How Indiana's Fair Oaks Farms Inspires Kids To Join The Dwindling Ranks Of Farmers

The solution involves a lot more than simply putting young people on tractors.
About 250 times a day at Fair Oaks Farms, someone reaches into a large and uncomfortable gilt and pulls out a piglet. Usually, this happens in full view of tourists, who come by the busload and make the noises people make when they watch someone remove a baby from a pig. It’s daily life in the Pig Adventure, one of the most popular attractions at Fair Oaks, a 33,000-acre farm that has grown into the largest agritourism site in the country. The farm buses visitors to a massive facility that tracks the animals’ lives from birth to motherhood. Rows of pink pigs—chattering, dozing, and bumping each other around—reach out from the observation windows, while staffers tend to the animals’ feeding and astronomic levels of waste removal. (Naturally, the exhibit opens with a considerable display dedicated to America’s long-simmering obsession with bacon.)
The pig party is far from Fair Oaks’s only draw. There’s a similar Dairy Adventure that teaches milk production by putting visitors directly in front of a cow-go-round, a huge and slowly rotating wheel from which the animals are fed and cared for. There’s a Crop Adventure that promotes sustainability and conservation while laying out a map of what the ag industry might look like in coming decades. And interspersed within the main attractions are plenty of family activities: climbing walls, trampolines, mini-tractor rides, an ice cream parlor, and a cafeteria which contains—with apologies to Grandma—the finest grilled cheeses in Northwest Indiana.
All of which sounds about as wholesome and traditional as roadside family entertainment gets. Many have described the place as an “agricultural Disney,” one that gives visitors—especially kids—an intimate look at a fully functional, occasionally smelly farm. In affording them the chance to gape at animal babies and combines, though, Fair Oaks aspires to do more than sell admission tickets. It hopes to solve a looming problem for the agriculture industry: As the global population explodes, the number of farmers producing food for those people is dwindling. And addressing that shortage turns out to be less about inspiring kids to bale hay or drive a tractor, and more about getting them into molecular biology, robotic technology, and logistics.
One afternoon back in 2002, Fair Oaks CEO Gary Corbett sat in his truck, gazing at his farmland and mulling the idea of showing everyone his job. Indiana may be nearly synonymous with farming, but Corbett believed the visceral feel of the work—the crumble of the dirt, the roar of the machines—had been slipping from Hoosiers for a long time. “Unless their grandmas and grandpas had a farm, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for our city brethren to see what 21st-century agriculture is all about,” he says. “So we thought, We’ll build it, and maybe they’ll come and maybe they won’t.”
They came. Today, Fair Oaks draws 600,000 visitors a year—roughly as much as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana State Museum, and Conner Prairie combined. Corbett hopes to bump that figure to more than 1 million in the near future. (The educational component is a 501c3, which allows for help from some big sponsors. Ag giant Belstra Milling invested almost $8 million in the Pig Adventure, and Winfield United contributed more than $10 million to help fund the Crop Adventure.) It’s all done with the goal of refreshing the TV-commercial perception of farming, particularly among young folks. “If they got a glimpse into our world, we thought maybe that would trigger a reaction that would set them down a whole career path,” Corbett says. “It’s not just about milking cows.”
Fair Oaks and similar agritourism locations like Traders Point Creamery, Distelrath Farms, and Tyner Pond Farm are thriving, but they’re doing so in the face of tough times for the farming industry, which is racing toward a significant aging problem. The average age of the Indiana farmer is 55.8, according to the most recent data available. Of 58,695 principal operators in 2012, just 4,764 were 34 or younger. By contrast, three times that many were 65 or older. Jason Henderson, associate dean in Purdue’s College of Agriculture, says this trend is cause for concern, but also that it has been happening for a long time. “In many ways,” he says, “for much of the century.”
As you might suspect, this isn’t an Indiana-only issue. The number of U.S. farms declined by 4 percent between 2007 and 2012. According to a report from the USDA, the average age of the American farmer is three years higher than Indiana’s at 58.3, and that figure has been on the rise for 30 years. The number of new farmers dropped 20 percent between 2007 and 2012.
Here’s why that’s bad: By the year 2050, the world’s population is expected to balloon to nearly 10 billion people, up from about 7.5 billion today. Put another way, we need to grow more food in the next 40 years than we did in the last 10,000—without the luxury of inventing more land—so Corbett believes it would be wise to start now. “If you look at surveys done by countless groups in ag about things critical to consumers, one of the things at the very bottom of the list is what happens to us in 2050,” Corbett says. “We’re a pretty narcissistic society when it comes to that. People today have their own problems. I appreciate that. But 2050 will come someday.”
