Letting outsiders into your operation is a scary proposition. Will they bring along a pesky pathogen that could infect your livestock? Could they be undercover activists recording your activity, trying to expose you for mistreatment of animals? Are they scoping out your property to possibly rob you?
For Fair Oaks Farms these problems are fairly non-existent. The farm tourism destination in Fair Oaks, Ind., has successfully built its brand on the principles of “fun, food and learning” while doing it sustainably.
I had the opportunity to tour Fair Oaks Farms while I was in the area for the Rensselaer Swine Services’ 2013 Client Appreciation Meeting, and I’m really glad I made time for this stop.
Fair Oaks Farms started doing tours at one of its dairies in 2004 and has since grown into a 27,000-acre farm encompassing 11 dairies with 32,000 cows. Visitors can ride a tour bus through the large open-stall barns while listening to their guide explain what it takes to get a glass of milk to their kitchen tables.
After riding through the barns and around the farm, a stop is made at the milking parlor. Inside visitors can see the 72-cow rotary parlor from an elevated view behind glass.
At the main campus housing The Dairy Adventure, guests can witness the birth of a baby calf in a large auditorium with the cow on center stage.
If seeing the livestock isn’t enough, kids and adults can spend their time jumping on the inflated silage pit, climbing the milk jug rock wall, riding the dairy cow carousel and a myriad of other activities. Annually the farm attracts 400,000 visitors, with people coming from as far away as Argentina, Australia and Japan.
A recent development for the farm is The Pig Adventure. While there, guests will see the process of raising pigs including day-to-day farm activities like farrowing, artificial insemination, teeth clipping, tattooing and vaccinating. The facility houses 2,700 sows that can be seen from the second floor via many different glass viewing areas. In all, the farm is expected to produce between 80,000 and 90,000 piglets per year.
The Pig Adventure was opened on "Hogust" 5 and prior to that a soft opening was held on July 1. For the month of July, Fair Oaks Farms saw 18,475 visitors to the agri-tourism portion, with many of them coming specifically to see The Pig Adventure.
My tour was guided by communications director Jed Stockton, who shared with me the vision for the future Fair Oaks Farms.
"Fair Oaks is branching out into different areas. This is not just going to be a dairy anymore. This is going to be a one-stop agriculture experience," said Stockton.
New features will include a restaurant, a sporting arena and a resort with a water park. More farm segments will be added, including a caged laying-hen operation and a fish farm.
"Any aspect of agriculture you could possibly think of we’re going to have it here so you can come and see how 21st century agriculture practices are done," explained Stockton.
Some of those innovative practices include using group sow housing and digesters to create electricity for the farms via the pig and cow excrement. The methane in the manure is also used to run 42 milk trucks that deliver milk as far away as Florida. This is saving the farm from using the equivalent of 2 million gallons of gasoline per year.
It was great to see so many families out during my tour and many of them had likely never been to a farm. Another interesting group that I saw was a group of retired people and within that group were several farmers who were in awe of all the advancements that have been made in agriculture.
If former farmers are amazed by this operation, I can only imagine what kind of impact this experience will have for little kids and even their parents. I’m sure it’s the kind of impact that will keep those families reassured the agricultural products they buy are in safe hands.