|Cover Story||August 26th, 2010|
Last year my Hoosier brother Gary sent us a link to Fair Oaks Farms. The scale of this dairy operation was mind-boggling. The technology and environmental stewardship were incredible. Nome and I made up our minds that we would see it first hand on our next trip to Indiana. At the time, Lyle Davis, publisher of “The Paper” was working with Arie de Jong covering the de Jong family reunion in Escondido.
Arie’s parents, along with his nine brothers and sisters, immigrated to San Diego County in 1949. The family had a 200-year history of dairy farming in Holland. Arie de Jong and his extended family are well known today for their work ethic and business success with Hollandia Dairy and other business ventures in North County.
I sent Lyle Davis a link to Fair Oaks Farms with a “tongue in cheek” recommendation that he show Arie what a “real” dairy farm looks like. Lyle did show it to Arie. Arie’s response was, “Yep, that’s one of ours.” Arie’s extended family owns dairy farming operations all across America including more than a half interest in the Fair Oaks Farms of Indiana.
When we finally got to go back to Indiana this June, Arie de Jong was kind enough to arrange a VIP tour of the Farms and an interview with Fair Oaks Farms CEO, Gary Corbett. It was an amazing day.
Fair Oaks Farms is located in north central Indiana about 50 miles south of Lake Michigan and 100 miles north of Indianapolis. It was a warm, sunny and humid Thursday morning as we drove up to Fair Oaks Farms from central Indiana. My brother Gary and his wife Diana, who live in Greencastle, Indiana, went with us. Both are educators. Gary teaches earth sciences in middle school and Diana is an elementary school principal. We drove past endless fields of head-high corn and shin-high soybeans. It had been a wet spring. The muddy Wabash River oozed lazily over its banks onto the adjacent fields and woodlots. Stunted crops poked through standing waters in the lowest places.
The Fair Oaks Farms Adventure Center can be seen from interstate 65. There were perhaps a hundred cars and a dozen tour buses in the large parking lot in front of the Adventure Center. At the reception desk we were given VIP ID wristbands and escorted to the waiting area outside CEO Gary Corbett’s office. A few minutes later Mr. Corbett appeared and ushered us into his office. Mr. Corbett’s office was the ground floor of a remodeled farm silo, perfectly round and about twenty feet in diameter. A spiral staircase led to the upper floors.
We spent an hour with Mr. Corbett. He recounted the history and philosophy of Fair Oaks Farms as well as details of day-to-day operations. Mr. Corbett was as casual and honest as the jeans and work shirt he wore. He answered all of our questions directly and thoughtfully. As we toured the various activity centers later that afternoon, we were to see Gary Corbett several more times, always on the move smiling and talking with employees and guests and always with a friendly wave.
Fair Oaks Farms came to be in 1998 when several dairy farming families from across America pooled their resources and know-how to create a dairy operation aimed at optimizing productivity while ensuring the welfare of the animals and providing stewardship to the environment.
Fair Oaks Farms is an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) made up of nine working family farms (8 Dutch and one Irish). The combined area of the farms today is about 27,000 acres. In 2004, the 600-acre " Adventure Center” was established. The purpose was to provide an opportunity for people of all ages to learn about agriculture and rural living. Recent generations of Americans have been largely deprived of that opportunity due to the increasing urbanization of America. Many inner city children have never even seen live farm animals.
With nearly 30,000 head of Holstein cows in 2010, Fair Oaks Farms ship 40 tank trucks of raw milk to eastern and southern packagers each day. That’s 2.8 million pounds, or 330,000 gallons of milk. It’s enough to provide a glass of milk for every person in Chicago and Indianapolis and all points between.
While most milk is sold raw to
other processors, some is sent
to the Adventure Center to
become processed finished
products under the Fair Oaks
Farms label. These products,
packaged milk, cheeses, butter,
ice cream and other milk products are distributed regionally.
The processing operations as
well as a retail store are part of the Adventure Center tour.
The outdoor attractions include a train ride, a twenty-five foot tall milk carton climbing wall, a cheese maze, a 10,000 square foot demonstration garden with foods, herbs and flowers, and a huge jumping bubble that can accommodate dozens of kids and adults.
The “birthing auditorium” has stadium seating for 300 people. Behind a floor to ceiling glass wall are two spacious birthing stalls. Each stall is about 30 feet square. The floors of each stall are piled high with fresh clean straw. Birthing is a twenty-four hour operation with about 120 calves born each day. During visitor’s hours, some lucky cows in labor are selected from the “maternity ward” to star in front of an audience in one of the auditorium’s birthing stalls. Here they give birth “under glass” where the audience can see and hear the entire birthing process but the cow can’t see or hear the audience. The calves are separated from their mothers at birth. Males will be sold to farms that specialize in raising beef cattle. Females will be sent to the “heifer farms” where they will stay for two years. They are returned to the maternity pens when they are 7 months pregnant and they remain in maternity care until the calf is born two months later. After recovering from calving they will begin a six or seven year career as a “milk cow.”
Next stop on the tour is the processing plant and retail store. One wall that extends the entire length of the retail store is floor to ceiling glass. On the other side of the glass wall, employees are busy making and packaging butter, cheese and other dairy products. The store sells sandwiches, snacks and souvenirs as well as the ice cream and other milk products created in the on site processing plant. A large section of the store is devoted to sampling and selling the twenty-four different cheeses processed and packaged behind the glass wall.
