Fair Oaks Farm

On November 9, 2014 the GMS team went to visit Fair Oaks Farm in Fair Oaks, IN.

We had heard such great things about this cooperative of farms.  They are touted as a great representative of modern sustainable farming.  I was excited and eager to see what they were doing and how they were doing it.

This is what Fair Oaks Farm says about itself on its webpage:

“Fair Oaks Farms is an escape to the country with acres of great outdoor fun, food and learning where you can explore family farms and reconnect with nature, animals and our planet.

Fair Oaks Farms offers experiences that you couldn’t imagine and you’ll never forget!

We are not only committed to educating the public about modern farming efforts, but also to protecting the environment, caring for our animals and ensuring the highest quality products possible.

Fair Oaks Farms brings Reduce, Reuse, Recycle to a whole new light.  Our entire facility runs on cow & pig manure.  We transform our farms’ waste into energy by way of our anaerobic digesters, we reduce our dependency upon natural gas and electricity during the milk and manufacturing process.  In 2013, the use of CNG will reduce the amount of diesel that our milk tanker/trailers use by 2 million gallons; the amount used in 2011.  Our barns and plants are also powered by this cutting edge “poo power”.

Sustainability isn’t just something we claim, it’s how we live.”

After a 4 hour ride, we were eager to pile out of the vehicle and start exploring.  We entered the main building and looked around at the displays while waiting our turn to purchase tickets.  There wasn’t much to explore at this area.  Some old books, old milk bottles, and a set from a Christmas display.

After getting our tickets and scheduling our Dairy Adventure tour and Pig Adventure tour, we wandered through the educational displays.  The kids with us enjoying the computer type games, the coloring stations, and the carousel.  I wandered through the adult section which included a room with displays showing the wild life that could be found on the farm. — I see much of the same and perhaps a bit more down here in our part of IN.  We have lots of wild areas left intact as our farmers use the old “let the trees grow on the fence line” system of field separation.  There were displays on old ways of milking by hand contrasted to the modern vacuum system of machine milking.

They had a really great display that shows exactly how they turn all that manure into energy.  It is truly impressive.  The whole system is well thought out and implemented.  It did not occur to me then that they only way to effectively “harvest” this much manure was to keep the animals totally confine.  I was heartbroken when I realized that this manure into energy won’t work very well on small family farms.

My excitement plummeted when I saw the display of what the cows are fed.  By now, I was feeling overwhelmed by the all the “bells and whistles” and I forgot to take pictures.  The cows are fed a diet of about 70% corn (from corn silage which is the indigestible parts of the corn plant ground up and fermented, from whole corn, and from corn stalks).  This is not your grandma’s corn.  This is the big business corn, GMO, and sprayed with herbicides and pesticides.  The remainder of their diet is from GMO soy, GMO cotton seed, and alfalfa silage (which takes the chaff from alfalfa hay and ferments it).

What is missing from this feed list?   When you think of a cow what do you imagine it eats?  Ground up food that looks like cornmeal or do you envision a herd of lovely ladies munching on grass, eating hay in the winter, and happily chewing their cud?  I picture them out in the fields soaking up the sunshine and keeping the field trimmed.  I have neighbors who raise their cows this way.  These cows look intelligent and gentle.  I walk past them on my daily walks and talk to them.  They moo back and we’re all sharing the view in peace.

We’ve been at Fair Oaks Farm for an hour and the only nature I’ve seen is a bit of grass between the sidewalk and the main building.  But I have high hopes, because it is our turn to tour the Dairy Farm.  We board a bus that will take us to see the cows.   Hopeful expectation grows –now we’re going to see the real story.

We pass field after field that has been harvested, but looks to have been mostly corn.  I’m something of an expert on corn fields as my house is surrounded by them for miles and miles.  We arrive at the barns and I notice there are only 6 cars in the parking lot.  2800 cows plus the milking and there are only 6 cars?  It seems a bit strange, but I figure maybe they carpool.

Hope now fades.   We aren’t allowed off the bus.  Bio-security.  The bus drives us past the piles of ground up “feed stuff.” past the manure digesters, and into one of the barns.  The cows live in barns.  The barn has adjustable  sides that go up and down depending on the weather conditions.  A CAT drives down the aisles dumping feed and another goes down the other aisle scraping up sand and poop.  These cows don’t live on straw or grass.  The spend their lives on a concrete floor covered by a layer of sand. There are no gates to the great outdoors in these barns.  There is a gate that lets them into the milking room and another chute that they come through when they leave the milking room.  Both ramps are also made of concrete.

After backing up we approach the milking house.  The bus pulls up to a garage door, the door is opened, we pull in, and the door is closed behind us.  Only then does the bus driver open the front door.  We are apparently quite a risk to these cows.  Up a flight of steps and into room that overlooks the milking carousel.  The cows walk on, have their udders washed, a machine hooked up and while they take an 8 minute spin on the machine, they are milked, their udders washed again, and then released to go back to their concrete and sand home.  53 cows at a time, 8 minutes per cow, 3 milkings per day, and only 5 workers required per shift.  It is efficient.  It is sterile.  It is cold.  And I begin to realize how heartless it is.

