iowa state fair: part one — machine love

I went to the Iowa State Fair on Monday. I love that fair beyond all measure because it’s organically weird and completely ridiculous. It’s also completely ordinary, and folks, I’m here to tell you that ‘ordinary’ is its own kind of weird and ridiculous. Seriously. You don’t think of ‘ordinary’ as weird and ridiculous until you’re in the middle of tens of thousands of examples of it.

The fairgrounds has maybe half a dozen different gateways. I entered through a gate where agricultural equipment was on display. Let me be clear about this: I don’t know dick about agriculture. I’ve visited a few farms in my life, but I don’t have a clue what actually goes on there. I know there’s plowing and planting and harvesting, and probably a lot of stuff in between. I know farming is hard work (well, I hear it’s hard work, and I’m willing to accept the claim). I also know farming involves a lot of odd-looking, complicated, wildly expensive equipment. But what that equipment does is a mystery to me.

Look at this thing, for example:

For farming on Mars, probably.

For farming on Mars, probably.

What the hell IS that? The wheels were nearly as tall as I am. You need a ladder to climb up to the — I don’t even know what you call the place the driver (operator?) sits. The control center? The cockpit? The bridge? I have no idea. But I’m thinking this thing would be great fun to drive. On Mars.

Then there’s this machine below — the thing with the rubber tank treads. I not only don’t know what the hell it is, I not only don’t know what it does, I couldn’t even figure out which end was the front. Not until I noticed the rear-view side mirrors. You guys, this thing has rear view side mirrors. Why? What are they expecting to pull up behind it? I mean, it’s a farm machine, right? Presumably it’s meant to be driven on farms. I can only assume it’s meant to be driven on the farms of Arrakis, the desert planet of Dune. But just look at it.

Sandworms in mirror may be closer than they appear.

Sandworms in mirror may be closer than they appear.

These machines fascinate me. I confess, I don’t really care what they’re supposed to do; I’m just intrigued by their massive size and their design. There were also a lot of smaller, but equally obscure, machines. Seriously creepy-looking devices and attachments that looked like they were designed by Torquemada — if Torquemada had been a Romulan.

Did I take any photos of those things? No, I did not. Why? Because it never occurred to me that today (or any other day) I’d be writing about farm equipment. But trust me, there’s a good reason you occasionally see a news report about some farmer who was killed or mutilated by a piece of farm equipment. It’s because a lot of that shit is flat-out terrifying to look at. A lot of it gives the impression that human mutilation was built into the design.

But down at the bone, the Iowa State Fair is just a fair. Here’s a true thing: ALL fairs are grounded in nostalgia. You cannot attend a fair without thinking about how things were when you were a kid. So it’s understandable that scattered throughout the Iowa State Fair grounds are collections of old farm equipment. Including this — which I presume is some sort of Hall of Tractors Used by The Ancients.

Tractors of Our Forefathers.

Tractors of Our Forefathers.

I heard a guy about my age tell a young boy “Yeah, my dad had one of these units. Old Farmall Super MD, three-plow, broke a lot of acres with that tractor.” I don’t have a clue what any of that means, but the guy was sure fond of that tractor. The kid was skeptical (as kids should be). He looked at the tractor like maybe it had arrived in Iowa on the ark (and yes, by the way, there actually was an Evolution: Fact or Myth booth at the fair).

I saw a LOT of old tractors littered around the fairgrounds. Mostly red or green, a few that were yellow. It was pretty common to see a couple of old guys loitering about the tractors, talking about things like couplers (whatever those are) and…I don’t know. Gear ratios, maybe. Tractor stuff.

Bromance -- bonding over an Allis-Chalmers tractor.

Bromance — bonding over an Allis-Chalmers tractor.

Iowa is a farm state. You can’t travel around Iowa without passing by farms. And that’s been the extent of my experience — driving (or cycling) by farms and farmland. It’s only when I attend the State Fair that I get some remote sense of what farmers do. What they do is pretty fundamental: they feed us. They grow the stuff we eat. It’s really that simple, and really that complex.

I see them sometimes at the Farmer’s Market, in their hats and overalls and checkered shirts. I occasionally see them in a diner in some small town where I’ve gone to have breakfast and see some ‘local color’. But when I’m at the fair, that’s the only time I find myself actually appreciating them — which is probably pretty shitty of me.

Later today I’ll run some errands, and while I’m out I may stop by some roadside stand where a young farm girl (it’s almost always a young farm girl) is selling melons and sweetcorn from the back of a pick-up — crops picked early this morning. Today, when I say “Thank you” after buying the produce, this time I’ll really mean it.

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