Sarah Pratt Carved Some Fat for the Fair

The Pratt family (from left), Hannah, Dean, Sarah, Andy and Grace, pose with a past state fair butter cow sculpture. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Pratt)
The Pratt family (from left), Hannah, Dean, Sarah, Andy and Grace, pose with a past state fair butter cow sculpture. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Pratt)

By BEN CROFT

FarmWeek

Sarah Pratt might lack the skills to handle live cattle, but she’s proven herself a master when it comes to creating a life-size cow made from butter.

The sculptor of the butter cow annually displayed at the Illinois State Fair needs just 500 pounds of butter, five days and 10 magical fingers to get the job done.

She learned most of her sculpting skills from her mentor, Norma “Duffy” Lyon, whose butter sculptures were among the must-sees at the Illinois and Iowa state fairs from the 1960s until her retirement in 2006. She even made appearances on “Today,” “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night with David Letterman.”

A few years before Lyon’s passing, Pratt took over as the “Butter Cow Lady” and found a new passion in molding hundreds of pounds of recycled, unsalted butter into works of art.

She noted several of the small, intricate details Lyon would incorporate into her pieces that she now incorporates into her own butter cow sculptures, like the veining on the utters or specifically one vein on the face that would stick out a little bit more than the others.

“She was always very specific about the anatomy of a dairy cow. I think that if they weren’t present on a sculpture, people would still walk by and go, ‘Oh, that’s a dairy cow,’” Pratt said. “But those are the things she taught me.”

Proud to carry on Lyon’s legacy, Pratt sculpts at state fairs across the Midwest, including Illinois and Iowa, and has done so for several years. Using the same butter, year after year, one might wonder if a particular stench begins to develop. Yes, indeed it does, but Pratt doesn’t mind. She prefers the older butter, as it is easier to mold into those fine details that Lyon taught her to include. This will be the seventh year using the same recycled butter.

Her work is also displayed at events across the nation. Pratt recently returned from the Reno Rodeo in Nevada, where she sculpted a butter cow at the request of rodeo President Greg “Lightning” Williams. Williams, an Illinois native, grew up going to the state fair and loving the butter cow, according to Pratt. When given the opportunity to feature something special at the rodeo, he requested her talents.

A native of Iowa, Pratt “always wanted to be a farm girl.” While her parents were raised on farms, she grew up in town. But the distance didn’t stop her interest in agriculture. She spent a significant amount of time assisting her cousins on their farm.

“I always had that passion to be connected to the land, the animals, the production of the food we eat,” she said.

When she was 14 years old, she excitedly took the opportunity to help take care of a friend’s show cattle at the Iowa State Fair. But Pratt quicky learned that passion doesn’t always translate to skill.

“It was my ineptness in being able to actually do that (take care of the cattle) that got me connected with Norma ‘Duffy’ Lyon,” Pratt said.

When Pratt’s practical cattle caretaking skills didn’t work out with Lyon’s niece, the family sent her to watch Lyon prepare the butter cow. And so Pratt’s training under Lyon began.

After graduating from the University of Northern Iowa in 1999 with a degree in elementary education, Pratt took her first job teaching middle school special education in Kansas, where she stayed for two years before returning to Iowa.

In education and butter sculpting alike, Pratt sees opportunities for creativity and thoughtful problem solving. She passionately uses her teaching background to create new opportunities to educate people young and old about the art of sculpting.

Buttery fingers run in the family. Pratt’s husband, Andy, and daughter, Grace, will assist in the creation of the 2023 butter cow. Grace, and her twin, Hannah, attend the University of Northern Iowa just as their mother did. They both study art in different forms. Pratt marvels at her daughters’ artistic abilities and says the two of them hope to take over the butter cow sculpting someday, “in the midst of all their other passions that they’re pursuing as well.”

In addition to the cow, supplementary sculptures will be created to complement some of the educational displays at the fair. The Illinois State Fair will run from Aug. 10-20.

This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.

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