Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Extraordinary Dairy

Fair Oaks Farms


Your adventure begins on Interstate 65 as you make your way southeast from the city, crossing the state line from the suburban sprawl of Chicagoland toward the flat fields, occasional tree clusters, and scattered barns of Northwest Indiana. Hopefully it’s a nice day, a nice cool Midwestern spring or autumn day with a clear, sparely clouded blue sky and a light breeze. The smells of the nearby horse pastures and distant manufacturing plants spewing up smoke above the horizon will slowly infiltrate your vehicle as you speed well past the seventy mile per hour speed limit, doing what you can to keep up with the surrounding pack of cars and semis hurling themselves towards Indianapolis. Try your best to take in the scenery though as you zip through the state. See the abandoned and seemingly haunted farmhouses on the verge of collapse, the honest-to-goodness trailer parks that dot the highway exits, the semi-tankers parked in the fields and painted as billboards – most announcing, in bold and enticing phrases, the praises of your destination: Fair Oaks Farms, home of the Dairy Adventure.

“We Dairy You” puns the tanker zipping by, complete with plastic black and white cows standing on top. More clever billboards will appear every mile or so as you make your approach toward the large dairy. They will become more desperate for your attention, the play on words becoming increasingly groan-inducing (“We got milk and mooore…”) with the depictions of delicious looking cheeses (“Grate Stuff”), ice cream (“The Whine Cooler”), and cold perspiring glasses of milk (“We Double Dairy You”) gratuitously dispensed on every sign. At last, the dairy appears in the distance, the smell of well-fed cows hitting your nose well before the expansive farm can reveal itself from behind its surrounding cover of forest. As you make your way into the large parking lot reserved for visitors to Fair Oaks, yet another plastic cow on a wooden platform will so ceremoniously greet you with the words: “A Dairy Good Time for the Whole Family”. Prepare yourself for fun.

Located roughly 75 miles southeast of Chicago just a few miles north of Rensselaer, Indiana, Fair Oaks Farms is a fairly new facility, built sometime in the last ten years as of this writing, and serves as a real working dairy farm as well as a tourist attraction. The farm is large and popular enough to warrant its very own exit off of I-65 and comes complete with a BP gas station (“Fuel Your Car, Stomach, and Sense of Adventure!”) just outside its main visitor entrance. Expect to see rows of parked yellow school buses denoting the presence of field-tripping school children as well as the brown, black, and white cow buses moving through the lot which will serve as your transport through the mythical lands of dairy farming. 

First stop is the Adventure Center, the central hub of this complex, shaped like a stone barn complete with an attached silo, the inside containing a small sort of museum dedicated to educating the public on the process of extracting milk from lactating cows. A ten dollar bill gets you in the door, granting you full-access to the aforementioned museum, the dairy tour, and perhaps most importantly, the birthing barn. More on that later though. 

Education is the foremost goal of the good folks at Fair Oaks. Mary Moo Cow will be your guide, an anthropomorphic cow swinging from a swing hanging from the ceiling who speaks to you with a charming mechanical Southern drawl. Step through to the plastic forest exhibit and hear from the wise talking tree and the cawing animatronic crow about the ways in which a dairy farm supports its surrounding wildlife. Trek further into the building to hear how the fertilizer created by the vast army of cows on site produces enough electricity to power 750 homes. Dare to travel further still into the dark recesses of the learning process and you will bear witness to an informative video portraying the plight of two hip, young, multi-ethnic teenagers who have found themselves trapped in the four-stomached digestive system of a cow and who must learn on their journey the importance of cud-chewing and which stomach produces milk and how (sorry, I refuse to divulge in detail this exciting process here, you’ll just have to go there yourself to find out).

There’s so much more to do in the Adventure Center, from the multitude of cow and milk-inspired games of chance and skill (try your hand at milking!) in the kids room to the 4D theatre which comes with nifty 3D glasses and seats that rumble and spray liberal amounts of water mist upon unsuspecting viewers to realistically recreate the experience of having milk spray out from an cow’s udder onto your face. Don’t forget to sign up for a tour though, they run every hour and seats on the bus fill up fast so don’t put this off. Most likely you’ll have a good deal of time to kill before the next spotted cow bus pulls up empty but don’t despair, the wonders of the birthing barn await you only a few hundred feet away outside.

At Fair Oaks, each day roughly eighty calves are born to expectant mothers. If you’re lucky enough, you can get a front row seat to this beautiful and graphic miracle of life. A colored light outside the large red-painted barn indicates the state of affairs inside. A red light means all is calm inside, a yellow color tells you that the baby cow has officially begun its descent down the birth canal, and a green light is your signal to get moving because hooves are sticking out from mom’s rear end and the main event is close at hand. It’s good to catch the show from start to finish though and don’t worry if you miss something crucial, there are plenty of pregnant cows to go around for everyone at Fair Oaks.

