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Commentary: The Other Food Story at the Fair

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At this year’s Indiana State Fair, the focus is food – not just one kind of food, but all kinds of food.  As Fair officials are fond of pointing out, food is the number one reason people come to the Fair. Farm groups have gone all out to present a variety of new food items and to help consumers to understand a bit more about where their food comes from and how it is produced. There is another food story, however, that does not get as much attention, most likely because it is not deep fried and covered with sugar. It’s dirt, more specifically soil. Farmers know food production starts with the soil, but that is a message lost on many food consumers.

For the past 25 years, the Pathway to Water Quality has been telling that story in a very unassuming manner in a quiet corner of the fairgrounds. This park-like setting provides a cool and relaxing place for Fair visitors, but also demonstrates the connection between soil, water, the environment, and food production. More importantly, it shows not only what farmers are doing to protect the environment, but what they as nonfarm folks can do to improve the environment.

When people think about climate change, they like to blame industry and agriculture for the problems. The World Watch Institute claims that “animals raised for food has been vastly underestimated, and in fact accounts for at least half of all human-caused greenhouse gases.” This has led some radical environmental groups to suggest, in all seriousness, that we eliminate animal agriculture worldwide. Obviously, they are not big bacon eaters.

What gets left out of this discussion are the things that the average homeowner can do to improve the environment. When algae bloom occurs in our lakes and reservoirs, runoff from farms is blamed. Yet, the lawn care treatments homeowners use or contract for seldom get mentioned. Livestock farms are accused of water pollution, but municipal waste water treatment plants and homeowner septic systems get a pass. The Pathway to Water Quality has full-scale demonstrations on how landscaping, lawn care, and septic systems impact the environment. The Pathway also shows what farmers do to minimize runoff and to protect water quality.

This is as much a part of the food message as anything else at the Fair. As one farmer told me recently, we are only 6 inches away from a desert. Meaning on average we only have about 6 inches of top soil with which to produce food.  So we had better learn to take care of it.

My only complaint with the Pathway to Water Quality is where it was placed. It should have been put at the entrance to the Midway, so all those folks who come the Fair to ride the rides would have to walk through it and at least learn something while at the Fair.  I would also like to see them move the media room to the center of the exhibit. This way local TV stations might be inspired to do some Fair stories with substance, rather than just what new thing is being deep-fried this year.

By Gary Truitt