Remember the “happy cows” in California advertisements with individual Holsteins on lush green hillsides? This imagery created an unreal expectation in the minds of consumers about how these animals were raised. What animal agriculture really needs to share with consumers are the real stories of how cows, pigs and poultry are raised on modern, large-scale farms.

Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana has chosen to tackle the biosecurity and public relations challenges of welcoming a half-million visitors each year to tour its 37,000-cow dairy, 3,000-sow farrow-to-wean farm and, coming in 2017, half-million cage-free laying hen farm.

Animal housing is 'hermetically sealed'

Biosecurity is frequently cited as a reason for keeping visitors off of poultry and swine farms. Outbreaks of avian influenza and porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus during the past few years reinforce the importance of biosecurity. But should transparency be completely sacrificed for biosecurity?  

Gary Corbett, CEO, Fair Oaks Farms, explained that the original plan for inviting the public onto a large-scale dairy farm was a little different than how it has turned out.

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Gary Corbett, CEO, Fair Oaks Farms, said: “One of the bright spots for us is that virtually all of our visitors come without an agenda.”

“When we first envisioned this, we were going to have a little more contact, not petting zoo-like, but more interaction with the animals,” he said. “But, 9/11 and hoof and mouth put an end to that. We don’t allow any direct contact between our visitors and the farm workers and our animals.”

Corbett explained that the animal housing areas of the exhibition buildings are hermetically sealed from the visitor viewing areas. The air going into the animal buildings is filtered to remove contaminants that visitors could have brought with them.

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Special filtering and ventilation keeps animals safe from any organisms that visitors might bring to the farm, and allows visitors a full view of all farm activities.

The swine building was a real challenge, Corbett said, but one successfully met. “We had a half-million visitors and didn’t have PEDv,” he said. The farm took special precautions, as did other U.S. swine operations, with trucks bringing feed to the hogs, but they did nothing special with the visitors.

Corbett said that Fair Oaks will partner with Rose Acres Farms, which will site a cage-free laying hen facility on the farm. Visitors will go through the middle of the house in an enclosed glass viewing area. The air going into the birds will be filtered in a similar manner as it is for the hog barn.

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The 37,000 cows at Fair Oaks Farms have an average of 120 calves per day, and visitors can watch the births.

The dairy and swine operations as well as the coming layer facility, are commercially viable, large-scale facilities. There are extra building and equipment costs to accomplish the biosecurity level needed to accommodate daily visitors, but every other aspect of the farm is focused on current large-scale best industry practices; this is a real, working, economically viable farm.

Open to the public 361 days a year

“We are open 361 days a year, and you have to bring your ‘A’ game every day,” Corbett said. “Everyone is a movie producer now, but we think this makes us better.”

It could be overwhelming for visitors to see the scale of a modern farm. Most people have never seen a dairy building that is nearly a quarter-mile long or a building with 3,000 sows and tens of thousands of piglets. But, Corbett explained, “Our guests are just really good people.”

When asked about visitors’ questions about husbandry practices such as farrowing crates and separating dairy calves from the cows shortly after birth, he said, “One of the bright spots for us is that virtually all of our visitors come without an agenda. They really come to learn, they don’t have a chip on their shoulders or an ax to grind. They’ll ask, why are you taking the calf away from the mom? We have an answer. They listen and move on.”

It is the same with farrowing crates: “We explain that, without them, we would lose 50 percent of our piglets, and now we lose 2 percent,” he said.

Getting the message out

As farmers, does Fair Oaks Farms ever sit back and say, “Why did we do this?” He replied: “Why didn’t we do it sooner? We would do it again in a New York second. You are lifting the curtain (for consumers) and taking the mystery out.”

With all of the pressure from activist groups and the growing market for “inefficient” specialty animal products, is it was too late for U.S. agriculture to embrace transparency and educate consumers? “It isn’t too late, but we (Fair Oaks Farms) can’t do it ourselves. All of agriculture needs to get engaged with consumers if they want to succeed and you want agriculture to succeed,” he said.

Included in the half-million annual visitors are approximately 50,000 schoolchildren, and 25,000 more in summer programs. But, Corbett explained that another important group of people are regular visitors of the farm as well.

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Fair Oaks Farms hosts approximately 50,000 children on school field trips and another 25,000 youngsters from summer camps each year.

“The thing we hadn’t counted on is the interest from all of the major purveyors of food. Wal-Mart, Kroger, McDonald’s and others have all visited multiple times. They want to learn about 21st century agriculture and what they can expect from their suppliers,” he said.

Improving consumer perception

Because Fair Oaks Farms charges admission to visitors, it could pay for itself, Corbett reported, but it would limit how much could be offered to visitors. So the educational side of Fair Oaks is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and it can receive checkoff dollars from the dairy and pork promotion programs.

Dairy Management Inc. conducted a survey of Fair Oaks Farms’ visitors a few months after their visit. Corbett reports that, in the survey, 50 percent of the respondents felt the same about the dairy industry after their visit, and 50 percent felt better about the dairy industry. Eleven percent indicated they had increased their purchase of dairy products due to their visit.

Fair Oaks has two full-time social media experts on staff. Corbett said Fair Oaks has a presence on all the social media platforms.

“If someone comes up and challenges Fair Oaks in social media, 99 times out of 100, they haven’t visited,” he said. “At first, we had to respond, but then our friends started answering before Fair Oaks could. Our friends, regular consumers, do the correcting.”

Reaching more consumers

In addition to adding a cage-free egg operation, Fair Oaks is partnering with Land O’Lakes and Winfield Solutions to add a crop education center. A John Deere museum and beef cattle, cow-calf and feedlot operations are also in the works.

Corbett said that, at present, one can tour Fair Oaks Farms in a day but, with the additions, it will take two days. He is trying to get a hotel chain to locate at the interchange on I-65 to make it easier for visitors to plan a multi-day trip.

The images and opinions formed at Fair Oaks Farms help consumers put activists' images in perspective by giving consumers a point of reference. Corbett would like others in animal agriculture to follow the Fair Oaks example.

“We are very open with other groups about what we are doing and share our materials,” he said. “No one has (repeated the Fair Oak’s model); it is very daunting. You need to be near a population center and be easy to get to.” Perhaps just as important, “you have to have drunk the Kool-Aid and have the passion,” Corbett said.