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Back and butter than ever: NYS Fair's 55th annual butter sculpture debuts

Jim Victor and Marie Pelton stand in front of the 2023 Butter Sculpture titled "Dairy Every Day is a Healthy Way – Keeping Kids’ Health on Track"
Ava Pukatch
Jim Victor and Marie Pelton stand in front of the 2023 Butter Sculpture titled "Dairy Every Day is a Healthy Way – Keeping Kids’ Health on Track"

It's back and butter than ever! The Great New York State Fair unveiled the 55th annual butter sculpture titled: Dairy Every Day is a Healthy Way – Keeping Kids’ Health on Track. It features a train with a cow conductor and children enjoying various dairy products in the train cars.

Since 2003, Jim Victor and Marie Pelton have crafted the butter sculpture for the New York State Fair. Previous creations the husband and wife team highlighted depicted children making milkshakes, a cow jumping over the moon and Olympic athletes.

Victor first started sculpting butter in 1995, applying to a gig at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. He had a background in chocolate but now he works with all sorts of foods.

"We've done sculptures where we use fruits and vegetables and salt and pepper and all kinds of all sorts of food items to make the sculpture," Victor said. "It's a whole thing, you have the whole gamut of color and texture and everything."

Victor was the kind of kid who liked to play with his food at the dinner table. Now it's his career.

"I still remember those peas and mashed potato castles," Victor said.

Pelton said there are some key differences in butter sculpting as they work in a confined space for a limited amount of time — 11 days after 800 pounds of butter is delivered to the fairgrounds. Temperature control is critical.

"We work in a range of basically from 55 to 65 degrees to begin with," Pelton said. "As we progress, the temperature will go down for more detail and also to stabilize the sculpture while it's on display."

Victor said there's an added challenge of working with a loud fan blowing cold air on you while you work.

"You can be in there and it's 60 degrees and it'll feel like it's Arctic," Victor said.

Butter is applied to armatures — made of steel or wood — serving as a frame for the structure. There can't be any gaps in applying the butter or else gravity will step in.

Pelton said the duo often makes their own tools using branches from the fruit trees in their backyard. She said she likes the texture the wood tools add to their pieces.

Victor said the history building has miniature versions of their past sculptures catering to people who are visually impaired.

"They can come in and they can feel these little models of all of our previous sculptures," Victor said.

Ava Pukatch

The duo creates a design from a theme provided by the American Dairy Association Northeast — deciding what portions of the sculpture should be raised like the words "Dairy Everyday" or recessed like the words "New York State Express" carved onto the train engine. Throughout the entire process, American Dairy Association Northeast spokesperson Greg Szklany said none of the butter is wasted.

"It's butter that's not suitable for human consumption," Szklany said. "We [get] to put it on display for hundreds of thousands of people to view and witness."

After the fair, the sculpture will be taken apart and butter will be scraped off to be recycled at Noblehurst Farms in western New York where it will be turned into renewable energy.

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.