Sorry, Husker football.
Don't feel neglected, Omaha and Lincoln.
Nebraska is about to launch its annual big party celebrating the state's No. 1 industry, and it's not all about you. It's about the food the world eats, including the fried stuff on a stick that makes nutritionists cringe.
The 144th Nebraska State Fair opens Friday at Fonner Park in Grand Island to showcase the Cornhusker State's top industry — agriculture — and the state's youths. The fair's 11-day run ends Sept. 2.
Sure, the fair has frosted flake chicken on a stick and deep-fried cookie dough with peanut butter and chocolate sauce; newborn farm animals and racing pigs; antique tractors and draft horses; big cows and bigger horses; high school marching bands and rodeo cowboys; and rides on roller coasters and combines.
It's family fun around every corner, especially with a new carnival midway that reflects the fair's “The Thrill of It All” theme, said Shaun Schleif, marketing director.
But when the gates open for the fair's fourth year in Grand Island, Nebraskans will find a festival that rediscovered its roots, dug in its boots and hasn't looked back since moving from Lincoln, said Joseph McDermott, executive director.
“State fairs are a celebration of who we are and what we've accomplished,” he said. “In Nebraska, that's agriculture.”
Translated for urban folks, that means it's about how the food we eat gets from the farm to our forks, said Chris Kircher, a ConAgra Foods executive and Nebraska State Fair board member from Omaha.
“It's easy to forget the great role Nebraska plays in feeding the state and the world,” he said. “The State Fair is a great opportunity to get a firsthand look at where food comes from and how it's produced.”
There's a lot of fun and entertainment along the way.
Wade Shows, one of the largest carnival companies in North America, will make its Nebraska debut with a roundup of 40 rides and games. Among new ones will be a whitewater log flume ride, an attraction typically found in theme parks. The Crazy Cat Coaster marks the return of a roller coaster to the State Fair after an absence of about seven years.
There will also be plenty of rides that families can enjoy together, McDermott said. Lil' Pardner Land, a kiddie area, will feature dozens of attractions. Wristband tickets for all midway rides will be available daily.
Wade Shows tries to model its midway as close as possible to an amusement park, said owner Frank Zaitshik. It will feature expanded and shaded seating areas. Colorful ride height signs, banners, canvas and flags will give the site a clean appearance. All employees will be dressed in uniforms.
At the gut level, however, surveys indicate that fair food is one of the top reasons people travel across Nebraska to take in the State Fair, said Jaime Parr, facility director.
New on the menu boards: Moink Balls (the combination of moo and oink), which feature four or five bacon-wrapped meatballs glazed with barbecue sauce and served on a stick. There will be fried alligator, doughnut burgers (where doughnuts replace the bun) and deep-fried Hostess CupCakes.
Not to mention fried frog legs, fried watermelon and pancake burgers.
“Some people want to take it over the top, so we help them do that,” Parr said. “These are guilty pleasures.”
Stuffed cucumbers are back this year. They are hollowed-out 'cukes filled with chicken salad, seafood salad, tuna salad or ranch dressing.
“It's a cool, crisp treat for a hot day at the fair,” Parr said.
The taste of tradition will be served up, too. The Beef Pit will serve thousands of prime rib, roast beef or brisket sandwiches and meals. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln Dairy Store outlet will scoop up a variety of ice cream, cheeses and crackers, sandwiches and salads.
Corn dogs, hamburgers and funnel cakes are staples, sometimes concocted with a twist. Fairgoers will find funnel cakes with caramel apple and fresh strawberry toppings. Kettle corn flavors include cinnamon bun and a variety mixed with Reese's Pieces peanut butter candy.
About 70 food vendors set up on the fairgrounds. Other restaurants, concessionaires and trailer operations will push the total number of places selling food to nearly 90, Parr said.
A new beer garden, food vendors and entertainment acts south of the horse and motor sports tracks will fill a void and provide visitors who park on the east side of the fairgrounds with activities just steps from their cars, said Chelsey Jungck, events and entertainment director.
The fairgrounds will be filled with festivals, flash mobs, a talent search, a country music showdown, pageants, strolling entertainment acts and livestock showmanship competitions.
“There's a lot of free entertainment inside the gates,” Jungck said.
