Following the moo-lah behind the butter cow
For about a month every summer, Sarah Pratt dons layers of clothing normally saved for the dead of winter, enters a 40-degree refrigerator and spends at least eight hours a day sculpting a life-sized cow out of slippery, smelly, frigid butter.
Working almost nonstop to meet her deadline — Day 1 of the Iowa State Fair — some regular activities lapse, she said, some catch-ups with friends get put on hold and much of the time normally reserved for her husband, son and twin daughters goes to sculpting.
She does all this in pursuit of butter cow perfection.
For her four weeks (including weekends) of eight-hour-a-day effort, Pratt is paid between $13,000 and $15,000 a year, which equals between $54 and $62 an hour. The Iowa State Fair, an entity of the state, funds about $8,000 to $10,000 a year, depending on expenses, while the rest of Pratt’s salary is paid by the Midwest Dairy Association.
The cost of butter sculptures came into the spotlight recently when the state of Illinois failed to promptly pay its artist for her work at this summer’s fair, a consequence of the state’s ongoing budget issues, said Illinois State Fair spokeswoman Rebecca Clark. Butter sculptor Sharon BuMann’s check can’t be mailed until an appropriation for the Illinois Department of Agriculture is passed, Clark said.
In Illinois, BuMann is paid $2,500 by the state, about a quarter of what the Iowa State Fair pays Pratt. The contrast is emblematic of fluctuating butter sculpting salaries across the Midwest, which are partly due to the differing levels of detail required for each sculpture.
Often supported through a mix of state funds and local dairies’ sponsorship, total prices for butter sculptures in the region range from more than $10,000 in Iowa and Minnesota to $6,500 in Kansas and about $5,000 in Illinois to $2,000 in Missouri.
“The cost varies from fair to fair primarily because of the (differences) in how the sculpting happens, the sculptor’s expectation and how long we’ve been working with the sculptor,” said Sherry Newell, senior communications manager for the Midwest Dairy Association, a sponsor of some of the region’s butter creations. “In Minnesota, our sculptor has worked with us for more than 40 years and is nationally known. In Missouri, we have used a local art teacher.”
In Iowa, the butter cow is a legend unto itself, playing background to countless selfies and presidential candidate photo ops. An enduring tradition since 1911, the butter cow ranks “as one of the primary reasons people come to the fair,” said Mindy Williamson, marketing director for the Iowa State Fair.
“The butter cow is a synonym for the Iowa State Fair to a lot of people,” she said. “The fair has a lot of traditions and things you can come see for multiple generations and those are what make the fair special and unique. The butter cow is on the top of that list.”
Tracking the moo-lah
Pinning down how butter sculptors are paid is almost as slippery as butter itself; Each fair has its own structure for payment.
The American Dairy Association of the Midwest funds the entire $2,000 Missouri sculpture and helps cover costs in Illinois, where they match the state’s $2,500 payment plus a bit more based on BuMann’s “12 years of sculpting and her expenses,” Newell said.
The Midwest Dairy Association spends $10,000 for the Minnesota sculptures, where the artist sculpts 12 butter creations, one during each day of the fair, Newell said.
The Kansas State Fair, a state agency, pays their sculptor’s full $6,500 salary.
In Iowa, the Midwest Dairy Association chips in $5,000 annually and the butter, while the State Fair pays the remaining remuneration.
“The fee is based on what (former butter sculptor) Norma (Lyon) was paid and on Sarah’s (25) years of experience,” said Williamson. “It has been mostly the same with some incremental increases.”
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The Iowa State Fair is a “public instrumentality,” according to state code, not a state agency, meaning its revenues are governed differently than most departments.
“While all fair moneys are state funds, any revenue that the fair generates it gets to keep, but solely for fair purposes,” said Andy Nielsen, an Iowa state auditor.
The fair also receives some state appropriations, which come from Iowa’s gambling revenue, not taxpayer dollars, said state Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City. Those dollars can only be used for capital projects such as infrastructure repair, he added.
“Things like displays or certain attractions at the fair, those do not come from taxpayer funds and that is the proper way to have it organized,” Hall said. “With the fair receiving record attendance, they have a greater ability to provide for their costs and raise funds for their own operations.”
