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I realize that state-fair food is a category unto itself, a passionately defended paean to Americana and summertime. And to criticize it could cause a distracting uproar. Some might even offer me their fried-fave-on-a-stick with instructions to make it disappear right up my behind.

Dumpling to go

So I’ll just say that we did not partake of the many fried delicacies during our trek to the New York State Fair. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t eat food-on-a-stick. Witness the tasty organic dumplings we ate on forks on the way. And you think I’m no fun.

But there was another side to fair food that caught me by surprise. Sure, I knew there would be buildings full of cows, pigs, chickens and other farm animals. And I knew that many of those animals — despite the wholesome, gee-whiz facade — had come from or were destined for the industrial food machine that spits out the giant corn dogs being sold steps away. And yes, I went anyway. We’d never been. I write about food and agriculture. I wanted to see it for myself.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the propaganda with a capital “P.” Big old greasy shtick-on-a-stick. And most of it aimed at kids.

The most blatant was in the quaint, barn-themed “education center” sponsored by New York Agriculture in the Classroom, under the title “Dairy Fact or Myth.”

Ponder these two “facts”:

“Only happy, healthy cows give milk.”

TRUE. “In order to produce high quality milk, farmers must provide their cows with a clean, dry and comfortable place to live, and plenty of food and water.”

The whole truth: Even stressed-out, crammed-tight, poorly fed cows give milk. In fact, it’s the foundation of our country’s dairy industry. I wish it were true that only happy cows gave milk, because then we’d have a nation of pastured, sunlight-soaking bovines. But right now? Not so.

Happy cow. Grass. Fresh air. But, oops, it’s a statue!

On a related note, a nearby chart cheerfully detailed cows’ ability to “serve as food recyclers by eating the leftovers of the food manufacturing process that would otherwise go to waste.” I suppose they get points for honesty. Many cows do indeed eat food waste. But that doesn’t mean they should. Or that it’s good for them. Or us.

“Even very large farms are family owned and operated.”

TRUE. “According to the USDA, 99% of all U.S. dairy farms are family owned and operated.”

The whole truth: Just because a farm is owned by a family doesn’t mean the practices are sustainable. It doesn’t mean the animals are treated well. But this is what the dairy lobby wants us to think when it promotes the idea of the “family farm.” And since the vast majority of milk in the U.S. is bought and packaged by a few big corporations, most dairy farmers have to play by corporate rules or lose business. When you look at it like that, family ownership doesn’t really matter much, does it?

(For another example of how Big Ag co-opts the “family farm,” check out the farmer image campaign announced during this year’s Illinois State Fair. Behind the campaign: Illinois Beef Association, Illinois Corn Marketing Board, Illinois Pork Producers Association and Illinois Soybean Association. One big happy family.)

Not a live birth, but still a star attraction

So, OK, I find the whole ag-education claim behind state fairs dubious, anyway. If you want your kids to see farm animals, well, visit an actual farm. Or a farm-animal sanctuary. It makes me sad to see animals cooped up and gawked at. It’s why we don’t do circuses or animal acts, and why, though I’ve come to terms with zoos because of their conservation work, I don’t really enjoy them. And thank god the New York State Fair doesn’t have live birthing exhibits like the one in Minnesota co-sponsored by one of the largest industrial pig farms in the country. Or like the one in California where a panicked pregnant cow was shot to death this summer.

But here’s the thing: When a group like New York Agriculture in the Classroom (NYAITC) presents information, kids and parents assume it’s true. And why wouldn’t they? The program does a lot of neat things. It gives grants for school gardens, provides classroom resources and sponsors a student art contest to promote local agriculture. (I wrote about our experience with that contest here). But the fact is it’s funded not only by Cornell University and the New York State agriculture and education departments, but also by the New York Farm Bureau, which is an agribusiness lobbying group. And that makes things messy.

Here’s another example: NYAITC posted a question on its Facebook page, asking for chicken-themed books to share with second-graders for an ag-literacy week highlighting the poultry industry. I asked if picture books would work. The reply: “as long as the (books) portray a realistic and positive look at all sides of the poultry industry.”

Smart chickie

I responded with a recommendation for “Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken,” by Kate DiCamillo and Harry Bliss (which I wrote about here). I explained the relevant plot point — how Louise rallies her fellow chickens to break free of a cage — and added something like: “I’m not sure what you mean by a realistic and positive look at all sides, since what’s ‘realistic’ isn’t always ‘positive,’ but second-graders certainly would benefit from learning that chickens should be raised outside, not in cages.”

I say “something like” because I can’t remember the exact words. And I can’t check the page, because my comment was deleted.

When I e-mailed someone from the group to find out why, she told me NYAITC censors its page “to be sure we aren’t distributing propaganda” or presenting “extremist” data as “agricultural reality.” Later, when I asked how she could deny that inhumane and unsanitary conditions are indeed agricultural reality, I got the end-run: “Quality agriculture exists on all scales and we protect them at AITC by trying to make sure all farms are represented fairly.”

Fair enough. Just because a farm is big doesn’t mean it’s bad. But, really, when is it ever good to pack chickens in so tight that they can’t act like chickens?

Never. The answer is never.

Now back to the fair. Lest you think it was one big downer, let me say there were some up notes, too, like displays on farming techniques through history, a New York produce stand and two on-site restaurants serving local food. The New York honey and maple industries were well-represented. And on the non-food front, our 6-year-old loved the exhibits on tree and water conservation, and the woodworking and fiber-arts demonstrations.

And, finally, there was “Dairyville 2010,” the 800-pound butter sculpture showing a small dairy farm on one side and, on the other, a town powered by the farm’s cow manure. At least that was a nod to sustainability. And after the fair, the butter was to be converted to biofuel for a nearby college’s buses. Good stuff.

Propaganda? Not so much.

But the best thing of all? Turns out that state-fair butter sculptures were created by the dairy industry as propaganda to combat competition from margarine makers. Which is some delicious irony now that we know butter rules and margarine drools (as my daughter said this week in her new first-grade slang).

Now it’s just a matter of time before all this sustainable-agriculture “propaganda” shows itself for the truth it is.

The NYS Fair is over for this year, but plenty of other fairs are under way or still to come. Did you go to a state fair this year? In years past? Any thoughts on kiddie propaganda and all that unfair food?

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