Indiana’s Fair Oaks Farms began as a big Midwestern dairy farm with a big idea: deconstructing cows’ milk into its component proteins, fats etc. and reconstituting it in ways to “improve” on Mother Nature—or at least show her some new tricks.
Now, Fair Oaks Farms and its associated Select Milk Producers co-op are 50-50 venture partners with Coca-Cola for producing one of the beverage giant’s most important new products: Fairlife milk, whose proposition is to improve on Mother Nature. It’s “ultra-filtered so Fairlife is lactose-free and low-sugar, with increased calcium and protein over regular milk.”
Fair Oaks, located in the hinterlands between Chicago and Indianapolis, produces its own brand of engineered milks as well, and it has turned Fair Oaks Farms into a state-of-the-art dairy production operation, with about 37,000 cows.
One of the largest farms in the world, it’s also a popular tourist attraction (dubbed a “Agricultural Disneyland” by some fans) where visitors can tour The Dairy Adventure and experience farm life such as a dairy-go-round milking wheel and a birthing center, as well as a pork education center, concerts, a music festival, kids park, pick-your-own orchards and more.
There’s also a 3D/4D Theater, an Edutainment Center, a market and bakery, a cheese plant plus dining at either The Farmhouse Restaurant or the (pun alert) Cowfé. “We have a terrific location,” Gary Corbett, CEO of Fair Oaks Farms, told us. “Within a 160-mile radius of us there are 28 million people, and on I-65, 37,000 vehicles a day go right by us. We’re right in the middle of the country.”
Also in development: a hotel and a John Deere attraction that will reportedly “chart the history of the iconic green-and-yellow tractor and other modern-day farm equipment.”
Sustainability is also key. Visitors may observe the latest in animal welfare practices, including ethical cow care, supply chain and responsible agriculture. At a time when all food producers are under pressure on animal treatment—including McDonald’s, which has adopted tougher chicken husbandry standards among other humane policies—Fair Oaks Farms wants to be a leader.
Beyond agritourism, Fairlife is a key focus for the farm’s day-to-day operations and for Coca-Cola, as part of its pivot toward better-for-you beverages and insulation against the long-term decline of soda consumption. Fairlife sales reached more than $228 million for the 52 weeks ended October 8, according to SymphonyIRI—up by 52% over the same period in 2016 and even more since FairLife’s introduction in 2015.
We spoke with Corbett (above) about Fairlife, Fair Oaks Farms and being a pioneer who’s redefining farming.
Gary, what is your strategy for your milk products?
We’ve got the right products for the right times. We’re very happy with the growth we’ve seen in all our lines. All of them are along the same line: high protein, more calcium, low sugar.
Are they “engineered” in a mechanical sense only?
It takes some education but once people understand that it’s done simply using filters, not genetic engineering, they embrace it. If you look at our ingredient statement, it’s so clean and simple vs. a lot of our competitors who have to add things to products to create them. We’re just running our milk straight through our membranes.
Is that what makes Fairlife cost more than regular milk?
Sure, but consumers look at the attributes it delivers.
What’s the educational mission of Fair Oaks Farms?
Most consumers these days have no connection with 21st century agriculture, so they’re a bit of a blank slate. It’s up to us to fill it in and expose people and educate them about the wonderment that agriculture is today. They have very little expectation or preconceived notions when they come in.
So what do you want visitors to take away from their overall experience?
We drive everything around three messages: Agriculture and animal welfare are compatible; agriculture and the environment are compatible; and, in our particular case, milk is good for you.
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