You’ll enter this mock-up of a wooden barn and walk down a short sunny corridor before reaching the darkened birthing arena. Take a seat on the stone benches, which rise in a semi-circle before the bright, glass window looking into the birthing enclosure. Chances are you will see two adult female cows before you, separated by a metal gate and each resting or standing upon a massive bed of hay. Most likely one of the cows will have already given birth, in the process of furiously licking clean its fragile newborn calf with her wide slippery tongue. Across from this mother and calf will lay the still pregnant cow, engorged with her yet unborn infant. Mother cow A stands with bloodied udder and the dark dripping umbilical cord hanging beneath her tail, the gruesome remainder of the violent process of nature awaiting cow B on the other side of the enclosure.

The very pregnant mother stands, pacing restlessly around in small languid circles, her legs seemingly reluctant to carry such massive weight for long as she repeatedly lays down to rest, only to stand a minute later and let out an expectant mooing. Her body turns around, a small camera positioned inside her room reveals on a television screen the sight of a pink bulb crowning from her backside, a snout poking out into the world. Contractions rack her body for many minutes as she stands to push. The room is silent as noise of any kind is prohibited during these crucial moments. Children and adults alike will sit with eyes wide and transfixed on the show. Some will start to whisper “push” repeatedly, hands clenching metal guardrails in anticipation. But the process is slow, the contractions stop, and the pregnant cow instead only releases a steaming barrage of excrement onto the hay much to the soft-giggling disgust of the audience. She rests for some moments, gathering strength for the next round of pushing. 

Attention returns to the already accomplished cow in the other stall, her adorable nursing calf deciding to try out its legs, struggling to stay upright and balanced as it peers meekly into the dark chamber beyond for some time before ambling back to the warmth of its mother. Together, mother and calf collapse onto the hay, the baby instantly falling to sleep, curled against mother’s heaving black and white spotted mass. A door opens slowly behind the cows, the red-hatted head of a farm hand peeking out tentatively to chart the progress of the birthing process.

It’s not long before the contractions start anew though. Push. Snout is more visible now. Momma cow is mooing loud through the muffling glass. Push. Hooves are out, covered in a thick mucus membrane that slops onto the hay below. Man in the red hat comes out and says a few quick, quiet words in Spanish to the woman keeping watch over The Button. He confirms that the birthing mark has been reached. Push. The Button is pushed. The light outside is turned to green, all systems go, in the other stall the baby tries to stand again, looking as if it wants to get a better view at the action a few feet away. Push. 

Half of a slimy little cow hangs from big momma, you watch with awe as gravity takes over, as the baby slides out bit by bit. Two hooves out now, the moaning is loud, an excruciating sound to hear, suddenly the rest falls out of the birth canal in a slimy heap save for a single stuck hoof. Red Hat hurries out to release the entrapped limb from mom, pulls the calf towards mother’s mouth so the cleaning can commence which, as you were most likely told earlier through the magic of edutainment, stimulates the young one and wakes it from its daze to place it firmly into the harsh-lit reality of real life. Almost lifeless it will lay at first, still covered in slime and straw, its long bloody legs spread useless and thin looking. After some minutes it will try to stand like its counterpart in the next stall has been but will fail miserably, its legs hardly strong enough quite yet to deal with the hardship of holding up any kind of weight. 

Suddenly, a tragic scene will occur. A garage door will open with hasty abandon and Red Hat will burst into the first stall where the well-established mother and calf rest. Behind the opened door resides the cavernous storage area of the barn with another large docking bay door open at the other end of the building, streaming white daylight into its dark interior, where another very pregnant cow can be seen being led down from a small white trailer by another farm hand. Mother cow A now stands, steam shooting from her nostrils in defiance of the advancing Red Hat. Despite this show of protection over her newborn, she is easily driven away from her baby and drawn toward an awaiting empty trailer, leaving the calf shivering and alone for a few heart-wrenching moments. 

Unceremoniously, Red Hat returns to pick up the disoriented (and heavy) baby and place it into a wheelbarrow. As the calf is wheeled away and a new pregnant mother is corralled into its place in the birthing arena, it becomes apparent that the mother and baby will never see each other again. The cycle continues with the arrival of the next pregnant cow. The show must go on.

As you leave the birthing interior, hopefully with a new-found respect for the arduous process involved in populating the planet, you will pass a row of sleeping (and of course adorable) newborns placed in small, individual hay-strewn pens beneath heat lamps. A sign will tell you each of their genders and birth weights as well as time of birth. While it should be quite obvious (if not now then soon, you still have the Dairy Tour to take!) what the fate of the females will be, it’s probably best not to think too hard on the fate of the cute snoozing males as you stroll out into the sunshine.

