Fair Oaks Farms’ Dairy Adventure was recently profiled as “One Farm’s Quest to Save Industrial Agriculture”
FAIR OAKS, Indiana––Undercover video from Fair Oaks Farm in Fair Oaks, Indiana, has exposed extensive abuse of young calves at a facility widely billed as exemplifying a new, humane approach to factory farming.
Animal Recovery Mission, of Miami Beach, Florida, on June 4, 2019 posted to social media what it called “video evidence documenting systemic and illegal abuse at Fair Oaks Farm,” showing employees “slapping, kicking, punching, pushing, throwing and slamming calves.”
Some calves were “stabbed and beaten with steel rebars, hit in the mouth and face with hard plastic milking bottles, kneed in the spine, [and] burned in the face with hot branding irons,” Animal Recovery Mission said.
Video showed calves delivered to vealers
In addition, the Animal Recovery Mission video “confirmed that male calves from Fair Oaks Farms are in fact transported to veal farms,” specifically Midwest Veal and Calf Start, Animal Recovery Mission said, “despite the corporation’s claims that it does not send its male calves to veal farms.”
Further, Animal Recovery Mission alleged, the investigator “captured footage of drug use and illegal marijuana cultivation by Fair Oaks employees and supervisors.”
As Animal Recovery Mission summarized, “Fair Oaks Farms is one of the largest dairies in the U.S.,” with a milking herd of 36,000 cows, “and produces dairy products for the Fairlife milk brand, produced, marketed, and distributed by the Coca-Cola Corporation.”
Fairlife products are sold nationwide by more than 70 grocery store chains, among them Walmart, Target, Kroger, Publix, Safeway, Meijer and Shop n’ Save.
The Animal Recovery Mission video was posted just two weeks after Pacific Standard reporter Emily Moon published “Dairy Disneyland: One Farm’s Quest to Save Industrial Agriculture,” an extensive exposé of how Fair Oaks Farm has evolved over the past 20 years from an unusually big but conventional factory-scale dairy into one of the first lines of defense for almost the whole of animal agribusiness.
Moon described Fair Oaks Farms as “a sprawling agricultural theme park—and, yes, a bit like Disneyland, if Disneyland were sadder and grayer. The museum and admission buildings, painted a pristine red, look like a toy farm set.”
About 450 people visited on the day that Moon did.
“To see what the animals look like before they become burgers,” Moon wrote, “you board the bus to a large-scale dairy and pig farm, both modeled after the co-op’s real operations, which are located off-site. On the dairy side, employees guide you through a feeding operation, a top-of-the-line manure recycling system, free-stall barns, and a milking parlor.”
“We’ve got to go on the offense”
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but raised mostly in Puerto Rico and Mexico, cofounder Mike McCloskey earned a veterinary degree from the University of California at Davis, then went into dairy farming in New Mexico with his wife Sue in 1984. After building that operation up from 300 cows to 5,000, they relocated to Indiana, where they formed Select Milk Producers, Inc., in partnership with nine other dairy farmers.
Select Milk Products is now “the sixth-largest dairy co-op in the country, producing about $2 billion in dairy products each year,” according to Moon.
Concerned about public response to video exposés of abuses on other dairy farms, Moon recounted, “Select Milk commissioned a white paper on potential risks from ‘anti-agriculture’ activists.
“Our initial reaction was that we’ve got to go on the offense,” Select Farms general manager Gary Corbett told Moon.
Took Temple Grandin’s advice
“Prominent reformers in the industry, like celebrated animal scientist Temple Grandin, had already suggested that farms turn the metaphorical ‘high walls of industrial agriculture’ into glass,” Moon summarized.
Taking Grandin’s suggestion literally, Corbett and the McCloskeys “began to design a tour that would allow visitors to physically walk through their workplace—behind biosecure panes of glass,” Moon explained. “They updated their practices in anticipation of pushback,” for example by quitting tail-docking.
“They visited nearby museums, consulted with an ad agency, and reached out to Indiana’s branch of the national dairy checkoff, a semi-public organization that promotes dairy products through research and marketing, funded through a government-mandated tax on producers,” Moon continued.”
Pigs & poultry
Fair Oaks Farms opened their Dairy Adventure location in 2004, with a separate nonprofit incorporation. The feed-and-pig producer Belstra Milling Co. then funded a similar facility called the Pig Adventure, opened in 2015.
Then-Indiana governor Mike Pence, now U.S. vice president, attended the 2016 grand opening of the next attraction, the Crop Adventure, sponsored by Land O’Lakes, Inc.
“Now,” Moon reported, “Corbett says the co-op is in talks with the poultry industry.”
For 15 years the Fair Oaks approach won accolades from most observers.
Praise from Pacelle
For instance, blogged then-Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle on August 17, 2012, “It’s a mega-dairy for sure, but the charismatic owner of this farm, Michael McCloskey, has been an innovator within the industry. For years, he’s been a dissenter when it comes to the once-standard practice of tail docking,” actually never standard, though common, “and every one of the cows on his farm has a tail, as she was meant to have. The cows bed on sand, which is more comfortable for the animals than concrete, and I didn’t see the animals exhibiting any lameness as they walked back and forth between their living area and the milking facility.
