Five women serve on the Iowa State Fair Board, the most ever. Now, they hope to inspire more.

Iowa State Fair board members Julie Kenney, Deb Zumbach, Tennie Carlson, Andrea Nelson, and Jo Reynolds stand for a photo at the Iowa State Fair, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.
Courtney Crowder
Des Moines Register

The cacophony of the Iowa State Fair Parade, with its loud, festive music, grumbling car engines and onlookers' excited squeals, makes understanding any one specific shriek a nearly impossible task.

But, seven years ago, Tennie Carlson heard a particular chant loud and clear: Where are the women? Where are the women? Where are the women?

Carlson, of Stratford, was the only woman on the State Fair Board float, the only woman elected to the panel making decisions about Iowa’s marquee institution, and, well, that was noticeable.

“The first three years, I was the only female on the board and it felt very lonely,” Carlson says. “There were moments — like the first time my golf cart got stolen at my very first fair — I was like, ‘I think I made a mistake.’”

But her mother’s words rattled in her mind, then and all the other instances when she had a fleeting second thought: Get your big girl pants on and get back out there. Tomorrow will be different.  

In the case of the Iowa State Fair Board, Carlson’s mom was mostly right — change was coming, though not overnight.

This year, the 16-member board includes five women, the most females to ever serve at the same time. And this new high-water mark notes a step forward for the fair’s goal to increase diversity and ensure everybody feels welcome and included at Iowa’s biggest and most iconic event.

Iowa State Fair board members Tennie Carlson and Deb Zumbach present the best of show award to Miller Concessions Inc. Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.

The five women are Carlson, who is the board’s president; Deb Zumbach, of Coggon; Jo Reynolds, of Indianola; Andrea Nelson, of Bondurant, who sits on the board for Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen; and Julie Kenney, deputy agriculture secretary, who represents agriculture secretary Mike Naig.

Each one volunteers her time, devoting 20 to 30 hours a week to the State Fair and their local county fairs — on top of full-time jobs — on top of being mothers or grandmothers.

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Their deep love of livestock shows and corn dogs and midways makes committing so much energy easy, yes, but they also believe a well-run fair provides an opportunity to educate young people about the opportunities here in Iowa, a way to stop brain drain to seemingly greener pastures.

Each are also acutely aware that sometimes a woman has to see it to be it. And they hope the seeing of them being on the board helps inspire other young women to seek a seat at the table and lift up their voices.

“I think to bring people together, you need to have multiple perspectives and multiple viewpoints,” Kenney says of the board. “And it's not just gender diversity. We've got people from every corner of the state, too.”

Thrill rides such as the YoYo provided lots of fun at the Iowa State Fair on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022, in Des Moines.

While all board members have a passion for the fair, these women have a fervent devotion. Some may call it an obsession. Carlson just calls it “fair crazy” — a crazy that was in overdrive this year as many marked a “return to normal” after the last two pandemic years.

“The roads are full. The rides are full. The lines are long," Carlson says. "And these are all great problems to have.”

“This is the Super Bowl of Iowa,” she adds. “Everything that you may or may not have an interest in, everything is here.”

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Nostalgia v. progress: A deep love of the fair informs decisions

When Zumbach turned 50 a few years ago, she wrote a bucket list.

She wanted to be on the Iowa State Fair Board. And she wanted to inspire someone.  

Could I really dream that big?, she thought as she penned her bullet points.

“I was in 4-H maybe three months until they told me I had to do a speech and a presentation. I said, ‘I'm out,’” she says with a laugh. She came back to the fair in high school as a Future Farmers of America (FFA) state officer, and again as the mother of four daughters, all of whom stuck out 4-H despite the public speaking.

Deb Zumbach and James Romer lead the presentation of best new fair food at the Iowa State Fair, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.

Reynolds, on the other hand, was “practically born on the fairgrounds,” coming to the east side so early in life she can’t really remember the first time. She’s been the Warren County fair manager for 24 years now, at least the third generation in her family to hold that title.

Joining the fair board was a “dream come true” for Carlson, who grew up competing in livestock shows, 4-H and FFA. “Just the whole gamut,” she says.

Her two sons ran the youth agriculture gamut, too, and the family even camped during the fair’s 11 days, a proud 28-year tradition they still keep up.

But as her sons started to age out, Carlson started to panic. No, like, really panic, she stresses.

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A corrections officer by trade, how could she stay involved in the agriculture industry and in fair life without an active 4-H'er under her roof? How could she continue to be a voice for the organizations that influenced her life deeply?

She decided to take a chance on joining her local fair board. Then a spot on the State Fair board opened up, and last year her peers nominated her to be their president.

