It was 2004 when Mike McCloskey and his wife, Sue, worked with area dairy farmers to open the Fair Oaks Dairy Adventure, a no-holds barred look at how a dairy farm works topped off with a great dairy bar where you could get great ice cream and a grilled cheese sandwich.
Twelve years later the "experience" has expanded to include a Swine Adventure and now there's something new that rounds out the livestock story – the Winfield Crop Adventure at Fair Oaks. The crop technology-focused facility opened its doors recently near Winemac, Ind., at Fair Oaks Farms.
"This is an exciting time in agriculture," says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. "It's a time of innovation, precision agriculture, improving crop production and it is really important to our national security. It's how we convert enemies into friends."
Vilsack was one of several dignitaries on hand for the opening of the facility. Recently he had visited Viet Nam and Cuba noting that the U.S. relationship with both countries was improving in part due to the way agriculture has built the bridge to connect. "There is no more innovative, nor more passionate place to be than agriculture," he notes.
It's that energy that Land O'Lakes and Winfield want to capitalize on with a facility that offers a highly interactive look crops, crop production and crop technology. Fair Oaks is also the right place for this experience as it builds on what the McCloskey family started all those years ago.
"In the 2000s we felt a need to communicate with the consumer," McCloskey recalls. Noting that more than 98% of the U.S. population does not farm, the McCloskeys saw that others were telling stories that "were not our stories. There was some misinformation, some because of intent and we also felt great need to reach the 98%; to help them understand where their food comes from."
He admits that opening the farm to the public was scary, and he created a new business structure around the agri-infortainment model.
Chris Policinski, Land O'Lakes president and CEO explained that as a farmer-owned organization the cooperative saw an opportunity to help tell the story and that few consumers actually see food and agriculture from end to end. He notes that Land O'Lakes is a consumer products company that also works with farmers and from that "lofty perch" leadership saw there were opportunities to better tell agriculture's story.
"We wanted to note that farmers have improved productivity and share the facts and science in the story of agriculture," he says. "There are no bad actors in agriculture. There are different methods of production." He adds that ag is a high-tech business.
It's that thinking that helped push the development of the Winfield Crop Experience, which shares in-depth information in an interactive environment for youth ages 8 to 12. "We want to talk to the American public about how modern technology supports farm practices in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way," says Mike Vande Logt, Winfield COO.
The Winfield Crop Adventure
Given the need to tell agriculture's story in more detail and the rising need for better understanding of where crops come from, the new Winfield Crop Adventure opening is timely. The facility offers a look at crop technology from the 1920s where the real enhancement of production began from hybrid seed corn to the greater use of fertilizers and crop protection products.
There's even a look at the "underground" where actual corn roots push down from the ceiling, and there's a look at the pests and other problems below the soil that work to hamper plant yields.
The experience also works to tell the story of where the crop is used whether it's corn for ethanol or cotton for fiber or soybeans for ink, the visitor learns the many ways that farm crops are used in food and beyond.
And the experience ends with a look to the future where a visitor can see a high-tech corn chipper used by researchers as the latest development in crop biotechnology. And visitors learn about how data is being used by farmers to enhance how they boost yields.
WARNINGS AHEAD: This map shares hotspots and global areas where the environment is changing in ways that could hamper food production.
The underlying story is this – farmers around the world have to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050, which is a 70% increase in production in a very short time. And it's through crop technology that much of that will be done.
Along the way the exhibit designers keep the interactive approach in mind from touch screens that bring up new information to motion-activated video with added information. There's a lot to see in at this new exhibit.
And beyond educating visitors about crop technology, the designers have another motive: To expose children to the idea of agriculture as a career. Vilsack noted that a study by an Indiana university showed there would be more than 57,000 jobs in agriculture but that the industry was only training 34,000 for those openings. That gap has to be filled with folks interested in science and engineering to help advance agriculture.
Kelly Irvine was on hand for the rollout of the Crop Adventure, she won national FFA recognition for her work showing opportunities for women in agriculture. She notes that many perceive that farming is hard work. "There are opportunities to educate people on modern production practices," she says.
You can check out a replay of a live webcast as part of the opening of the new Winfield Crop Adventure by visiting fieldsoffuture.com. And to learn more about Fair Oaks Farm, including the new Winfield Crop Experience, visit fofarms.com.
Land O'Lakes and Winfield invested $12 million into this new educational facility.