“His cows all go to slaughter, for ground beef for fast-food companies,” Pacelle acknowledged, “so no one should be under the illusion that there’s a retirement home for them.”
Grandin: “Doing some really great things”
Two years later, on October 21, 2014, Temple Grandin herself visited Fair Oaks Farms.
“Grandin heaped praise upon Fair Oaks Farms,” wrote Vanessa Renderman for the Northwest Indiana Times. ‘They’re doing some really, really great things here,’ she said. ‘Doing stuff right. I watched those cows coming into the rotary all by themselves, completely calmly. That’s beautiful animal handling.’
“She was pleased with the conditions of the animals as well,” continued Randerman.
“These cows I saw today, I never saw so much cud-chewing going on,” Grandin told her Fair Oaks audience. “That is a very, very good sign.”
Grandin, a Colorado State University professor of psychology and animal science, began warning agribusiness about the potential of undercover video to transform public perception of livestock rearing and slaughter in May 1991. Minneapolis cocktail waitress Becky Sandstedt had just released to media selected clips from 40 hours of video she covertly made of the handling of downed cattle and pigs at United Stockyards Inc. in South St. Paul.
“The public is forming attitudes from the Internet”
“On farms in Europe,” Grandin told readers of Meat & Poultry in 2008, “you can look at a cow cam on a dairy farm and watch calves being born and cows being milked on the Internet. Many people on both the farm side and the meat plant side [of agribusiness] are overly cautious about showing what we do. A common comment is ‘people will not understand.’
“What many industry managers do not realize,” Grandin emphasized, “is that the public is forming attitudes from negative propaganda on the Internet. We need to post the good stuff. In every phase of agriculture and the meat industry,” Grandin wrote, “we need to say to ourselves, ‘Would I be proud to show what I am doing to my out-of-town holiday or wedding guests?’
“If you are squirming and cringing, you need to improve your practices. Hacking horns off of large cattle, beating up animals, or shoving them around with a forklift does not pass this test.”
Grandin urged farms to use cameras themselves
Grandin urged farms and slaughterhouses to use cameras themselves to continuously monitor animal care and handling.
But that lesson still has not been heeded by most of animal agribusiness, including Fair Oaks Farms founder Mike McCloskey, who pledged in a response to the Animal Recovery Mission video that he would now have cameras installed to monitor every area in which humans are in contact with animals.
“It is with great disappointment to find, after closely reviewing the released Animal Recovery Mission video,” McCloskey said, “that there were five individuals committing multiple instances of animal cruelty and despicable judgement. Of the five, four were our employees and one was a third party truck driver who was picking up calves. Of the four who were our employees, three had already been terminated prior to us being made aware, months ago, of the undercover Animal Recovery Mission operation.
“Our policy worked”
“They were identified by their co-workers as being abusive of our animals and reported to management,” said McCloskey. “So, in this instance our policy of cow care training – ‘see something, say something’ – worked.
“Unfortunately, the fourth employee’s animal abuse was not caught at that same time,” McCloskey continued. “Although he underwent another training session in animal care when we discovered there was an undercover Animal Recovery Mission operation on our farm, after viewing the extent of his animal abuse, he is being terminated today.
“As to the individual who worked for the transportation company, we will notify the company that he works for and he will not be allowed on our farms again,” McCloskey pledged.
McCloskey also said Fair Oaks Farms “will institute more thorough monitoring and training so that this abuse can never happen again. This video and any future videos will be immediately handed over to the authorities for review and potential prosecution.”
But McCloskey was able to deny only one of the Animal Recovery Mission allegations.
“The statement that we grow and sell drugs on our farms is false,” McCloskey said. “The plants featured in the video are an invasive perennial species,” a feral form of hemp commonly called ditch weed, “that is rampant on farms all over the Midwest.
“With that said,” McCloskey added, “Months ago, the individual seen smoking by the barn and doing drugs in a truck was turned in by his co-workers to one of our managers. That manager notified local law enforcement about the drug use and, accordingly, a police report is on file.”
Damage control won’t save agribiz
“At least three retailers — Strack & Van Til, Jewel-Osco and Family Express — began pulling Fairlife products from their shelves in response to the video,” the Northwest Indiana Times reported.
But after the initial negative public reaction, Fair Oaks Farms was widely praised for doing prompt damage control.
But as LiveKindly editor-in-chief Jill Ettinger reported on April 7, 2019, “Sales of milk continue to drop – recent data released by the Dairy Farmers of America showed a $1.1 billion loss in revenue for the dairy industry in 2018 — an 8% drop over 2017,” after milk sales had already fallen by 22% between 2000 and 2016.
Fair Oaks Farms may save itself, in short, but putting a Disneyland face on a brutal industry does not appear to be enough to save anyone’s bacon.