Dairy Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms
Fair Oaks, Indiana
Small town entrepreneurs in the heartland talk wistfully of the potential of "agritourism." They may not realize it, but they're dreaming of a place like Fair Oaks Farms.
Fair Oaks sprang into existence in the late 1990s, planned from the start as both a dairy and a tourist attraction -- and by "attraction" we don't mean some dinky petting zoo with a dozen heifers in an old barn. Fair Oaks spreads across nearly 30 square miles, and has 30,000 cows pumping out 280,000 gallons of milk every single day.
Is this good dairying? Fair Oaks thinks so. In fact, the various attractions at Fair Oaks suggest that it's as good as dairying has ever been. We're not experts on agribusiness, but we can say with some authority that we've never been to a farm attraction as clean and stink-free as Fair Oaks. Considering its size, it's a remarkable achievement.
The Dairy Adventure Center visitor complex is where you begin. Kids clank up "Calcium Climber," a magnetic wall, while adults ponder exhibits on silage -- but there aren't too many displays like that, since the emphasis is on fun. You can watch cheese and ice cream being made from an observation deck, take in a 4-D film ("Grass to Glass"), or try to prep a fiberglass cow for milking in 19 seconds -- the time allotted to Fair Oaks technicians. You'll fail, but that's the point (Tourist inadequacy is a teaching tool, also used at the SPAM Museum's human-vs.-assembly-line challenge).
Four rooms in the Adventure Center are filled with animatronic creatures that spotlight Fair Oaks accomplishments. Mr. Tree extols the dairies' environmental stewardship; a nerd scientist explains how the farms' manure is transformed into electricity; a cow that sounds like Julia Child praises her Fair Oaks diet of "Total Mixed Ration;" and a talking rooster gripes that the wonderful efficiencies of modern dairying have cramped his sloppy "old barn yard" style.
Then it's onto a bus -- and not just any bus, but a sealed biosecure bus painted like a Holstein cow. Visitors are driven a mile up the road to one of the ten Fair Oaks dairies while a recorded voice calls attention to points of interest (Comparisons to Jurassic Park are unkind but unavoidable). Stewardship, manure, and Total Mixed Ration are again stressed, then the bus drives into one of Fair Oaks' immense barns. Countless cows on either side of the bus bob their heads into Total Mixed Ration as we slowly motor down a long center aisle. "The cows are not confined," says the voice. "They love to hang out at the drinking fountain and interact with other cows."
The tour disembarks at what Fair Oaks calls a "milking parlor," but which in fact is another immense building, sheltering a huge, slowly rotating turntable with 72 cows on it. Each of Fair Oaks' ten farms has an identical carousel, and each cow rides it three times a day. From a biosecure viewing window we see the cows slowly revolve past, their butts to our faces, their teats affixed to plastic hoses that were all attached within 19 seconds. "We're finding we can harvest more milk if we milk them more frequently," says the voice. "The cows enjoy the ride and enjoy being milked." On the far side of the parlor we can barely see a vast pen filled with shuffling cows, docilely entering or exiting the turntable. Likewise, when we return to the bus we find that we've all taken our old seats without even being told to.
Then it's back to the Adventure Center for one last stop: the Birthing Barn. Fair Oaks is so vast that between 80 and 100 cows give birth every day. Several are selected to do it in the Barn, where tourists sit on concrete amphitheater benches and watch the action through floor-to-ceiling glass walls. We asked the midwife on duty how many births she'd attended. "I quit counting at 12,000," she said. Outside, a traffic light alerts visitors to approaching deliveries, which occur roughly once every hour. Deon Podgorski, the farms' tour coordinator, told us that standing-room-only crowds in the un-air-conditioned Barn can get testy on hot summer days, angling for a clear view.
Cows don't mind cold weather -- the voice told us that -- so the attractions at Fair Oaks Farms are open year-round. Deon added that Fair Oaks continues to pioneer new dairying practices, and that it will soon begin fueling its fleet of milk tanker trucks with biofuel grown right on the property. Can this place get any more wonderful? Apparently it can!