Fair Oaks Dairy Farm Tour

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Anyone who drives between Indianapolis and Chicago should know well the billboards advertising Fair Oaks Dairy Farm that sideline I-65. I’ve personally driven past the exit for Fair Oaks Farms a countless number of times, always with a thought in my mind to stop and visit. Two weekends ago, I finally made good on that thought.

Located in northwest Indiana, this dairy farm is the “largest agritourism destination in America.” Large doesn’t even begin to describe Fair Oaks Farm. And “agritourism” is somewhat a misnomer, too. In reality, the farm is a massive cow-themed amusement park focused on enticing families (and, more importantly, their kids) to dairy heaven.

There is plenty that could be said of this expansive enterprise, but several resources (see “Further Reading” below) give fair account of what you might expect to see—and feel—if you were to visit Fair Oaks Farm. For now, I’ll simply allow my images give you a visual sneak peak.

Have you visited Fair Oaks Farm? Share your experience in the comments.

FURTHER READING:

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A view of the barns and water retention tank.

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A view of the barns and water retention tank.

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The barns (on left) house the thousands of dairy cows at Fair Oaks Farm. The brick building (lower right) houses the “milking rotunda.”

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From a panoramic window, visitors can look down upon the entire milking rotunda. TV screens play a video detailing the milking process at the farm.

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Cows enter the milking rotunda, are hooked up to a milking machine, and take a circular ride. The milking machine automatically falls off the udder when there is no more milk. At the end of the “ride,” cows enter back into the barn.

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All of the milk is immediately stored in these large milk tanks, located just off of the milking rotunda.

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Behind the main Visitor’s Center at Fair Oaks Farm is a well-manicured “amusement park” arena, complete with games, gardens, and go-karts. On the right, a large cow welcomes visitors to the “Birthing Barn.”

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A large space enclosed with by glass offers a panoramic view to a live birth of a cow.

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A newborn calf drinks from his mother in the stadium-styled “Birthing Barn” at Fair Oaks Farm.

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A baby (female) heifer sits in her shelter outside the main barns at Fair Oaks Farm in Northwest, Indiana. The baby cows stay in these pens for two years after which they are brought in with the larger herd and bred.

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Fair Oaks Farm draws crowds of families to tour the farm, attracting kids with a moon walk and climbing wall outside of their main Visitor’s Center.

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More games and kid-friendly attractions fill the Visitor’s Center at Fair Oaks Farm. Kid-centric media (playing on large screens on the milk carton in back) inform kids why drinking milk is important.

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Visitors can try their hand at “milking” a cow (left) and take a ride around the “cow-ousel.”

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Ice cream—and other treats—are available at the Fair Oaks Farm Cafe.

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The gift shop offers patrons a piece of Fair Oaks Farm to take home.

Day One at Kilpatrick Family Farm

kilpatrick_family_farm_panoramic_view_of_land_middle_grandville_ny by sarah parisi for this beautiful life

Two weeks ago I had the incredible opportunity to “audition” for a season-long internship position at Kilpatrick Family Farm in Middle Granville, NY. My audition consisted of two full-days of work at the farm, beginning bright and early on a Tuesday morning and finishing at 4 on Wednesday. I’m amazed at what I could learn just a short time; here is a brief recap of the varying tasks I completed the first day and some of what I learned from each task.

DAY 1
7-10 AM: Untangle, sort and bundle row covers.
If you are ever out in a field, you may notice black plastic lining each row. This black plastic is put down when seeding the field. Where each seed is placed, a hole in the black plastic is punched to allow the seed space to grow. Importantly, the plastic is black as to attract the suns rays.

The farmer can then decide to cover rows with row cover, a spun-bonded (non-woven) polypropylene fabric-like material. The material is extremely light weight and mostly transparent, very much like toilet paper. The row covers help protect young seeds from winds while still allowing light to pass through.

Late last fall—just before the first freeze of the year—the Kilpatricks planted a few rows of hardy green vegetables that can weather the winter (think kale). Each row was covered and left, untouched, through the cold winter months. My first task at the farm was to help gather the row covers no longer needed. The covers which had not been ripped from winter winds were rolled and saved for later use (some we laid out on different rows that same day). Damaged row covers were gathered and bundled for recycling.

10-10:30 AM: Spread straw around rhubarb plants.
Spreading straw between growing plants helps protect weeds from taking root and makes ongoing cultivation all that much easier as the season progresses. 

equipment_shed_kilpatrick_family_farm_photography_new_york by sarah parisi for this beautiful life

10:30-12:30 AM: Wash bins.
When you go to a farmers’ market, you’ll most likely notice all of the bins…bins of turnips, bins of onions, bins of garlic, bins of pretty much anything and everything available for sale that week. If you are a member of a CSA (Community Sustainable Agriculture), you may also be familiar with stacks of brightly colored bins filled with veggies. It’s a seemingly obvious thing, but every week, these bins must be washed, dried and prepped for use at the upcoming market.

I’m sure every farm/farmer has a system for this weekly task. I’m also pretty sure that on warm days in the summer, farm crew members compete for a spot at the washing table as it’s not a question of if you will get wet, but just how wet.

tool_shed_family_farm_middle_grandville_new_york_vermont_photography by sarah parisi for this beautiful life

2-3 PM: Sort onions for market.
In winter and early spring vegetable farmers like the Kilpatricks stock their market stands each week with vegetables they’ve stored throughout the winter in modern-day root cellars. Because vegetables stored over the course of several months are subject to spoilage and bruising, each onion is placed into one of three categories:

  • Firsts: Perfect, or near perfect vegetables. These are set aside for individual sale at farmers’ markets
  • Seconds: Bruised, blemished or otherwise “not-quite-pretty” vegetables that are still suitable for use but are less likely to sell. These vegetables are collected into and sold as “soup bundles” at the markets or sold wholesale to nearby restaurants.
  • Thirds: Just plain rotten. Nothing pretty about these guys. Sent to the compost bin and added to soil as natural organic material.

kilpatrick_family_vegetable_farm_saratoga_new_york_market by sarah parisi for this beautiful life

3-4 PM: Pull up last year’s pepper plants in preparation for this year’s planting.
Peppers are annual plants—meaning their life-cycle is just one year. The plants left-over from last year, now dead, needed to be pulled and discarded in the compost pile.

4-5:30 PM: Sort last season’s garlic in preparation to make garlic powder.
The Kilpatrick’s garage was filled with bins of garlic leftover from last year’s harvest. My job: to sort through the bulbs, discard the “mushy” ones (to be composted) and separate the cloves of the non-mushy bulbs which will be grounded into and sold as garlic powder.
hoop_house_barnyard_chicken_coops_farm_photography_new_york by sarah parisi for this beautiful life
inside_animal_hoop_house_backyard_chickens_cow_farm_photography by sarah parisi for this beautiful life
hoop_house_kilpatrick_family_farm_night_photography_farm by sarah parisi for this beautiful life