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Illinois State Fair opens Friday amid historic drought that’s hurting farmers

Updated: August 8, 2012 10:10PM

SPRINGFIELD — Corn dogs, music, animals and maybe a blue ribbon or two could be just what Illinois farmers need right now.

The Illinois State Fair officially opens Friday for what is, at heart, still a celebration of Illinois agriculture. But this year’s fair comes amid a historic drought that has scorched corn and soybean crops throughout the Midwest, delivering a painful financial blow to many farmers.

Officials say they don’t expect the drought to keep many farm families away or affect the quality of the produce they submit for judging, from corn to tomatoes to peaches. In fact, they say, farmers may welcome a break.

“I think it’s going to be a good escape for them. Everybody looks forward to the fair,” said John Hawkins, a spokesman for the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Fairgoers might notice a few changes this year.

A section of permanent rides and attractions has been removed. The temporary rides in their place will be “newer and fresher,” said Amy Bliefnick, the fair manager. Many parts of the fairgrounds have also been freshened up with a new coat of paint or new signs, one of the few improvements the fair can afford with the state’s finances on such shaky ground.

The “Happy Hollow” name is being resurrected for the area that was home to rides and carnival games for decades. The rides now will be in a different section of the fairgrounds, and the new Happy Hollow will specialize in family activities, including clowns, a stunt show and trained pigs.

Admission prices are changing, too. Adults will pay $7 instead of $5, while a child’s admission will be $3 instead of $2. Veterans and senior citizens continue to get free admission on special days, and general admission drops to just $2 on the final day of the fair.

“Even with that increase, we’re still the lowest-priced fair in the Midwest and one of the lowest in the nation,” Bliefnick said.

The fair’s concert lineup includes country stars Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, teen singer Demi Lovato, the pop band Train and past chart-toppers Cheap Trick and the Steve Miller Band.

The grandstand will also be the site of harness racing and auto racing on some days.

As of Monday, three-fourths of Illinois’ corn crop and nearly 60 percent of its soybean acreage were rated poor or very poor. All but four Illinois counties have been declared disaster areas by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Bliefnick said the disaster hasn’t reduced the number of entries in the fair’s livestock competitions, and she doesn’t expect it to affect the quality of the grains and vegetables that are being judged. Most of those, she said, come from gardens that get plenty of care and water.

But some farm families might find themselves too busy to attend the fair, Bliefnick said.

Hawkins, of the Farm Bureau, explained that an early planting season this year combined with the summer’s intense heat means that some crops — or what’s left of them — are nearly ready to be harvested.

Another concern is swine flu.

A new strain has popped up in a few places, including a county fair in Ohio. No cases have been reported in Illinois, but fair organizers say they’ll be watching closely. Veterinarians will examine pigs for any signs of disease that could be transmitted to people, and posters will remind fairgoers about the importance of washing their hands after any contact with livestock.

The fair starts with a preview day Thursday and formally kicks off Friday. It runs through Aug. 19.

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