After leaving the milking building we pass lots of little calves in tiny houses with tiny yards.  These beautiful little creatures are all just a few days old.  Every girl born here will be taken to another farm to live until she is 2 years old. Then she’ll be bred and brought back here to enter the milk stream.  They say the boys are sold.  Very matter of factly, with no disclosure of what happens to the boys.  Unfortunately I know.  They will be sent to veal farms where they will be force fed milk, kept in a stall so small they can’t move, and slaughtered before their muscles have a chance to get strong.

Next stop the Birthing Barn.  We enter what seems to be a stadium.  Behind a glass wall, 2 beautiful ladies are each in the process of giving birth.  We sit and watch.  We are spectators.  At least here they have some straw to lay on.  Each girls proceeds at her own pace and in her own way.  I am thankful that they are allowed to give birth as naturally as possible.  There is some grace in that.

Finally Mom #1 delivers a gorgeous baby.  Beautiful black and white, and I think a hint of brown too.  The educator in this room announces:  “It is a boy!”  There are some cheers.  I stifle a sob.  This poor little boy will soon be separated from his mom and it is not a good thing.

I am sad and troubled and the day is only half over.   In this half day, I have not spent any time with nature or animals.  I have only been outside for a few minutes.  I walked a total of 1 mile and most of that is while I pace around trying to reconcile the images in my head with the reality of this place.

But the worst is yet to come . .

There is a little bit of time between our 2 tours, so we decided to walk around.  We went to the gift shop/cafe.  I almost audibly gasped aloud when I saw the Starbucks!  I was in desperate need of comfort and there is nothing like a soy Salted Caramel Latte’ for soothing my soul.  I dug out my Starbucks card and headed to the counter.

Two things happened here which were nearly enough to push over the edge into tears.
1.  They don’t take Starbucks cards.
2.  They don’t have soy milk either.
Now I ask you what Starbucks does not have the soy milk available.  There are some of us with sensitivities and allergies who depend on having an alternative.  (*Note:  My Starbucks fix is the only soy I ever consume, so don’t hate!)

So I spent a dollar for a cup of hot water, added a tea bag and a little honey and tried to pretend that would make all this go away.  It didn’t.
Some members of our group got ice cream.  They were very impressed with the quality.  Others got grilled cheese and also proclaimed it was great.
We moved on to the little farm store.  Fresh baked goods, farm fresh cheese, local wine and local beer, fruit and vegetables were all on display.  The sell price was actually pretty reasonable.  If I had been feeling less traumatized I might have bought a loaf of bread.
Also located on the farm is a restaurant, a garden, a gas station, and a subway.

Next up was the Pig Adventure.   We boarded another bus and saw a video extolling the virtues of modern pig farming.  We were assured that these pigs did not eat slop or roll around in the mud.  Somebody forgot to tell Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web that those were bad things!  Once again the bus pulled into a special garage and all doors were sealed before we were allowed to get off the bus.  More bio-security.

My first thought upon reaching the Pig Barn was, “Oh good!  It smells like pigs!”  I was so happy to actually smell animal.  We went into another education room full of interactive computer programs.  The kids had a blast playing with stuff.  The tour began with us going through a simulated shower room.  The employees here must leave their street clothes behind, shower and change into uniforms, and then they are allowed to go to work.  Apparently these pigs do not have enough of an immune system left to ward off even the common cold.

On our way to the Farrowing wing, we passed diagrams that show moms and babies of all species and their average weight.  In the Farrowing Wing we saw room after room with huge momma pigs (generally known as sows) in tiny cages.  These were some seriously big pigs, but the cages were so small all the could do is stand up and eat or lay down. No room to move around.  No where to walk around.  Just eat, have babies, and feed babies.  Again, it was all about efficiency.  Get the mom as big as possible, artificially inseminate her for maximum number of piglets, and then confine her in a space so small she either eats or lets the little ones nurse.

There were a few other wings in this building, but by now I was nearly in tears and just needed to be left alone.  I walked around a bit trying not to see.  But everywhere was evidence that while this is efficient it is not kind.  it is not animal husbandry.  Mr. Rogers (who I consider a paragon of morality) would be horrified.  It is something that rots away at the soul of those with eyes to see.  At no time did any of these animals do anything that resembled the life they were born to lead.  The glory of creation was being treated as a machine.

I worry about the children who think this is what a farm is.  I worry about the children who will grow up and think this is how is done or how it is best done.

I know in my heart that we can feed this world without resorting to cruelty and what borders on torture.

We just need to stop endorsing this type of farming.  We need to vote with our fork.  We need to undeterred by the harshness of the system.

I took a few weeks to really think about what I saw, to process my emotions, and came to the conclusion that I am profoundly saddened and sickened by what I saw.  I’ve never been much of a meat eater.  I mostly stick with chicken and fish.  This trip has clarified my position for me.  I will not eat any commercially raised beef, pork or dairy again.  Ever.  If I am tempted, I will recall the images of that day.  It won’t be hard.  It still haunts me.

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