormous pumpkins, boxes of apples, gorgeous flower displays, and giant sunflower heads, along with homemade jams, wines, honeys, and the like. It was a giant harvest festival, and I was part of the action. It felt very good, on that morning, to be a Minnesotan, celebrating the many fine things that are built, grown, or created with Minnesotan hands.

Also, I was pleased with my entries. My tomatillos were bursting with freshness, still wet with morning dew, and packed with the trademark tomatillo tang. The red potatoes were somewhat less spectacular, but were entered anyway because they were my children’s pride and joy. Who could tell eager children their starchy trophies weren’t up to snuff?

The true prize, though, was my ornamental gourds. Even as a novice, I was confident in that entry. I love gourds for their interesting shapes and bright colors, so watching these beauties flower and develop is really one of the pleasures of summer. The night before the fair, I chose my best eight, and lovingly arranged them in a wicker basket. If any of our entries claimed a ribbon, I was sure it would be the gourds.

Setting up, I realized to my surprise that I actually wanted a ribbon. It didn’t have to be blue. I had mostly entered on a lark, but my kids (who help out in the garden all summer long) would think it was seriously cool to bring home a bona fide state fair ribbon. Bring it home for us, ornamental gourds!

The Best of Times

We got our ribbon. Actually, we got three. My kids’ potatoes placed fourth, much to their delight. Meanwhile my tomatillos and gourds both took third in their respective categories. I am officially an award-winning Minnesota gardener.

The kids were pretty thrilled, but on top of that, it was fun to see the pavilion packed with admiring spectators. My prize vegetables even won me some cold, hard cash, to the tune of eleven dollars. Put away your wallet, friend. That corn dog is on me.

Truly, it was a blissful afternoon. Thanks to our Special Exhibitor Parking, we skipped the awful shuttle buses and walked straight into the fairgrounds. All our vegetables won ribbons. We watched a newborn calf enter the world, and took our traditional family picture on the John Deere display. We cheered for the parade. We communed with the pigs and cows. We watched with bated breath to see which rooster would win the crow-a-thon.

It was a perfect day at the fair, and it was all punctuated by the glow of our vegetary victory. Alas, all this glory was to end in sadness.

The Worst of Times

Eventually the energy wound down, and small eyelids started to droop. Winding our way back to our VIP parking, I stepped into the agricultural pavilion once more to ask a crucial question. When could I come back for my gourds? I had turned the rule book upside down, and found pick-up times listed for a huge assortment of items, but not for my prize gourds.

I tracked down a staff member. He informed me breezily that I couldn’t have my gourds back, ever. When the state was finished displaying them, they were slated to be tossed in the trash.

I was momentarily speechless. Why on earth would they destroy my beautiful gourds? They had plans to return the pumpkins and potted plants and succulent gardens and flower displays and a thousand other things. Why don’t gourd-growers deserve the same respect? In pious tones, the staff member explained that it was an issue of food safety.

Food safety. That’s why I can’t have my ornamental gourds, which by definition are not intended for consumption. Sure, that absolutely makes sense.

When pressed, the staff member pointed out that the room had been packed with visitors all day. There was no way to know what had happened to my gourds. Somewhat might have poisoned them! I might be bringing hideous toxins home to my children! This rule was in place for my own safety!

He makes an excellent point, and I certainly hope they’ve discussing this anthrax anxiety with the pumpkin farmers. Or consider the owners of the potted pepper plants. Some of them may be planning to eat things that were exposed to the possibly homicidal public for two full weeks! Every morning now, I open my newspaper in fear, wondering how many Minnesota gardeners might have fallen prey to state fair agro-terrorism.

Truthfully, I should have packed up my gourds and taken them with me right then. Keep your eleven dollars! That option didn’t occur to me until later. What I did do was to write a sternly worded letter to the rules committee. They got back to me on the very last day of the fair, after the gourds had surely already been destroyed.

In a Bureaucracy, the Rule-Book Is King

As my sternly worded letter acknowledged, the rules did technically contain the relevant information. Page 65 states: “For food safety reasons, all potatoes, vegetables (classes 500-843), and Home Garden Collections (classes 950-952) will be disposed of in a compost recycling bin.”

I just made the ridiculous mistake of assuming the rules would make some sort of sense.

I had read the rule book. My eyes had passed over those words. If I had back-checked all the numbers, I could have deduced that my display would be peremptorily confiscated against my will. I just made the ridiculous mistake of assuming the rules would make some sort of sense. I can appreciate why wilted lettuces or browning apples aren’t worth reclaiming. But I naturally assumed the ornamental gourds (which clearly pose no safety risk and can ornament one’s home for the entire fall season) would be returned with the other visual displays.

Doesn’t it seem like a reasonable rule book would have been more explicit about the intention to confiscate treasured items and not give them back?

As a conservative, I do feel a little foolish for having learned the hard way that bureaucratic rules are unreasonable. Hadn’t I read about the Sacketts and their fight with the Environmental Protection Agency? Did I need a personal one-on-one with Clive Bundy to get this?

I think in the end I was beguiled by the positivity and community feeling that surrounds the state fair. It really felt like they wanted to celebrate Minnesotans and their talents. Ridiculously, I actually believed that would be the priority. That just made it all the more jarring when I found myself faced with an unsmiling staff member with a preposterous rationale. “Oh, is this something that matters to you? That’s a shame, because we’re tossing it on the trash heap. Did you think we’d need a reason?

In any case, the lesson is now learned. Here is how the faceless bureaucrats (no name was included) replied to my complaint:

In regards to food safety, we are unable to patrol what may or may not come into contact with exhibits that are on display and therefore, for safety reasons, that is why this rule is in place. We understand that gourds are not meant for the table, as you pointed out, but there has to be a line drawn at some point.

Terrific reasoning, yes? Imagine how this gets applied to other areas of life. “We’re sorry we incarcerated your innocent child or spouse. Some people are dangerous, and a line must be drawn at some point.” “We’re sorry we condemned your structurally sound domicile. Some buildings are a safety hazard, and lines must be drawn at some point.” So goes the reasoning of the bureaucrat. It’s not our job to exercise our authority in rational or responsible ways. We just draw lines.

It could have been worse. I lost eight beautiful gourds that I grew with my own hands, and gained a salutary reminder that nothing lovely should voluntarily be delivered into the clutches of the state. When bureaucrats are involved, the rules will trump beauty, truth, and human feeling every time. Even at the Minnesota State Fair.