You begin to see the billboards just a few miles outside of Chicago while headed south on Interstate 65.
Fair Oaks Farms, exit 220, is where you can find a case study on transparency transforming what many would perceive as a liability into a world-class tourist destination. Fair Oaks Farms has dairy, pig and crop adventures – world-class exhibits the quality of which you’d expect at Disney’s Epcot – that draw hundreds of thousands to a destination in a field off the interstate half-way between Chicago and Indianapolis.
Owners Mike and Sue McCloskey didn’t begin their transparency journey with the dreams of Disney. They started with a 300-cow dairy in California in 1986. They were proud of their farm and liked hosting tours to schools, business clubs and churches as a way to give back and help a public more disconnected from agriculture better understand where food comes from.
Rolling the Dice
Mike would be the first one to tell you they didn’t have a master plan to make Fair Oaks a global tourist destination; they “were building the plane as they were flying it.” Tackling transparency on a grand scale made them anxious, but they were committed. Thirty-three million people live within 175 miles of Fair Oaks, and everyone was welcome.
They rolled the dice and opened the doors to the visitor center in 2003, complete with a bus tour of the production facilities and birthing center (which was so popular it became a stand-alone attraction).
Sixty-thousand people showed up the first year and had the chance to see the same practices Mike and Sue shared on the 300-cow dairy, but on a much, much larger scale. Fair Oaks had nearly 200,000 visitors by year three, and it continues to grow.
Today, the dairy adventure is accompanied by a similar experience for pigs, and they plan to launch a new exhibit for laying hens. In addition, there is a crop experience with 3-D movies and the latest information on GPS-guided tractors, plant genetics and agronomic practices for those who farm the fields using data and drones to enhance productivity and sustainability.
A Source for Good
Mike and Sue embrace the size and scale of Fair Oaks as a source for good, highlighting the research and technology development that allows them to improve sustainability and to make those same improvements available to others.
While an increasing number of consumers view large farms as an inherent threat to animals and the environment, Fair Oaks illustrates how size and scale (when coupled with a commitment to transparency and shared values) can have a positive impact on animals, the environment and agriculture’s freedom to operate, which is granted by public trust.
Mike and Sue understand the hesitancy to be transparent, but don’t believe it’s optional in today’s environment.
“We don’t have the right not to be transparent anymore,” Mike said. “Society demands it and deserves it. Farmers used to enjoy blind trust, but we’ve lost that, and the ability of the public to instantly communicate with shallow knowledge means we have to think differently about communicating and building trust.”
“Those who deserve to be in farming should not be afraid of transparency. Consumers have the right to look into our farms because they are buying our products. We have nothing to hide and we should be proud to share what we do,” he said.
CFI’s research confirms that Fair Oaks and the other farms, food companies, food retailers and restaurants committed to transparency, get it right. Transparency provides the platform to demonstrate shared values, which our research shows is the key to earning trust.
CEO, The Center for Food Integrity
From Arnot’s book Size Matters: Why We Love to Hate Big Food