Sculpture butters up fairgoers for dairy industry

Sept. 2, 2011

Anywhere else, a giant sculpture made of butter would be a monstrosity. But at the Great New York State Fair, organizers are quick to say it’s as much a tradition as riding the Ferris wheel and frying Oreos.

Keeping the 800 pounds of carefully sculpted butter at about 30 degrees all of the time, then, becomes a very important task for Floyd Duger, dairy building supervisor. Duger said the temperature of the sculpture’s encasement is checked several times throughout the day.

“It’s a major draw at the state fair so it’s very important,” he said.

Duger didn’t have the numbers, but said that the dairy building is at least one of the most popular places for fairgoers to visit. “People who come to the fair come to this building at least once,” he said.

This year’s carving, made of unsalted butter donated by Wegmans, was sculpted over the course of about 80 hours by food artists Jim Victor and Marie Pelton of Pennsylvania, for the ninth year in a row.

This year, a depiction of cafeteria workers serving food was unveiled to the public the day before the fair opened after the traditional secrecy. The sculpture weighs the equivalent of 2000 gallons of milk, or eight newborn calves, according to a press release from the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, Inc., or ADADC, the organization in charge of the sculpture’s construction.

With all that time – and butter – going into one attraction, the sculpture and its home, the dairy building, must function as more than a traditional draw to the fair.

The butter sculpture – along with its building-mates the Rainbow Milk Bar, the New York state cheese booth, dairy princesses, vendors, and entertainers – is the face of the dairy industry.

The building is administered by the New York State Fair Dairy Products Building Task Force, a group of local dairy farmers, processors, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and members of academia which meets six times a year.

The group’s chair is Bruce Krupke who runs a booth in the dairy building.

“Our mission is to promote and highlight dairy products to consumers,” Krupke said.

More than 800,000 people come through the building each year, and their job is to make it attractive to visitors and remind them that dairy plays a big part in nutrition, he said.

The administrative body works closely with the ADADC, which is a “checkoff” organization. Organizations such as the ADADC are required as part of the federal Dairy Research Trust fund. The ADADC is funded by money collected by its constituency of farmers for use in promotion and programs.

With that kind of backing, the dairy building has a special place at the state fair.

“The fact that you’ve got people who really work on this year-round … lends to a level of interest in and dedication to the building that you don’t see in any other area of the fair,” said Beth Meyer, ADADC director of communication.

Some of the money made by the building then gets pumped back into it, creating the kind of full-circle sustainability home-grown in small, local farmers.

“When we put these improvements into the building, we are promoting the dairy industry,” said Duger, who grew up on a farm and remembers being on his father’s shoulders on the midway when he was a kid.

Historically, then, it makes sense that attractions like the butter sculpture have molded to the industry.

Though butter sculptures have been around for years – state fair promotions materials claim they got their roots as a Tibetan Buddhist artform, while art historian Pamela Simpson of Washington and Lee University traces them to Renaissance banquet art – they really took off in the glory days of state fairs.

In today’s world, the question is what happens to all that butter?

Four years ago, the ADADC contacted the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and came up with an answer. The waste from the sculpture is transformed into biodiesel for transporting SUNY ESF students.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” said Meyer.

This article includes some corrections after feedback from a professor.

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