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  Cover Story August 26th, 2010     
Untitled Document

Arie de Jong Fair Oaks Farms
by Paul Van Middlesworth

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.

Fair Oaks Adventure CenterThe self  guided tour starts in the main Adventure Center building. There are several rooms with interactive displays. Visitors are invited to test their skill at cleaning the udders or attaching milking machines on full size plastic Holsteins. There are educational exhibits on nature and the environment, animal nutrition, waste treatment and cropping. There is a 4D movie theater featuring a presentation called “Grass to Glass” It’s called 4D because, in addition to the standard 3D movie experience, each seat is equipped with spurts of  air, splashes of  water, and movement simulators.

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.

Fair Oaks FarmThe “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.

Fair Oaks FarmThe raw milk is piped directly from the cow to the chillers and then to cold storage. The guide leads us into an adjoining glass walled room where we overlook the pipes entering and exiting the chiller. Both the in pipe and the out pipe pass through the observation room allowing the visitors to feel the heat (98 degree body temperature) of the milk coming in from the carousel and the chill (34 degree) of  the milk exiting the chiller for storage. The raw chilled milk is then pumped from storage into waiting, mirror finish milk tank trucks. Each truck holds about 9000 gallons. Although these trucks are not refrigerated, the reflective exterior of  the tank will keep the milk cold. On a 24 hour summertime road trip from Indiana to Florida the temperature of  the milk will rise less than two degrees. We descend the steps back down to the“airlock” where another group was waiting to go up. We board the waiting bus and head out to tour the rest of the farm. From the bus we inspect the clean, well-ventilated “free run” sheds, the maternity ward and the calf  pens. We see tire covered silage bunkers, digesting tanks, solid waste drying pads and generators as our bus driver/guide describes each function and process.   

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.

Fair Oaks Farm SilageThe 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: 

Dairy Adventure: Fair Oaks Farm Cow
Monday – Saturday  9:00 am - 5 pm CST
Bus Tours: Mon-Sat 10:00 am - 4 pm CST Sunday 10:00 am - 5 pm CST
Bus Tours: Sunday 11:00 am 4 pm CST

Cheese Factory:
Monday – Sunday   7:00 am - 6 pm CST

Admission Fees:
Adults $10.00
Children 3-12  $7.00          
Children 2 & under FREE               
Seniors (62+)   $7.00      
* School Groups  $4.00       
* Groups of  20+ $7.00     

Annual Passes:
The Calf                   
The Holsteins      
The Herd             

* Must be reserved.

Annual Passes:
$20.00
$35.00
$70.00

For all other information, contact:

Fair Oaks Farms
Phone: 877-536-1194
Fax: 219-394-2026
email: info@fofarms.com

 

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