- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 6, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Justin Borntraeger plans to make a beeline for the food stands during his first venture to the Iowa State Fair, with an eye toward anything skewered. Chocolate-covered chunky bacon maple nougat, or maybe jumbo toasted marshmallows.

Everything in the food-on-a-stick variety is on his agenda as he prepares to join about 1 million people visiting the fair during its 11-day run, which starts Thursday.

“I’m going to try to eat as many of them as possible,” the 34-year-old said a few days before making the 150-mile trip from his home in Nebraska. “I’ll probably end with the salad on a stick so I feel good about myself.”

With the number of expected visitors equal to about a third of the state’s population, the Iowa State Fair is considered one the most popular fairs in the world. What keeps the Iowa State Fair relevant and thriving depends on who you ask.

There’s the beloved butter cow, a century-old tradition that draws huge crowds, along with livestock and rides. For Borntraeger and other steel-stomached visitors, it’s self-inflicted food challenges.

But many competition-seekers skip the food coma and choose from among more than 7,500 contests that range from best ears of corn to the top decorative quilt. There are also nearly 50 special event contests where judges bestow such titles as “best arm wrestler” and “best hog caller.”

People cram into various buildings around the fairgrounds in Des Moines to see some of the matchups live.

Michelle Anderson looks forward to the crowds of people every year. The 31-year-old from Des Moines has attended the fair as far back as she can remember, and she plans on going each day this year.

“I am always drawn to people. The bigger the crowd, the better,” she said. “A lot of people shy away from the first Friday night of the fair because there’s so many people out there, but I thrive in that. I think it’s wonderful.”

For others, the fair’s extensive display of cattle and other livestock is a big to-do.

Marla J. Calico, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Fairs & Expositions, said the Iowa State Fair’s traditional livestock shows are a major component to its success. She also noted the fair’s agricultural education, which includes interactive exhibits for children.

“They run an excellent program … all of the things that they do to provide the non-farming public an idea about where their food and fiber comes from,” she said. “Iowa State Fair excels at that.”

But maybe it all boils down to the state fair’s beloved butter cow. There are variations of the butter sculpture at other fairs, but the Iowa State Fair butter cow - and its many incarnations - have been on display for more than a century.

At any given time, there’s a line outside the agriculture building to get a glimpse of the cow and a companion sculpture.

“It’s an icon,” said Sarah Pratt, the fair’s butter cow sculptor. “People bring their kids to see something of their childhood. It’s carrying on a tradition.”

The Iowa State Fair will be open Thursday through Aug. 17.

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