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Something old, something new at the fair
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Anna and her mother Cathy visit Little Farm Hands, a new exhibit at the State Fair where kids can get a hands-on taste of farm work. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
The Minnesota State Fair opened for business Thursday with Gov. Tim Pawlenty greeting some of the first visitors early in the morning. As always, there's a mixture of new attractions and old standbys at the fair, which officials hope will draw more than 1.75 million people over the next 10 days.

St. Paul, Minn. — The big new, nifty, absolutely free of charge State Fair attraction this year was designed for kids.

"Little Farm Hands" is a hands-on exhibit where kids and their parents, like Anna, who's nearly 3, and her parents John and Cathy, can get a taste of farm work.

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Image Little Farm Hands

"Do you see the corn here, Anna? Do you see the corn is growing?" asks mom.

Through a series of stations, kids harvest corn and soybeans, they can milk a plastic cow, feed plastic sheep and chickens, and plant and pick plastic vegetables.

The attraction culminates with a little farmers market, at which the kids trade in their various crops for a snack.

"I think it's wonderful. It's a wonderful experience," says Cathy. So too, is being back again at the State Fair.

"Just because it's always something that the family does. It always brings happy memories," she says.

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Image New stage

A State Fair centerpiece, the grandstand, is sure to attract a lot of attention this year -- thanks to the just-in-time completion of the first phase of a multi-million dollar renovation.

Fair director Jerry Hammer says over the past year, crews spent about $6 million ripping out the old bleachers, and upgrading the grandstand entrances with new stairs and and two elevators.

Hammer says it's the biggest project the State Fairgrounds has seen since the 1930s.

"Down in the grandstand -- the seating area in particular, and ways for getting in and out, and the landscaping and the plaza -- all of that is very different than anything we've had before. I'm really looking forward to getting people's reaction to it," says Hammer.

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Image Better access

"They've done a nice job on it. A beautiful job," says Gene Gardner of Ramsey. She was impressed with the grandstand.

"You're going to have a better view of the stage with the new grandtsand. Before, you sat off to the side and had to have binaculars to see the stage."

Standing in front of his Oodles of Noodles food stand, Craig Kroomblawd says business has been picking up this season. Judging from the other festivals he's recently worked, Kroomblawd expects sales will be strong at the fair.

"Last year people were pretty tightfisted. It's a bit better this year, I would have to say," says Kroomblawd. "Turnout seems to be pretty good, you know -- numbers of people. But dollars are not quite what they were let's say three, four years ago."

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Image The noodle man

The fair admistration gets a cut of the total food sales, along with admissions and rent receipts. This year that money will be more important than ever, because this spring lawmakers stopped allowing the fair to keep the sales tax it collects on admissions tickets.

The cash-strapped state is taking the money now, and the fair's maintenance budget is taking the hit.

Some predict the fair might also end up in a costly legal battle over its decision to continue banning weapons, despite Minnesota's new concealed carry law.

Gun rights advocates say if State Fair police turn away anyone for carrying a handgun who holds a right-to-carry permit, they'll pursue a breach of civil rights lawsuit.

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