In 2014, the fair’s operating revenues totaled about $22.9 million and the expenses were about $21.3 million, leaving an operating income of almost $1.6 million. That year, the year of the most recent audit, Pratt’s pay at its most was less than 0.07 percent of the State Fair’s expenses.
Historically, butter sculptures have promoted local dairies, an idea that persists today.
“Our dairy farmer funders are very proud of the butter sculpting tradition and the popularity these sculptures made of their product — the butter — has with fairgoers,” Newell said.
Indeed, the State Fair’s own research found 42 percent of 400 people surveyed after this year’s fair selected the butter cow as one of the reasons they came.
And in a 2004, a Des Moines Register Iowa Poll of almost 1,000 Iowans found the butter cow came in as the third-most popular fair attraction, behind the Grandstand and the Varied Industries Building.
ON TWITTER: The butter cow tweets
Visit the Agriculture Building almost any day and you’ll see a winding line of fairgoers patiently waiting for their turn at the butter cow window — the best view of the dairy composition.
“The butter cow definitely has her own brand awareness,” Williamson said.
And the butter cow is tech savvy, too. The cow’s official Twitter account sent one of the fair’s most trending tweets, crafted after presidential candidate Donald Trump visited.
“I cannot be trumped,” the tweet read. “All these people are definitely all here to see me!”
So what’s it worth?
Ask the more than 3 million Iowans if the butter cow is worth $15,000, and you’ll get more than 3 million opinions, said Jeff Smith, the president and CEO of the Iowa Taxpayers Association, which focuses on educating Iowans on “sound fiscal policy.”
The butter sculptor “gets paid $15,000 and well done by her,” said Zach Mannheimer, executive director of the Des Moines Social Club and an ardent supporter of public funds for art. “In my opinion, she should demand more based on how many people come through and see her work. But art is subjective. The person next to me might say she should do it for free.”
Since the State Fair retains all of its profits, their board has decision making rights over how to spend its moneys, state Rep. Hall said.
“I’m sure they’ve figured out the wisest way to invest their revenue independent of taxpayer money,” he said. “And the butter cow, as much as it might cost, is also an attraction that brings people in.”
It’s hard to put an exact price on an iconic sculpture made out of such an unusual medium, Williamson said, but for the fair, the many benefits of the cow outweighs its costs.
“At the end of the day the butter cow costs are the best value we have as it is the most popular exhibit …,” Gary Slater, CEO of the Iowa State Fair, said in a statement. “It is sort of like our flagship, so it must be done right.”
To Pratt, the payment seems fair, she said. And this dust-up in Illinois is a “one-time thing” that wouldn’t stop her from working at their fair, she said.
But what if the budget for the Iowa butter cow was suddenly slashed? Would she do it for free?
Well, she said, that’s like asking someone if they won the lottery, would they keep working? So many factors go into a decision when something that drastic happens.
“Sculpting the cow takes a lot,” she said. “By the end, I’m drained. It’s hard to say this thing for this period of time is more important than my family and to set them aside.
“This salary goes right into my kids’ college fund,” she continued, “and being able to use that money to benefit my family, while I am doing something I love, that means a lot to me.”
Butter sculpture pay basics in the Midwest
Iowa: $13,000-$15,000 a year. The Iowa State Fair pays between $8,000-$10,000, depending on expenses, and $5,000 comes from the Midwest Dairy Association.
Minnesota: More than $10,000 a year is paid by the Midwest Dairy Association.
Illinois: About $5,000. $2,500 is paid by the state and about $2,500 plus expenses is paid by the American Dairy Association of the Midwest.
Missouri: $2,000 is paid by the American Dairy Association of the Midwest.
Kansas: $6,500 is paid by the Kansas State Fair.
Michigan: The country’s first privately funded state fair, the salary for Michigan’s butter sculptor is paid by C.F. Burger Creamery, which did not respond by press time.
Ohio: The American Dairy Association Mideast pays the Ohio State Fair butter sculptor. The association did not respond by press time.
State fairs in Wisconsin, Indiana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota do not have a history of butter sculpting. Both Indiana and Wisconsin have had cheese sculptures in previous years.
Originally published at www.desmoinesregister.com on December 4, 2015.