In Butterfly Adventures, guests will learn how to safely pick up a butterfly on a feeding stick. The K9 Kings Flying Dog Show features agility and acrobatic trick routines by more than 10 breeds. Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean Aerial High Wire Thrill Show pits “good” pirates against “bad” pirates on a cable strung between the masts of a pirate ship.
Acrobatic sea lions, the slapstick ShenaniGuns! Comedy Wild West Show and Japanese drummers are other family-fun attractions, Jungck said.
Commercial exhibitors will fill about 300 indoor and 225 outdoor booths.
Shaded trams will offer free rides around the 250-acre grounds. The Sky Tram moved more than 30,000 people during its debut last year. The lift transports visitors between the Exhibition Building and the Cattle Barn. There's also more shade and seating around the fairgrounds.
Not everyone at the fair will be there to eat or be entertained. Thousands of 4-H, FFA and open-class exhibitors will be competing in livestock and domestics categories.
“It's the state tournament for 4-H and FFA,” Schleif said. “The best of the best are showing everything from livestock to canned goods and rockets to robots.”
McDermott said visitors who haven't been to the fair since it left Lincoln wouldn't recognize the improved livestock facilities. Lincoln barns were located on the east and west sides of the fairgrounds. They were dark and not inviting to visitors, he said.
“In Grand Island, the barns are front and center after you walk in the gate,” McDermott said. “They're large, bright, open, clean and cool. They're inviting.”
One livestock exhibitor told McDermott that he saw more people walk through a Grand Island barn in 15 minutes than he remembers in 11 days in Lincoln.
“Livestock is a big part of what Nebraska is,” McDermott said. “People want to see livestock.”
McDermott encouraged people to visit www.statefair.org to check out the entire list of events, activities and entertainment. The website features a “Create Your Day” function so users can create and print a personalized activities schedule.
To see it all will probably require more than one day, Parr said.
“You need fast feet and fast eyes.”
The Nebraska State Fair Fan Club premium seating program returns for its second year.
A $30 membership includes one adult single-day gate admission ticket, a wristband to one free concert of your choice, access to the Fan Club and VIP entrance at the Heartland Events Center for express entry, seating in the Fan Club reserved section and a Fan Club lapel pin, membership card and State Fair bag.
Memberships are available for these concerts: Kellie Pickler, Friday; Mel Tillis, Aug. 28; TobyMac, Aug. 29; and Eli Young Band, Aug. 30.
The Fan Club does not include hard ticket (pay) concerts.
Memberships are available online at www.statefair.org/fair/ticketinfo/FanClub.asp.
Nebraska State Fair visitors can learn something about the birds and the bees of farming by visiting the pigs and the bees. Trading cards highlighting 10 aspects of Nebraska agriculture will be available for people to collect by visiting different sites at the fair.
“There is no prize for collecting all 10. We just want people to learn a few things about agriculture,'' said Chelsey Jungck, events and entertainment director.
The front of each agricultural education card features a photograph of its subject. The back lists a few facts. The milking parlor card, for example, notes that the average U.S. dairy cow produces 22.5 quarts of milk daily. That's about 16,000 glasses of milk annually, or enough for 40 people.
Card topics: horse power, milking parlor, Nebraska Department of Agriculture, swine, livestock birthing pavilion, 4-H and FFA, bees, Family Fun Farm, antique tractors, and combines. Signs on the fairgrounds will mark the trading card sites.
Jungck said fair officials picked up the trading cards idea at the Tulsa State Fair last year. The Grand Island Chamber of Commerce's agriculture committee partnered with the fair to create similar cards for Nebraska.
— David Hendee
Nebraska State Fair attendance in Grand Island has been significantly higher than it was for most of the past decade in Lincoln.
Attendance last year was 336,987, up 1.2 percent from 333,043 in 2011. The fair's 2010 debut in Grand Island attracted 309,400 visitors. Organizers hoped for 200,000.
Attendance in Lincoln had tumbled from more than 389,000 in 1997 to 238,000 in 2003. In Grand Island the fair has seen attendance gains in successive years.
Last year 59 percent of fair visitors were from Grand Island or central Nebraska. Ten percent were from Lincoln and 6 percent from Omaha. Turnout from other regions: northeast, 7 percent; southeast, 8 percent; southwest, 4 percent; and Panhandle, 1 percent.
— David Hendee