Business

This Farm Is Crusading To Save American Agriculture

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Blake Neff Reporter

On the plains of Indiana, a gang of dairy farmers are trying to save modern agriculture from the forces of ignorance.

Dairy Adventure at Fair Oaks Farm is an unusual tourist attraction, to say the least. Built on the site of a vast dairy farming operation in rural Indiana, Dairy Adventure doubles as an agricultural science center as well as an opportunity for people to directly observe the day-to-day operations of a dairy farm. The intent isn’t to evoke nostalgia for small farms or a rural idyll; instead, Dairy Adventure wants to sell the public on the value of modern, industrialized agriculture.

Fair Oaks is the flagship operation of Select Milk Producers, Inc. Although part of what is oft-stereotyped as “Big Ag,” the members of Select Milk hardly evoke a corporate vibe in-person.

The company itself was born out of the wreckage from a major agricultural recession in the late 1980s. Unhappy with their existing milk distribution options, several dairy farmers decided to found their own collective enterprise in 1994. Instead of being a centralized top-down operation, Select operates as a cooperative with more than 50 participating owners (or “families,” Select’s preferred term), operating their own farms while sharing processing facilities, transportation, and branding.

Today, Select Milk isn’t a household name, but it has a large footprint. It produces more than a fifth of the country’s cheddar cheese and is a major supplier for big-name brands like Kraft. In 2012, the company partnered with Coca-Cola to create Fairlife, LLC, a company that produces deluxe milks.

“Kraft hasn’t made cheese in years,” one Select partner told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Kroger, Sargento, it’s the same thing. They buy from us … Mass-market cheese is a commodity.”

While Select has thrived, cooperative members perceived a long-term problem for their business in the form of ignorance, suspicion, or even outright hostility from the general public. And so, when Select expanded its operations into Indiana, it created Fair Oaks Farms as a model farm to show off to the public.

In a country where only 2 to 3 percent of people work directly in agriculture, Fair Oaks is intended to educate the public about the nature of modern agriculture in a positive manner. Visitors learn about the everyday life of a dairy cow (a bovine narrator tells visitors “It’s all about mmmme!”), can pay a visit to the cattle pens and milking facility, and can even watch live calves being born in a purpose-built birthing barn. A similar “Pig Adventure” exists where guests can visit an active hog farm.

Much of Fair Oaks functions as a kid-friendly science center, but it has a more serious purpose as well. The operators of Fair Oaks want the center to serve as an ideal operation both for other farmers and for the public. The message they hope the public takes away is that large agricultural operations are not only efficient (and necessary in a world of more than 7 billion), but can also be safe, environmentally friendly, and good for animals.

“We want people to see ‘big corporate agriculture’ for what it is,” a hog farmer told TheDCNF during a visit to Pig Adventure. “The media attacks us, family people, as big commercial corporate farming … ‘big’ doesn’t mean ‘non-family.'”

Michael McCloskey, Select’s current CEO, was one of the original founding partners, and was a veterinarian before switching into dairy. McCloskey isn’t a national name, but he served on president-elect Donald Trump’s transition team for agriculture and has even been suggested as a potential secretary of agriculture. The pick would allow Trump to include a Hispanic in his cabinet; despite his name, McCloskey hails from Puerto Rico.

During a tour of the Dairy Adventure, McCloskey rattled off facts about the operation. Dairy and pig farms are often bashed for their stench, heavy manure runoff, and climate effects (cows produce tremendous amounts of methane), so Fair Oaks shows off an innovative process of capturing cow manure and processing it on-site into fuel that powers both the farm itself as well as a fleet of more than 40 bio-diesel trucks. The farm’s website even proudly sports a “Powered By Poo” logo.

Modern livestock operations are also blasted as inhumane for the animals themselves, so Dairy Adventure takes pains to emphasize that their cows live a contented life of eating, laying on comfy sand beds, and walking to and from the milking facility. At Fair Oaks, cows are milked three times a day, a number McCloskey said is above-average and allows for their pens to be cleaned more often while keeping the cows more active and comfortable.

“Cows want to be milked,” one Select Milk partner told TheDCNF. “The milking machine doesn’t suck out milk. The cow has to be comfortable or it fails.” Treating a cow badly, he said, was destroying a valuable business asset.

When the milk is collected, McCloskey said, Fair Oaks rapidly chills it down to 34 degrees for freshness and safety. Smaller dairies rarely match that degree of rapid cooling, he said, adding that it the nearly-freezing temperature goes well beyond the 45 degrees mandated by the federal government. Going the extra mile in cooling raw milk, which is required of all Select members, has helped to extend the self-life of store milk by two weeks or more, McCloskey said.

Fair Oaks clearly sees itself as a model for how an agricultural operation can be modern, highly-productive, and also palatable for the public. When Fair Oaks expanded its visitor offerings to include a pig adventure, they demanded that the associated hog farm not use gestational cages, which are common throughout the country and keep many breeding sows enclosed for much of their lives. While pig farmers have arguments for why such cages are valuable, they were simply difficult to sell to the public as humane, Fair Oaks decided. As a result, the farm showcased at Pig Adventure doesn’t have them, and instead makes the case a successful pig farm can make do without them.

The effort to sell Big Ag to the masses appears to be bearing some fruit. Fair Oaks gets more than 700,000 visitors a year, despite being more than an hour outside Chicago and even further from other cities. Ironically, the site received very few visitors when it was completely free, but interest soared once it began charging an admission fee.

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