Blue Ribbon Ambassadors For Agriculture At The Iowa State Fair

Every year more than 1 million attendees flood the fairgrounds in Des Moines for the Iowa State Fair. Attractions range from a big boar contest to eating anything on a stick. Visitors can milk a cow, compete in a cooking competition and check out a variety of livestock, horticulture and food judging shows. The fair has agriculture at its core. That’s how College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumni, students and faculty have come to be so integral to its success. Meet a few alums, of many, who passionately support the Iowa State Fair.

Building A Strong Foundation


John Putney poses in front of the John L. Putney and Family Cattle Barn. He is the retired CEO and founder of the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation.

John Putney, (’68 farm operations), retired in March from his position as executive director of the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation. In 1993 he started the foundation, which has generated more than $95 million for improvements to the fairground facilities.

The foundation began with the goal of raising money for deteriorating facilities. Putney’s successful fundraising efforts have changed the face of the fairgrounds. His leadership resulted in the renovation and construction of 30 fairground facilities, including reconstruction of the Varied Industries Building and construction of the new Jacobson Exhibition Center.

Putney is a native of Gladbrook, Iowa, and has participated as an exhibitor at the Iowa State Fair, president of the Sale of Champions and beef superintendent. Gary Slater, the Iowa State Fair CEO and manager, says, “John Putney’s work not only renovated and constructed buildings; it also spurred new interest in the Fairgrounds as a rental facility and re-established the Iowa State Fair as one of the world’s must-see events.”

Little Hands – Big Learning

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Emily Brewer hosts a variety of educational events as the Iowa State Fair Ag Education Coordinator— including a daily butter sculpting competition and Little Hands on the Farm.

Gathering and selling items at the Farmers Market in the Little Hands on the Farm exhibit at the Iowa State Fair is a hands-on way to teach children about agriculture.

It’s just one of the educational exhibits at the Iowa State Fair managed by Emily Brewer, (’01 agricultural education) Iowa State Fair ag education coordinator. “Agriculture is the foundation of the Iowa State Fair and the fair is about learning. Combining the two in a fun way is what I do,” Brewer says.

Another educational attraction at the Iowa State Fair is the Animal Learning Center, which opened in 2007. Inside the center fair attendees can witness the birth of lambs, calves, pigs and chicks.

“We have had people who will wait up to six hours to see a calf being born,” Brewer says. “That’s exciting.”

Before coming to the State Fair in 2007, Brewer taught high school agricultural education in eastern Iowa for three years. She grew up on a crop and livestock farm near Dallas Center and is part of the fifth generation to live on the family farm.

Showcasing The State’s Best Livestock


Mike Anderson takes time for a photo during a sheep judging event. He’s superintendent of the 4-H Livestock exhibits, which, as he says, “includes anything with four legs and chickens.”

Imagine scheduling 5,000 animals to be shown over a two-week period by about 1,900 4-H members.

That’s exactly what Mike Anderson does at the Iowa State Fair.

“It’s two weeks nonstop,” Anderson says, “and after the fair it’s a let down because it’s over.”

Since 2006, Anderson, (’00 MS animal science), has worn two hats. He is both the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach 4-H Youth development program specialist and the superintendent of the 4-H Livestock exhibits at the Iowa State Fair.

Along with managing livestock shows, Anderson coordinates curriculum and programming for 16,000 4-H members across Iowa. Educating the public about Iowa State University and agriculture is one of the programming goals throughout the year and at the fair.

“We showcase Iowa State’s participation at the Iowa State Fair, so the public relates those activities to the university,” Anderson says

In August, a Commodity Carnival designed to illustrate the ups and downs of beef production will be featured at the Iowa State Fair. The educational program is for students in third through seventh grades. The game will allow the player to buy and sell grain to raise livestock. The teaching point will come at the end of the game when the player shows a profit or loss.

Anderson isn’t a stranger to the Iowa State Fair. He was a member of 4-H for nine years and remembers camping at the fair and competing in the livestock shows he now oversees.


As the Iowa State Fair 4-H Exhibits Building coordinator, Mitch Hoyer has coordinated daily events for the past 13 years. He says his biggest reward is watching youth succeed.

Encouraging Youth To Exhibit Success

Watching young exhibitors and communications competitors succeed is what Mitchell Hoyer enjoys. It also makes coordinating and scheduling more than 100 volunteers, daily competitions and 4,000 exhibits worth the long hours during the 14 days he spends at the Iowa State Fair. Hoyer (’80 animal science, ’81 agricultural education) is the Iowa State Fair 4-H Exhibits Building superintendent and ISU Extension and Outreach 4-H youth development program specialist. For the past 13 years he’s coordinated a team of volunteers who have made the 4-H exhibits area a success.

“It’s part planning, part magic and part I don’t know how it happens,” Hoyer says. “But, it’s because we have excellent volunteers.”

The 4-H members who exhibit at the Iowa State Fair have to win at the county level to be eligible. Hoyer says they are excited to be there.

“They will come in with their families and take photos next to their exhibit,” Hoyer says. “Whether it’s cookies, a cabinet or a photograph—it’s a big deal.”

Some of the more memorable exhibits included: A full-body zebra costume for a horse; a wooden chest built from the lumber of a 100-year-old tree taken down on the family farm; and a 100-yearold restored chair that survived a tornado.

“This is really about youth development and leadership opportunities for young people,” Hoyer says.

Those opportunities include a competition demonstrating what they’ve learned. Hoyer says he’s seen everything from golf to glass cutting, presentations with live goats, draft horses and even one with four albino reptiles.

The reward, he says, is when you see the smiles and the confidence of 4-H members bloom.