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Opening the Farmgates to the Public
On a blustery January day, three Fair Oaks Farms partners sat in the cab of a pickup discussing the feasibility of opening their dairy to the public for touring.
“In the late 1990s, we started looking at things that may or may not impact our ability to dairy in the 21st century,” recalls Gary Corbett, CEO of Fair Oaks Farms. “One thing we identified was the rise and effectiveness of the anti groups – people who don’t necessarily like what we do. While the pork and poultry industries were suffering more slings and arrows than we were, we always felt our day would come.”
Overhauling Old Paradigms
Historically, many in agriculture felt the world ended at their farmgates. “The thinking was that they produced what they produced, handed it off to the market, and had little, if any, interaction with consumers,” says Corbett.
The three dairy farmers knew that mindset wasn’t sustainable for the long-term. Old paradigms had to go by the wayside and new ones had to be developed. A good starting point, they felt, was to commission a study to better understand the groups so opposed to agriculture.
“The members of these groups tend to be very articulate, well funded, and passionate about what they believe. They have a particular viewpoint, and they are not necessarily moved by facts,” he says. “Our takeaway was that these people are who they are, and there probably is nothing we can do to change their minds.”
While the results of the study were revealing, what intrigued them more was who these groups were talking to – the 98.5% of Americans who don’t farm.
“As farm numbers have continued to decrease, the opportunity to go out to a relative’s farm has greatly diminished. That was troubling to us,” notes Corbett. “At the same time, consumers have access to more information than at any other time in history. Everything is a Google search away.”
Just because the material is plentiful doesn’t necessarily mean a consumer is more informed. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Ag has always found itself in a defensive, reactive position rather than a proactive, offensive position,” he says.
Yet, many consumers have legitimate questions.
“We made the decision to become more proactive in the interaction and dialogue between the 98.5% who don’t farm for a living and the 1.5% who do,” says Corbett. “The question is, how do we do that?”
As the trio talked in the cab of the truck, they realized that in order to bridge the gap, they would need to let consumers in to see what a real working farm was all about.
“We came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a situation of could we afford to do this; rather, could we afford not to,” he says.
In 1998, Corbett, along with eight farm families, relocated to northwest Indiana from New Mexico and west Texas. They purchased about 15,000 acres and acquired another 17,000 acres through the years.
The group opened their first milking parlor in 1999 and have followed with 10 additional facilities that milk 37,0000 cows today.
Their goal from the beginning was to offer an up-close and personal experience of a working farm and then to back it up with an educational component to make even more of an impact. In January 2004, they opened Fair Oaks Farms Dairy Adventure and the journey began.
Not only will you see a cow being milked with some of the latest technology, you can also step inside the birthing barn to witness the miracle of life. Or, hop on a bus that takes you through a dry cow barn and a fresh cow free-stall barn.
Much like Iowa corn farmer Ray Kinsella, Corbett and his partners weren’t sure that if they built it, people would come. As their dairy of dreams took shape, word spread about the experience, and people did come. Today, they welcome .5 million visitors each year.
It also caught the attention of others in agriculture. “Individuals from the hog, poultry, and cattle industries approached us and said they wanted to be a part of what we were doing,” says Corbett.
Two years ago, Fair Oaks Farms partnered with Legacy Farms to open a 3,000-sow farrow-to-wean facility. A pork education center opened a year later. “Hogs are very difficult to tour because we want to create a meaningful experience for visitors while respecting the needs of the animals,” he says. “We believe there is no other site like this in the world. It has been a huge hit.”
By 2017, a 1.5 million-bird egg-laying facility will be available for touring.
“We feed out about 25,000 to 35,000 steers each year, so we will eventually offer feedlot tours. We also have some cow-calf operations around the country and will do something on that side, too,” he notes. “We are trying to cover the majority of the industry.”
While what Fair Oaks Farms is doing to educate consumers is innovative, how they manage the 150 pounds of manure each of the 37,000 cows produces daily is even more impressive. “We developed a technology that is used to scrub the biogas harvested from anaerobic digesters. It takes the gas from 63% to 99% methane, which is natural gas,” says Corbett.
All of the tractor trailers that leave their farm every day to deliver 57 to 62 loads of milk are powered with compressed natural gas. Typically, the cost advantage compared with diesel is $1.50 to $1.75 per gallon.
“Just the switch from diesel to natural gas is a 50% reduction in the carbon footprint,” Corbett says. “If we throw the cows into it as the originator of the gas, at our farm it’s another 40% reduction in the carbon footprint. At a time when reducing the carbon footprint is a big deal, that’s a nice model.”
Start the Dialogue
Fair Oaks Farms’ success is evidence that consumers want to understand where their food comes from.
“Parents and kids alike are fascinated by the wonderment that is 21st century agriculture. They get to see, up close and personal, that the process of food production begins at the farm and not on the grocery store shelf,” says Corbett.
“That’s why we think it’s extremely important for all farmers to reach out to the other side,” he says. “That way, we can understand consumers better, and they can understand us better. We look at it as reaching one visitor at a time.”