Why Sue McCloskey Started Fair Oaks Farms, the U.S.'s Largest Agritourism Attraction

Sue McCloskey
Photo: Courtesy of Fair Oaks Farms

Update on June 6, 2019: It has come to our attention that there are disturbing allegations of animal abuse against Fair Oaks Farms, an organization that is featured in this article as humane and sustainable. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, a recent undercover video from Animal Recovery Mission shows young calves being kicked and abused by employees. Owner Michael McCloskey, a veterinarian, issued a statement on Facebook denying knowledge of the abuse, but adding that he takes "full responsibility to correct and ensure that every employee understands, embraces and practices the core values on which our organization stands." The Newton County Sheriff's Office is currently working with the county's prosecutor office to investigate further and potentially file criminal charges.

Some say Fair Oaks Farms is the Disneyland of agricultural tourism: it’s here that families can view pastures dotted with dairy cattle, watch as a piglet is born, learn the importance of soil health, pick apples—and view a four-dimensional movie, swing from a ropes course, or jump on a giant outdoor blow-up pillow dubbed the Dairy Air—only to top off this idyllic country day with a scoop of ice cream or a pork chop from Fair Oaks Farms’ restaurant.

“It’s quite a compliment,” cofounder Sue McCloskey says of the nickname. But she quickly adds that the biggest difference between her farm and Disneyland is “our magic is real.”

Fair Oaks Farms, which is located in Fair Oaks, Indiana, is the flagship farm to McCloskey and husband, Mike’s other dairy-based company, Fairlife, which produces ultra-filtered, nutrient-dense, lactose-free cow milk with reduced sugars and high levels of natural protein and calcium, and a host of other products, including Core Power protein shakes, Fairlife Smart Shakes, and Fairlife YUP!.

Today at the Disney-like farm, some 15,000 cows are milked. “Being a large-scale farm, people are often under the assumption that we act like a corporation or a factory,” says McCloskey. “And while we pride ourselves on being a farm with less than half the carbon footprint of the average American dairy farm, we do so while maintaining our values.”

For the McCloskeys, that means first-and-foremost remaining sustainable. The farm reuses all of its cow manure, creating a renewable bio-fuel that powers its fleet of tractor trailers. It’s a move, McCloskey says, that has saved the company from purchasing some two million gallons of diesel so that its trucks can deliver milk products throughout the Midwest. (The farm has shared its manure-to-bio-fuel technique with about 1,000 farms, McCloskey says.)

Fair Oaks Farms also plans to create fertilizer pellets from waste, grows duckweed in water that runs off from its digester, and makes beer from its ditch-ready water, all “with the ultimate goal of becoming a zero-carbon footprint dairy,” McCloskey tells Food & Wine.

Employees of the farm receive in-depth training in animal husbandry and the humane care of animals. The “girls,” the name by which McCloskey affectionately calls the cows, “have comfortable sand beds and freestanding stalls, allowing them to walk freely while being protected from harsh weather,” she details. In the winter, the “girls” are sheltered from the cold with curtains. In the summer, they’re kept cool with fans breezing seven-mph winds.

Fair Oaks Farms—and its partner properties—takes ample care of its dairy products, too. Using the dairy industry calls a “closed system,” the farm grows most of its own crops and feed, ensuring the cows receive a well-balanced diet, and the right nutrients to produce its nutrient-dense milk. “We have complete traceability of our milk—all the way back to the farm from which it came,” explains McCloskey. It boasts complete transparency to visitors.

“As the farming community in our country falls below two percent of the population, it’s important that we have farms like ours where families can see for themselves the care and effort that farmers put into their animals and land,” says McCloskey. “Where they can have their questions or concerns answered with complete transparency. And where they can make the connection between a farmer and the bottle of fairlife milk in their refrigerators.”

Fair Oaks Farms’ philosophy launched long before it was trendy to know the origin of the food and beverages we put into our bodies. fairlife products didn’t launch until 2015, but McCloskey says she and her husband were working to develop the transparent products back in 1994, when—with the help of other farmers—the McCloskeys formed Select Milk Producers in New Mexico. “Select Milk Producers was really the beginning of the movement that today we know as transparency in our food chain,” McCloskey explains. At the time, the McCloskeys had 5,000 “girls” on their farm—but they banded together with “many like-minded dairy families” to create the extensive group, which soon found a home for its high-quality milk in the HEB food markets in Texas. “Today, [Select Milk Producers] is the sixth- largest milk cooperative in the U.S., made of 99 independent family-owned dairy farms.”

With the success of Select Milk Producers, the McCloskeys knew they could create Fair Oaks Farms. But perhaps more poignantly, they knew they had to create Fair Oaks Farms.

As McCloskey explains, “The farm was founded out of necessity to counter the very loud, very well-funded, and often, very misleading voices against modern farming and animal agriculture in particular. Having come from a non-generational farming background and growing up in the consumer-centric East Coast, I knew the ploy of these organizations. But now—having had first-hand experience in the industry—I also understood that we had a powerful story to tell. No one cares for the land, animals, and the safety and affordability of the food they produce for their family’s and neighbor’s dinner tables as much as a farmer.”

It you would like to learn more about Fair Oaks Farms, you can get additional information on its website. Tickets to the farm begin at $20 per adult, and $15 per child older than two.

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