“This is a board that has a lot of respect for one another. We do have very different viewpoints at times, but your different viewpoint can be stated at the table,” Nelson says. “We don't always have a unanimous vote, and that's happened recently. Yet, we're able to leave that business at the table.”

Jared and Jade Bond of Arizona enjoy East Side Night, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.

Lots of what is brought to the table deals with the fair’s greatest tension: the push and pull between nostalgia and progress. The Iowa State Fair is rooted in tradition, the board members know intimately, but it is also an event that has to keep up with trends. And the board members know just as intimately that times change.  

This year, the fair held its first-ever sensory day, which saw the lights dimmed and the music turned down to accommodate children and adults on the autism spectrum or with other sensory processing disorders. And for the past four years, the fair has partnered with the Iowa Latino Heritage Festival to host an evening of Spanish-speaking entertainment and education.

In a rapidly diversifying state, the fair and the board, whose members are all white, are "constantly looking at different entertainment programs and partnerships that represent Iowa," says Gary Slater, the fair's CEO. 

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"The Iowa State Fair is for all Iowans," he says. "It is important to be diverse and inclusive in everything we do."

Dig into any agenda item brought to the board, any suggested change, Nelson says, and the unintended outcomes are way more complex than they seem on the surface.

“We get challenged on rules, I think sometimes for the right reasons,” she says.

“But what we're talking about at the table is some of those 47 other variables,” she adds, “and it challenges us because we're empathetic individuals, and we're compassionate about what might be frustrating for somebody else.

“Things don't change as quickly as people might think they should, but, trust me, there really is a process.”

Lynn Gott holds a bubble tea at Saigonais, her new food stand at the Iowa State Fair in August 2022.

Another focus for the women of the fair board is bridging the gap between urban and rural Iowans. From the president down, they want the fair to showcase how Iowa feeds the world and facilitates scientific innovations and artistic advancements.

Inclusion in all ways, including geographically, is their end goal, says Kenney, who lives in Ankeny and farms with her husband in Story County.

“Maybe you go to a concert, but then hopefully walk down to the cattle barn and you ask a question or go to the Animal Learning Center and bring your kids,” she adds.

“The State Fair is a way for urban and rural to come together in a celebratory way, and I think that's pretty special. I don't know where else that happens.”

The women are on the float

Around the boardroom table, members have to think about the collective, have to make decisions based on what’s best for the vast majority of fairgoers.

But as they stroll the Grand Concourse or walk the aisles of the barns or ride the Sky Glider, they get to be closer to their constituents, get to make a difference on an individual level.  

At night, Zumbach will drive her golf cart a bit out of the way to find a family, just exhausted from a full day and lost looking for their car. She’ll pick them up and ask what they liked best about the fair, what they wished was different.

“Knowing that we're bringing all types of families, all kinds of people with all abilities to the fair to enjoy a day as a family, that's what I'm passionate about,” she says.

Breakfast sausage in a waffle on a stick from Waffle Chix at the Iowa State Fair.

Zumbach’s celebrating her fourth year on the board, and her third fair given 2020’s COVID cancellation. Her first couple of years were information overload, she says, like sipping from a firehose. But now she can see the difference she’s making, even if just to one tired family.

And recently she crossed that other bullet off her bucket list. After one of the county fairs, a girl Zumbach had struck up a conversation with sent her a Facebook message.

I just want you to know that you inspire me, the young woman wrote.

Zumbach keeps a screenshot of the note, for whenever she needs a reminder that kindness, even in small doses, will always matter.

“It's important that we're teaching not just young ladies, but young people that we need to be giving back to our communities. Otherwise, we're not going to have the life we do in Iowa,” Zumbach says.

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The burden of leadership isn’t just to ensure a successful fair, Reynolds says, but to make space for those women coming up behind them.

“I think what our duty may be as female leaders on here,” Reynolds adds, “is that we're mentoring and we're trying to inspire that next female that maybe needs lifted up or just given a little more encouragement.”

“Absolutely,” Carlson says, nodding in agreement. The progress they’ve made can’t stop with the women in this room.

As the 2022 State Fair Parade took off from downtown, with the board members decked out in matching highlighter-yellow shirts, all Carlson could hear was the festive music and the excited squeals.

This year no one was shouting: Where are the women?

Because, this year, the women were on the float.

The Iowa State Fair Board presents the best new food award to the Rib Shack for "The Finisher" at the Iowa State Fair, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.

Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She's a parallel parking master acquainting herself with gravel roads. Reach her at ccrowder@dmreg.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.