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DES MOINES — Gary Slater is looking forward to taking the public behind the scenes with the chance to have lunch and a conversation with a farmer at this year’s Iowa State Fair.

“We want people to have fun when they come to the fair,” says Slater, fair manager. He says the fair, which kicked off Thursday, is a chance for agriculture to show off and to reach out to non-farmers and an urban audience.

That means a chance to walk through barns, watch livestock shows and hold a baby animal in the animal learning center.

And while there is no shortage of food or company at the fair, 2018 offers a different opportunity, something Slater calls Farm to Fair.

The idea is simple. The fair is working with a variety of commodity groups to sponsor a meal for 500 people Sunday.

The meal will take place at a giant table on the grand concourse on Grand Avenue in the fairgrounds, in front of the grandstand. The commodity groups will bring 100 farmers to the event, and they are working with the fair to bring 400 non-farmers. The idea is to let the farmers and non-farmers have a conversation over lunch.

“It may be as simple as ‘I’ve never been to the fair before’ or it may be something like ‘What do you think of NAFTA?’ or ‘What do you think of steel tariffs?’” Slater says about the effort to educate the public about agriculture.

Another new event is called “Fair after Dark.” The idea is a small number of adults can pay extra for a behind-the-scenes tour of the fair.

Tonight, up to 200 fairgoers can pay $20 per person to tour the animal learning center from 9 to 11 p.m. after the building has closed to the public. Participants must be 21. They get drink tickets and a chance to talk to experts and see the facility and exhibits. Another Fair after Dark event will be held from 9 to 11 p.m. Thursday in the agriculture building. Attendees will get the chance to talk to the butter cow sculptor and tour the building.

Another big change at the fairgrounds is the new stage for the grandstand.

In the past, the grandstand served both for concerts and events such as car races and tractor pulls. Fair officials are in the midst of a multi-year effort to make the grandstand a better concert venue. Over the next couple of years a new venue will be built nearby for tractor pulls and similar events.

Previously the stage was wheeled to the side for race events and then wheeled to a spot between the grandstand and the track for concerts. That made for poor concert sight-lines and limited seating, Slater says. The new, permanent stage will be centered a little further away from the seats, and more seating will be available on the ground in front of the stage. More restrooms and other facilities also are being added.

The Iowa State Fair runs now through Aug. 19. For more information, visit www.iowastatefair.org.

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