The drought has made it tough to find a bright spot in agriculture this summer. But find one I did, this week as I traveled to see the beginnings of Legacy Farms and the Fair Oaks Pig Adventure Center.
Even thought the frame is up and the pit is poured for the breeding and gestation barn, Tuesday (July 31) featured the official ground breaking ceremony. It’s one thing to hear about and see the plans for what is to be a working, modern pork production unit and public education center, it’s another to see it on site with the people driving it.
In 18 short months, the Pig Adventure Center went from a nugget of an idea hatched by the Fair Oaks Farms dairy folks to a 2,400-sow unit including breeding, gestation, farrowing and a small finisher, literally with windows opening pork production up to the public. By anyone’s standards, that’s a fast track, but that pace is less surprising once you look at the players involved.
Belstra Milling will own and operate the pig production site as a commercial pork operation. Why is Belstra involved? One part is location. Belstra Milling, in DeMotte, Ind., is just down the road a piece from the Fair Oaks site.
I will venture to guess the Dutch heritage that runs through both the Belstra and Fair Oaks folks has something to do with it. I see some of the same messages and priorities echoed from my recent trip to the Netherlands.
During that trip, pork producers there told me that “You have to show consumers what and why you do things.” As Dutch producer, Gerbert Oosterlaken, said, “That’s a problem for pork—a consumer doesn’t see the producer or the process.”
Tim Belstra mirrored that sentiment, “For years, agriculture has had its head down; busy working hard to raise food. We didn’t pay attention to the public.” But increasingly there’s a need for that to change as less than 2 percent of the U.S. population is involved in agriculture and most of the other 98 percent are four or more generations removed from the farm.
Another part is due to the fact that for the past few years, Belstra has been bringing groups of consumers to a viewing area set up at its own hog facilities. That effort also included a website with video feeds to let the public watch farm activities from their homes.
Now, it’s not exactly a news flash that agriculture needs to connect more effectively with the public, but it’s the rare few who will take such a dramatic step forward to tackle the task. There’s too much at stake for pork producers to let Joe Q. Public come into their barns and track pathogens in to infect the hogs. (Not the other way around as most people believe.)
The Fair Oaks Farms’ crew is the right coach to have in your corner as well, with eight years of experience under their belt. While I didn’t see the full dairy exhibit, a quick glance around tells you they don’t miss an opportunity. Fill up your car at the on-site gas station and you’ll find a video screen within the pump that tells you about cheese making, the manure digester and other related messages. Go inside the station to pay and a flat-screen TV shares more details about dairy production, and the cash register tells you, “It’s about the cows.”
Certainly neither Belstra Milling nor Fair Oaks is doing all of this alone. The state of Indiana is standing squarely in support of the effort both as an agricultural priority as well as a tourism one. Many players within the pork industry have stepped up, contributing significant dollars to the education center. “Support across the board has been tremendous,” Belstra told me. “I won’t say it’s 100 percent, but most people support the concept.”
There have been critics, and that’s healthy for any project. But hopefully the overall value that Legacy Farms brings in opening the pork production window to the public will sooth some of the concerns.
As Malcolm DeKryger, vice president at Belstra, choked up in sharing the reason for Legacy Farm’s name is that it honors the many people over the years “who have taught us how to be pig farmers.” It’s hard to ask for more sincere, hardworking folks who are committed to and proud of what they do. That is the reality in agriculture today, and that’s what the public needs to see.