After leaving the store and processing plant we head back to the main building and the departure point for our next activity, a visit to one of the nine working dairy farms. We climb on our bus and are off to a farm a mile or so down the road from the Adventure Center. All nine farms are clustered within a few miles of the Adventure Center. As we ride along, the bus driver recites a steady stream of interesting facts and figures regarding Fair Oaks Farms daily operations. It was obvious by this time that Fair Oaks goes to great lengths to keep visitors from making any direct contact with the animals or processes. The live animals and processing activities all have been behind glass walls. The working farms are no different. The bus pulls into a “sally port.” It has the feel of an airlock. The doors are closed behind us and we are usheredup a flight of stairs (an elevator is available for those who don’twish to climb a flight of stairs) to another glass walled room. It overlooks the milking carousel with 72 automated milking stations.
The carousel moves continu ously at the speed of one revo lution every 10 minutes. The cows have learned to step aboard and wait, they are eager to have their swollen milk bags emptied. Attendants wipe down the udders with disinfectant and pull a couple of shots from each udder. This is to ensure that there are no contaminants in the milk. Then a milking machine head is attached to each udder. All this is done in a matter of seconds as the cow moves past and continues around the circuit. The actual milking consumes about eight minutes of the ten-minute circuit.
Each cow has an electromag netic ID tag that allows a
remote sensor to identify the
animal and record its produc tion statistics as it circuits the
carousel. At the exit station the
milking heads pop off and the
cows back out of the carousel
and head back to the barn.
Each of the nine farms harvests milk from about 3000 cows. The cows are milked three times a day, 365 days a year. They are housed in quarter mile long “free run” sheds where they are free to move about feeding, drinking or resting. Each cow selects its own stall and rests 15 to 18 hours a day. This resting behavior is as common in the pasture as in the shed. The floor of each stall is covered with a foot of soft clean sand. Sand is inert and inhibits the growth of bacteria. It also makes comfort able bedding for the animals.
Animal waste is collected and transported to a separator that removes the sand from the waste. The sand is then heated to sterilize it and stored for reuse in the sheds. The solid waste moves on to the “digester” tanks where bacteria break it down creating methane and clean solid waste. The methane is used to run the generators that provide all the electrical needs for the farm. Surplus electrical power from the generators is fed into the grid and sold to the electrical power utility. The remaining inert solids are removed from the digesters and stacked on drying pads. This nutrient rich dried solid waste is spread on the fields as fertilizer each spring prior to planting.
The cattle are fed a mixture of alfalfa hay and corn silage. The corn and alfalfa are grown on Fair Oaks Farms 27,000 acres. Alfalfa hay is cut, dried and stored. The entire corn plant is combined, chopped and ensiled in outdoor silage bunkers cov ered with waterproof tarps. The tarps are held tight by the weight of hundreds of recycled auto and truck tires. Ensiling “pickles” the corn silage allowing it to hold its nutritional value for months. The farms use no growth hormones and antibiotics are used only to treat individual animals for infections and not as general preventatives in the herd.
As the tour concluded we were reminded how important it is to control the animal’s environ ment in order to protect them from contagious disease. With animals in such close quarters, an infectious disease like hoof and mouth or mad cow disease could wipe out a working farm overnight. Even casual contact between visitors and the ani mals must be avoided. Disease could arrive on a visitors shoe and with nearly 500,000 visitors each year, Fair Oaks takes every precaution to make sure that the visitor’s environment remains segregated from that of the animals.a
The Fair Oaks Farms research facility has developed and patented processes to create special application“milks.” Through membrane technology they are able to separate the various components of milk and create combinations that enhance certain desired qualities. They can create “special” milks for athletes, diabetics, lactose intolerance, calcium deficiency etc. These products are not yet available in California but soon will be seen in the health food section of your local supermarket.Fair Oaks Engineers will soon be installing equipment that will allow them to convert the methane into more usable compressed natural gas that will be used to power all the motorized vehicles and farm equipment on recycled animal waste byproducts.Adventure Center and headed south on interstate 65, my brother Gary commented that Fair Oaks was a “Dairy Disneyland.” I’m sure Gary is not the first to come up with that comparison, but in reality I think it does Fair Oaks Farms a grave injustice. True, like Disneyland, Fair Oaks Farms is a daylong adventure but at a fraction of the cost and no standing in lines and when it comes to providing not only entertainment but also a worthwhile learning experience, Fair Oaks Farms wins hands down.
For those who feel that dairy farming is an infringement of animal’s rights, I would add these comments. Holsteins aren’t wild animals, they are arti ficial creatures created through selective breeding expressly for the purpose of providing food and other materials that we want or need. They exist only because we tend to their needs. They could no more exist in the wild than your pet cat or dog, who incidentally are also artifi cial animals created for our various needs, be it companionship or vanity. So the next time you feel inclined to lament the cap tivity of the poor milk cow, consider turning your captive kitty cat or Chihuahua loose to frolic with the coyotes.
If you go:
* Must be reserved.
For all other information, contact:
Fair Oaks Farms