All that gloomy math only tells part of the story. While it’s true that fewer farmers till fewer fields to feed more people every year, the greatest barrier to entry isn’t a lack of interest among young people. It’s money. The average 1,000-acre farm in Indiana costs $7.7 million, and that doesn’t include the $400,000 combine and other equipment. “If you’re a 60-year-old farmer and want to sell your acres to some young 23-year-old whippersnapper out of Purdue, that 23-year-old would get laughed out of the bank,” says Tamara Benjamin, program leader for Purdue University’s Diversified Farming and Food Systems program. “Land and the equipment are so expensive.”
Benjamin doesn’t worry about promotion of the profession. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, everybody on Earth is pro-farming, as indicated by the popularity of agritourism sites, farmers markets, and farm-to-table restaurants.
She worries about keeping the industry sustainable—not simply replacing farmers, but finding ways to use science and technology to produce more with less. “The real question is: Are our farms innovating?” she says. “Are they constantly thinking about what opportunities they can capture in a maturing market? That’s what we need to be thinking about.”
The good news: Modern farming involves a lot more than seeds and harvesting. There’s a sprawling list of new agricultural careers: biochemistry, nutrition, logistics, engineering, and plant, seed, and animal genetics, all of which get face time in Fair Oaks’s displays. “One of the intriguing things about agriculture is how it’s gone from the Norman Rockwell picture to the high-tech situation it is today,” says Corbett, the Fair Oaks CEO. “To kids who are tech-driven, there’s a place for them in agriculture today that maybe wasn’t there just a decade ago. If you’d have told people 20 years ago that you could make a living in the science of manure management, they would have laughed at you. Today, it’s a reality.”
Fair Oaks manages more than 5 million pounds of manure daily. Visitors watch as that waste travels through a system of anaerobic digestors functioning like cow stomachs. The digestors mix the manure with microbes to break it down and produce methane, which can be used to power the facility and its fleet of trucks. If there’s a better way to lure giggling kids to agricultural science than a poop exhibit, the industry hasn’t identified it yet.
Moreover, the Crop Adventure—two words that admittedly could be a hard sell for tweens—turns out to be the epicenter of Fair Oaks’s future planning, opening with the coming population problem and closing with a slickly delivered ag-industry pitch geared toward environmentalists, engineering grads, biotech specialists, and budding entrepreneurs. One exhibit delves into molecular biology; another is heavy on drones and robot tech that would seem more at home on MythBusters than a place that births this many pigs.
In fact, the Crop Adventure ends with a heck of a sales pitch, one aimed squarely at those facing imminent student loan bills: Kids who pursue farming as a profession have chosen wisely. About 58,000 jobs open every year in ag, twice as many slots as there are graduates to fill them. According to Purdue, more than 96 percent of graduating ag students are employed within six months. Benjamin, the Purdue program leader, recently returned from a farm conference that felt more diverse and vibrant than any she had ever attended in the past. “I saw everyone from people with nose rings to people in T-shirts saying ‘Obama sucks,’” she says. “Now we need to help them figure out their passion and motivation, and then get them to write a business plan. Farming is like getting a PhD. You can’t just do it in a few months. It takes years to get your wheels wet.” You just don’t necessarily have to start in the fields.
In the coming years, Fair Oaks’s attendance will likely increase. They’ve broken ground on a 100-room inn, slated for a fall 2018 opening and designed to draw not just overnight drive-by guests, but conference and academic clients. Behind the Pig Adventure sits an 8,000-apple-tree orchard that could host picking parties and wagon rides as early as next year. Also in the works are a John Deere museum, cattle ranch, and fish farm. Plans for a 50,000-steer beef exhibit are underway, as are mock-ups for a Chicken Adventure that would star 700,000 cage-free birds. “People will see how eggs will be handled in the 22nd century,” says Corbett. “It’s all robots and lasers. The eggs aren’t even touched.”
Indiana is counting on that mix—robots and chickens, drones and combines, generations-strong families and new blood—to meet the world’s food demands. Farming faces a challenge, but not for the first time, and not without places like Fair Oaks showing the way forward. “I grew up in the ’80s, which was not a good time for ag,” Henderson says. “The message at the kitchen table was: Jason, you need to find something else to do. There’s not much left for you here. That’s not the message we have today. There are plenty of opportunities. But we have one grand challenge: How do we feed a world of 10 billion? We’ll just have to do it with fewer people.” Fewer people, that is, in a lot more professions.