Move quickly now and make your way onto the cow bus, the tour will be starting in a few minutes. You will be herded and packed in with church groups, 6th grade classes, or fourteen-member families as your tour guide introduces himself (let’s call him Mike, a fifty-something retired high school history teacher) and begins his inspired commentary via the most excellent bus PA sound system. As you make the drive down the long, dusty path to the one and only road leading into the main facility, you are informed of the strict security involved, as every vehicle entering and exiting the farm must pass through a guarded checkpoint and pass over a scale beneath the road. Signs posted along the dirt path allude to the death and destruction that will befall any vehicle foolish enough to be caught driving unauthorized toward the farms. As your bus passes over the scale, you’ll be told how many hundreds of thousands of pounds y’all and the bus weigh together. Mike will laugh and say that y’all still have plenty of room to fill up on ice cream back at the Cheese Factory.

Experience up close the wonder that is the manure processing building. It will be impressed upon you again just how much electricity can be produced from this wondrous substance. Be sure to breathe in deeply, the smell is just lovely. Next on the tour you’ll witness the towering mountains of corn silage, feed that makes up the bulk of the cow’s diet, kept under gigantic white sheets and weighed down with rubber tire rings which allow for some form of fermentation to take place in order to create this cow super food. 

But the focus is on the cows, and there are plenty of those to be seen. Hundreds of cows, perhaps thousands, hang out in several large open-air barns, or free stalls, that stretch for hundreds of feet. Mike explains that cows spend the bulk of their day chewing cud (which is semi-digested feed that has been regurgitated back into the mouth to be broken down further), resting, and of course, giving milk at a specified point in the day. Here there is another birthing pen for those cows unlucky enough to not make it to the big stage. Also a few yards further down the way there are rows of newborn calves eating and gaining weight, preparing for a future adult life of vigorous consumption and pound accruement. 

The bulls will be sold for some unspecified, certainly innocent purpose and the heifers will most likely be kept on as milking cows. You will then be assured many times as you’re driven down the narrow middle corridor of one of these barns, watching the crowded bovines move about from water trough to feed trough with mud squishing beneath their hooves, that they are happy living as they do. You can tell because happy cows chew cud. It’s difficult to argue with that logic.

On to the milk parlor! This is where the magic happens, where the fruits (milk) of labor are harvested, packaged, and shipped out into the world. Off the bus and up the narrow metal steps you’ll go into a dim-lit viewing area on the upper level of the facility where the much of the milking process is laid out before you. Mass production milking is done with a giant metal carousal for cows. One by one they step into an individual metal-barred stall that slowly takes the cows for a ride while they are milked by unseen mechanical means. Like any good teacher, Mike defers to an informative video screen above your heads that explains what exactly y’all are seeing, or, more importantly, what you can’t see. Beneath the round-moving milking rotary, hidden from sight, are several people who are responsible for cleaning, priming, and hooking each and every cow udder up to a mechanical milking device that robotically extracts the white liquid from swollen udders. Beyond the rotary you will see a long line of cows queued up along with the baseball cap-sporting men whose job it is to escort them, weaving back and forth within the chaotic looking wooden corridors that stretch out beyond what you can see, waiting patiently as one would for any good amusement park ride. 

When asked how the cows know when to get on and off the rotary with little trouble or prompting, Mike laughs and tells the questioner, with great authority, that the cows take great pleasure from the ride and really enjoy being milked. In the next room you’ll get a look at the vast refrigerated milk vats. You’ll learn that the facility produces roughly 250,000 gallons of milk a day – enough to fill forty tankers. This won’t be so hard to believe after seeing firsthand the endless expanse of black and white living here at Fair Oaks.

After your tour you will be released at the door of the aforementioned Cheese Factory & Cafe, a cafeteria/ice cream parlor/gift shop whereby you will be able to sample, consume, and bring home just about any dairy product that can be imagined by you. From five-year old sharp cheddar to tubs of fresh churned strawberry ice cream to roast beef grilled cheese panini to newly bottled quarts of milk in both standard and chocolate varieties, its quite impossible to order something in the Cheese Factory that doesn’t contain lactose. With food procured, take a seat and take a load off, you’ve earned it, dairy adventuring can be an exhausting ordeal. Take this time to reflect on your journey as you work your way through the globs of melted cheese falling from your lips and a creamy smooth chocolate milkshake that threatens to freeze your brain with every overly ambitious gulp. Realize then that these cows are heroes to every dairy-obsessed American and should be saluted as such. And as you lurch back towards your parked vehicle and the sun begins to lower on Fair Oaks Farms, take one last breath of the pungent air and know, from that moment onward, that what you smell is the smell of deliciousness in progress.


This was done for a creative non-fiction writing class I took last year.  It is my attempt at something like literary journalism/travel writing.