The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Iowa: Energy and a Great State Fair

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 10, 2017

Don’t know about you, but if I’m anywhere near Des Moines the next couple of weeks, I’m headed to the Iowa State Fair – mainly, to gawk at the famed Butter Cow. Just have to. Imagine 600 pounds of low-moisture, pure-cream Iowa butter, slathered on an internal frame and sculpted, with precision, into a life-size, yellowy cow.

Download: Energy is Iowa

Six hundred pounds is lot of pats of butter – enough for 19,200 slices of toast, which, according to the fair’s website, would take a person two lifetimes to consume. (There are probably a couple of guys down at the pie-eating contest who might try to prove that false.) The Iowa State Fair has an official butter sculptor, Sarah Pratt, who has been at it the past nine years. The Butter Cow might not be Michelangelo, but in Iowa, it’ll do just fine – a big part of the sights and sounds of America’s quintessential state fair, right?

Sounds like a “yes.”

We mention the Butter Cow and all of the other attractions and activities at the fair to make the point that this piece of Americana and others like it are big energy events. The fair’s foods, displays, contests, rides and more – all use energy to bring off an event that continues to thrive long after it got the star treatment in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 film musical, “State Fair.” The Iowa State Fair is the largest annual event in the state, drawing about 1 million visitors.  

On The Mooove

From the natural gas-based nitrogen fertilizer used to grow abundant sources of nutrition for cows and other livestock to eat, to milking equipment that produces milk to drink and cream for butter, cheese and other products, energy is a key to production, making it modern and more efficient than the old days.

Milking machines and cooling systems rely on petroleum-based plastics for durability and ease and rubber for the comfort of the cows. Stainless steel, a must for milking equipment and the cooling tanks the milk goes into, is made with energy. Natural gas commonly is used in the steel production process, for melting down ore and recycled metals. Petroleum continues to play a role beyond that, providing fuel for the tanker trucks that carry the milk (and cream) from the farm to processor. The result of all this energy, at least at the Iowa State Fair, is an iconic dairy delight.

Iowa butter cow fair shareable infographic

Powerful Competition

The Butter Cow isn’t the fair’s only agricultural showpiece that benefits from energy. Each year, livestock numbering in the thousands, from hogs and cattle to sheep and llamas, arrive at the fair, all vying for champion status. Like those dairy herds that help produce the Butter Cow, they largely come to maturation feasting on Iowa’s grassy pastures or feed, which natural gas-based fertilizers help keep green and sweet along with all of Iowa’s crops.

Fair competition goes beyond the barnyard, offering a wide variety of opportunities for artisans, from the kitchen to the craft table, to test their mettle. Energy often is a key ingredient for earning a coveted blue ribbon. Jams and preserves, from blackberry to rhubarb, typically rely on energy for their deliciousness. Fertilizer helps provide the nutrients that fruit and berries need to ripen, while the sugar that sweetens them often is processed using gas boilers to concentrate and crystalize the final product.

The handicrafts that are front and center at the fair also count on energy. Talented quilters typically use polyester batting , and creators of colorful afghans often make them with polyester yarns, because petroleum-based textiles are both soft and durable. Meanwhile, woodworkers frequently use polyurethane, another petroleum product, for the finishing touch on their creations.

Iowa Blue Ribbon fair shareable infographic

Energy of the Midway

As the evening air cools the day, the midway comes to life with rides and games beckoning eager participants. Like so much else at the fair, energy is also at play on the midway. The Ferris wheel, roller coasters, bumper cars and other rides, built with steel, rubber, plastic and fiberglass – all of which commonly depend on or are made with natural gas and petroleum – keep the excitement going. 

Don’t forget the Giant Slide, a staple at the fair since the 1960s that sees around 90,000 people a year zooming down. To make the ride down smooth, riders use sacks made from polypropylene, a petroleum product created through the refining process.

Whether hitting up the fair for the livestock, the exhibits, the competitions or for an evening of fun on the midway, there is something for everyone to see and do. Energy is hard at work keeping fresh the traditional allure of this 163-year-old exposition. As the song says, don’t miss it – don’t even be late

More Like This


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.