Jennifer Brooks
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Minnesotans can't wait to find out if there's going to be a State Fair this year.

Maybe the announcement will come tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe next month. There's already a countdown clock on the Minnesota State Fair homepage, ticking optimistically toward a square on the calendar 164 days from now.

But a great many things have to come together before a Great Minnesota Get-Together, and almost none of them can wait. If you want to show up in Falcon Heights with a 1,000-pound pumpkin this summer, right now is when you need to plant the seeds.

"You grow and you show," said Bernie Hess, who's nursing the seedlings he plans to grow into the biggest and best kohlrabi at the Minnesota State Fair. "I'm hoping they're able to pull the fair off."

For years, he's coaxed giant prizewinning vegetables out of the soil of his shady backyard in St. Paul. Last summer, in the middle of a riot, in the middle of a pandemic, he watched his neighborhood burn. He watched his mother suffer through COVID-19 and survive.

Each seed that goes into the ground is an act of faith. This year can be better. Everyone who masked up, stayed home and lined up for the vaccine will make Minnesota safe enough for crowds to gather to marvel at a 15-pound kohlrabi.

Thousands of exhibitors, vendors and aspiring blue-ribbon winners are making the same leap of faith. Sprouting seeds, testing recipes, ordering napkins for the deep-fried cheese curd booth that may or may not open for business 164 days from now.

If the fairgrounds do open, Hess will be there all 12 days, tapping kegs at the Midway Men's Club — beloved destination of thirsty fairgoers and a major fundraiser for his neighborhood's rec centers and youth programs.

"Our beer is the cheapest and coldest at the fair," Hess said. "I tapped 63 kegs one day."

The pandemic canceled McKayla Carlson-Hughes' prom, then the Isanti County Fair, then the Minnesota State Fair.

So she took her prom dress and turned it into an award-winning 4-H project at the 2020 virtual State Fair.

"That was the only time I got to wear it," said Carlson-Hughes, a 4-H agricultural ambassador, who held on to that dress, hoping for a second chance to wear it. "We are looking like we might have prom this year."

If prom's back, maybe the county fair will be back and maybe, just maybe, the Minnesota State Fair will be back. If so, Carlson-Hughes will be back for the competition, the crowds and the friends she hasn't seen in two years.

"As crazy as it sounds, I've definitely missed how busy it was," she said. "And the food. I definitely missed the food."

State Fair by Zoom is fine. But only the real thing lets Carlson-Hughes and her friends buy a bucket of cookies and carry it over to the all-you-can-drink milk stand.

In Beltrami County, Lily Krona is getting her pigs and lambs ready for competition.

Sixty thousand Minnesota youngsters between the ages of 5 and 19 participated in 4-H projects in the middle of the pandemic. In fact, the program added 6,000 new members as clubs and state and county fairs went digital.

Instead of the show ring, Krona walked her animals around her yard and sent photos and video to the judges for review.

"The day the fair was supposed to be, we had a Zoom meeting with the judges — and we learned a lot," said Krona, whose livestock sailed through the Zoom competition to win blue ribbons. "In a normal year, when you're in the show ring, you don't get to hear the judge's comments, you don't get the full experience of talking with the judge and finding out what you could change the next year, or how your animal could improve."

The people who love the fair most understand why it had to shut down last year. One of the Hs in 4-H stands for "health."

But they've missed it, and they've missed each other.

"It would be so much fun to see my friends from around the state," Krona said, "and compete against them."

Minnesota State Auditor Julie Blaha's enthusiasm for bean counting is surpassed only by her enthusiasm for pasting those beans into award-winning crop art. But it was hard to get enthusiastic about much in 2020.

"We didn't know if there was going to be a State Fair, but I just kind of felt like there wasn't going to be," she said. "Last year, I really avoided it. I didn't start my piece until quite late, and every time I looked at it was just kind of sad."

They canceled the fair, but Blaha finished her project — a salute to First Avenue, lovingly rendered in lentils, millet, quinoa and wild rice. Hours of painstaking work, thousands of seeds, with no hope of ribbons or rewards or admiring crowds.

"I think it reminded me that I do like sticking seeds on a board," Blaha said with a laugh. "It helps you reconnect. It's not about the ribbons."

She's already working on this year's entry. A riff on Rosie the Riveter, flexing to show off her newly vaccinated biceps.

"That's one of my signs of hope for the year," she said. "And whether or not we have the State Fair, I am looking forward to making this piece."

If last year's crop art was a painful reminder of everything it felt like we were losing, she said, "this year, I'm doing it because I'm hopeful for what we'll gain."

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

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