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Fair Oaks Farms boosted attendance by 9 percent last year after adding The WinField Crop Adventure, a new exhibition that lets kids burrow underground, catch virtual raindrops and see the high-tech tools of modern-day farming.

“It was almost a double-digits increase, which is good for an attraction that’s been around as long as us,” CEO Gary Corbett said.

The sprawling farm at the border of Jasper and Newton counties is being inducted into The Times Business & Industry Hall of Fame as its 2016 Enterprise of the Year.

Fair Oaks Farms was one of the first in the country to turn dairy cattle into an agritourism attraction and has blossomed into a Disney-like theme park for agritourism that’s been written up in the New York Times and Fortune Magazine.

Fair Oaks Farms now draws more than 600,000 visitors a year, including at least 50,000 on school trips, to its popular dairy, pig and crop adventures. Tour buses haul in visitors from as far away as Iowa.

In recent years, Fair Oaks Farms has been on a building spree. It’s added the Pig Adventure, the Pork Education Center and the farm-to-table Farmhouse Restaurant where many of the ingredients are grown or raised on the same property. The working agritourism destination also is looking at building a 100-room hotel to accommodate all the visitors. It’s planning new attractions like an orchard where visitors can pick apples nearly year-round, a beef cattle adventure, a John Deere tractor museum and a poultry attraction that would show people how 500,000 to 700,000 chickens are raised.

Ground will be broken this spring on the 100-room hotel, which will cater to farmers, researchers and those on extended visits.

The future

“We’re very excited for what the future may hold,” Corbett said.

Attendance has benefited from low gas prices, a better economy and more people out traveling, Corbett said. In fact, it was deliberately located at 56 N. 600 E. Fair Oaks between the population centers of Chicago and Indianapolis, because 45,000 cars pass by each day and it’s within a 175-mile radius of 28 million people.

But the farm always is looking to add new attractions like the Crop Adventure that teaches visitors about corn and soybeans, or the sit-down Farmhouse Restaurant with a 300-person banquet room that aims to eventually source up to 80 percent of its ingredients from the farm just outside its doors, making it as “farm-to-table” as possible.

Fair Oaks Farms seeks to add attractions that will appeal to a wide array of people, and also give visitors who have gone before a reason to come back.

“It’s hard to quantify how much each entity draws individually, but they all have a positive impact over time,” Corbett said. “We just keep expanding our footprint. We hope to add additional attractions in the future. We want to be like the big players, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium, that are always adding attractions.”

Agritourism push

The state of Indiana is working to leverage Fair Oaks Farms’ tremendous success.

The Indiana Department of Agriculture and Office of Tourism Development are partnering to make Indiana more of an agritourism destination, building further on a potentially $1.4 billion industry.

“Fair Oaks Farms is a model agritourism destination; there’s nothing else like it,” Indiana Office of Tourism Development Executive Director Mark Newman said. “The scale, scope and ambition of this destination lets visitors experience authentic agriculture life firsthand, which is why it’s among the most visited attractions in Northwest Indiana.”

South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority Executive Vice President Katie Holderby said Fair Oaks Farms was a major asset to Northwest Indiana, especially since it draws visitors who wouldn’t otherwise consider coming. Frequent investments keep tours flowing in, she said.

Fair Oaks Farms has been renovating its signature Dairy Adventure, which lets people clamber up a giant rock-climbing wall shaped like a milk bottle, see a vast milking carousel and witness firsthand 80 to 100 calves birthed a day. The farm aims for wow factor.

Malcolm DeKryger, vice president of Belstra Milling, which funded the Pig Adventure, said visitors are amazed to see 80,000 pigs born there each year.

“We have to employ a window-washer just to remove all the handprints and noseprints on the glass,” he said.

Telling agriculture's story 

Fair Oaks Farms originally opened in 2004 in a response to a study that found people were increasingly growing disconnected from agriculture, and only 2 percent of the public still worked in farming. Dairy farmers were concerned they might be fed misconceptions by animal rights activists and became convinced the best way to educate consumers about modern-day farm conditions was to invite them to see for themselves, Corbett said. The fear was that if farmers didn’t tell their own story, someone else would.

In addition to the tours and educational exhibits at Fair Oaks, owners Mike and Sue McCloskey have been out evangelizing for modern-day farming at hip venues like the Chicago Ideas Fest and South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Other farm sectors have joined on, such as Quad Cities-based John Deere, which hopes to establish a museum there to chart the evolution of its iconic tractors and agricultural equipment. Twin Cities-based Land O’ Lakes established the crop adventure to inform people the agricultural industry must feed 9 to 10 billion people by 2050, while tillable land cedes ground to urbanization.

“In agriculture, we have the axiom that’s on placards in sports locker rooms, that when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” Corbett said. “There’s no magic bullet, but we’ll have to continue to produce more and more crops with less and less land.”

The farm has turned to technology such as when it engineered Fairlife, a new premium milk product that has more protein and calcium, and less lactose and fat. It’s also harnessed methane from cow dung to power a fleet of semi-trailer trucks that deliver Fair Oaks milk and award-winning cheeses across the Midwest.

“Manure management is becoming like rocket science,” he said. “It’s part of an entrepreneurial model that, in today’s hog industry, you take everything from the pig and use every byproduct to create something.”

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.