Dairymen have long led the pack when it comes to showing the public what they do on the farm, why they do it and how it translates to the tasty, wholesome products that consumers enjoy (and take for granted). Of course it helps when you can showcase what is nearly everyone’s favorite sweet treat — ice cream — as well as yogurt, cheese and milk. It also helps that the animals are not harvested during the food production process.

Nor does it hurt to have a picturesque scene of black and white cows dotting a bright green pasture as you drive up to a visitors’ center, even though that’s a less typical dairy scene today.     

My first encounter with such an exhibit was about six years ago at the Tillamook Cheese Visitor’s Center in Tillamook, Ore. While I walked through the self-guided educational exhibits, viewed an instructional film and investigated the cheese-making observation deck, I thought, “Gee, the pork industry sure could use something like this.”

Perhaps more familiar to folks in the Midwest, and becoming increasingly familiar to pork producers, is the Fair Oaks Farm Dairy Adventure Center. (Check it out at fofarms.com.) It’s located in Indiana off I-65, an hour or so south of Chicago. The 30,000-cow working farm is owned by a group of five dairy families. Having started in 2004, the goal was to show the public “how we operate and taste what we produce,” they say. An estimated 500,000 visitors drop in annually, about half of which take the 3-hour, paid bus tour of the commercial dairy, birthing center and informational exhibits, and, of course, sample many tasty treats.

Now, the pork industry has signed on to tackle a similar project, which will be known as the Fair Oaks Pig Adventure Center. The project has been in the works for a while, as Belstra Milling had committed to the idea long ago. For the past few years, Belstra has offered a down-sized version of a public viewing site and tours at one of its own pork production facilities.

At last month’s National Pork Industry Forum, the National Pork Board committed $1 million to help fund the educational exhibits at the Fair Oaks Pig Adventure Center. NPB will present another $1 million once the remaining $7.6 million for the total project is secured.

Belstra Milling will own and operate the pork production system, which includes a 2,400-head sow farm, nursery and gilt development site. The state-of-the-art facilities will have filtered heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, and manure will be handled through a methane digester. The gestation unit will feature group-sow housing and an electronic sow-feeding system.

Construction is set to break ground this spring and is expected to take 14 months. Once completed, bus tours will take visitors to see some 250 baby pigs born per day, with an estimated 75,000 to 80,000 weaned pigs produced annually. The production site will include a glass-enclosed observation deck so that the public can view daily production and animal care practices.

About a mile up the road on Fair Oaks Farm’s main campus will be the 15,000-square-foot pork education center. It will offer hands-on exhibits, videos and opportunities for the public to interact with pork production workers. This is where NPB will focus its money and support, as education is one of the National Pork Checkoff’s three mandated missions.

With a special nod to educators, there is a provision to include web-based video and distance-learning options so that teachers can access materials from their classrooms anywhere in the nation. Indiana Pork will provide $250,000 toward that effort.

But the center will reach even further, connecting with and educating pork’s food-chain partners such as grocers, restaurateurs, chefs and others.

Beyond pork, and in the very long-term view, Fair Oaks plans to add beef, poultry and aquaculture production to the overall exhibit. Think of it as an agricultural Epcot Center. We’ll see. 

For its part, the Pig Adventure Center is certainly a new and adventurous undertaking for the pork industry. But at least the Fair Oaks folks are there to offer guidance. 

It will open a window to your world and let consumers see how committed you are to caring for your animals. It will allow you to tell your story, versus letting others tell their version. It will allow consumers to better understand the realities of 21st-century pork production, and hopefully, it will build their comfort level in today’s food supply and their trust in you.

I wish the project and the organizers all the best and I am eager to see the end result.  However, do not think for a moment that the job is done. This is a first step — it is nowhere near the last. PK

For anyone interested in donating to the Fair Oaks Pig Adventure Center, contact Dennis Sargent at (317) 294-7614 or dsargent@inpork.org.