Visitors can big agriculture up close in Indiana

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 19, 2014 at 10:40 am •  Published: March 19, 2014

FAIR OAKS, Ind. (AP) — Farms around the nation have tried to capitalize on consumers' interest in how food is produced with tours showcasing organic vegetable production, urban agriculture and animals that graze on lush pastures.

The mammoth industrial farms that produce most of the food that most Americans eat, however, remain largely off-limits.

An exception is in northern Indiana where tourists can visit a high-tech dairy farm, tour a massive creamery where cheese and ice cream are made and see piglets born on a hog farm. The collection of properties known as Fair Oaks Farms draws as many as 500,000 visitors per year.

Fair Oaks includes 10 dairy farms with 37,000 cows and a 2,400-pig farm on about 19,000 acres 70 miles south of Chicago. It opened to the public in 2004 and most visits start at the Dairy Adventure Center, where you can wander through a series of exhibits and see a short film on dairy farming before boarding a bus to a farm.

You'll see animals while you're there, but none of the farm tours involve contact with them because of concerns about diseases that visitors might carry on their shoes, clothing, skin or hair. Germs that don't threaten people or pets could be harmful to the cows or pigs.

The dairy bus passes a digester, one of two where manure is turned into biogas to power the farms and their fleet of trucks. It rolls into a barn, driving down a wide center aisle with cows in pens on each side. Most cows lay in stalls lined with sand that cushions their bodies. The stalls are defined by bars on each side, the rear is open, allowing the cows to back out into common areas with more space to move around.

One end of the barn has a separate pen for cows about to give birth, and it's possible see them in labor, perhaps with a calf's hooves beginning to emerge.

Fair Oaks provides other opportunities to witness birth as well. A barn near the Dairy Adventure Center provides theater-style seating for visitors to watch cows deliver their calves behind glass walls. A traffic light outside provides updates, with orbs that say "soon," ''hooves" and "head."