By Des Keller
Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor
There is a general hush over the audience of more than 80 people tucked into a darkened indoor amphitheater on a farm in northwest Indiana. All the attention is focused on a young mama dairy cow trying to give birth to her first calf -- and she's doing it onstage behind a glass wall in a stall generously padded with hay.
The crowd, which has been told to be as quiet as possible, murmurs support or dismay as mom's efforts to push the calf out either progress or fall short. Two small legs now protrude from her back end. Eventually, two "midwives" begin to help the effort by coaxing and calming mom and by pulling on the calf's legs.
In the audience is Marlene Pajor, of Portage, Ind., who has brought three of her grandchildren, ages 5 to 11. "I think this is wonderful for the kids," says Pajor, who has been to Fair Oaks before with two of the three grandchildren. "They are enchanted with it, and seeing the births is astounding."
Eventually, during the course of more than a half-hour and with the help of a special harness, the new calf, slick and immobile, spills out onto the hay. The newborn doesn't move for what seems like minutes but is really only about 10 seconds. The audience seems to collectively hold its breath. The mama cow appears disinterested.
Suddenly, the calf's head pops up, hay stuck to its ears, and bobs a bit as it tries to upright itself. Mom turns and begins to lick her baby. The audience bursts into cheers and applause.
This scene is played out eight to 11 times a day in The Birthing Barn at The Dairy Adventure, part of Fair Oaks Farms, located just off Interstate 65 about midway between Chicago and Indianapolis. Opened as a tourist attraction in 2004 by a partnership of nine farming families, Fair Oaks is situated on 30,000 acres with more than 32,000 dairy cows divided into 10 units. It is one of the largest farms in the country and easily the biggest agritourism attraction in the U.S.
In addition to a large dairy operation, the farm includes an interactive dairy museum, an outdoor play area complete with a milk-carton-shaped climbing wall, a restaurant and a gift shop. The milk and ice cream is excellent. The cheese is award-winning. And the thick grilled-cheese sandwich from the restaurant is legendary.
"This was a long step off a tall pier for us," Gary Corbett says of the decision made in the late 1990s to create a large commercial farm and open it to the public. Corbett, a former executive of Dean Foods and a dairy industry veteran, is CEO of Fair Oaks Farms. The Progressive Farmer talked to him in the farm's executive offices, a building that from the outside appears to be a silo.
"We felt there was a real reservoir of people losing touch with 21st-Century agriculture," Corbett says. "They don't even have the opportunity to visit a farm. Most people don't even have an uncle or grandfather farming anymore."
Yet at the same time, consumers have become more sophisticated. "They care about where their food comes from, food safety and traceability, and all the stuff that goes with that," Corbett says. But absent any real connections with consumers, an operation like Fair Oaks risked being portrayed as a heinous factory farm by what Corbett calls "the anti-guys that would not bring us together but pull us apart."
He says they provide "edutainment" to customers.
"We thought we had to break the paradigm and do something different," Corbett says. They certainly have. Last year, Fair Oaks Farms attracted nearly 500,000 visitors, and its goal is to reach 2 million within just a few more years. Given what's in the works, that seems possible.
Last August, Fair Oaks Farms opened The Pig Adventure just down the road from The Dairy Adventure. Operated in partnership with DeMotte, Ind.-based Belstra Milling, the pig adventure has essentially wrapped a modern interactive 21st-Century pig industry museum around a state-of-the-art 2,400-head sow operation. Visitors can witness labor, birth and the weaning of thousands of pigs that will be finished by other Belstra partners.
There's even more in the works -- way more. Additional operations/adventures will feature beef cattle, poultry and even fish (aquaculture) and crop demonstrations, Corbett explains. Construction is expected to begin this year on a hotel with a conference center and water park. A sit-down restaurant that focuses on using the products produced at the farm will also open in 2014.
An operation this size doesn't go unnoticed. A representative of PETA (People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals) toured Fair Oaks Farms last year. "The only thing he wrote about later on his blog," Corbett says, "is that we sold our cull cows to market rather than putting them in a sanctuary."
It doesn't hurt that the livestock facilities are incredibly clean by design and practice. Though the farm isn't technically organic, the cows don't receive any antibiotics or hormones.
Perhaps most amazing is the fact that Fair Oaks Farms generates every bit of its own electricity by processing the 1.65 million gallons of manure produced daily in anaerobic digesters. They even have electricity to spare that is sold back to the local utility. In addition, the process also produces compressed natural gas (CNG) that fuels the farm's 42 long-haul milk delivery trucks in addition to the Pig Adventure tour buses used to transport paying customers about the farm.
"They are a very good neighbor and supportive of the community as a whole," says Kendell Culp, who lives about 10 miles from the visitor center and serves on the Indiana Soybean Association board, as well as being a Jasper County Commissioner. "Sometimes, when you get real big, you forget about everyone else, but they seem pretty considerate and understanding about their neighbors."
Several farmers in the area sell silage corn and grow hay for Fair Oaks, Culp says. Producers more than an hour away from the tourist attraction also cut wheat straw intended for the operation.
Fair Oaks employs 450 people in the actual farm operations. Another 150 people work on the tourist side of the business. None of the crop land is leased or custom-farmed. Employees do all of the farming.
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