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McCloskeys Follow Passion to Share Agriculture with Consumers

by Courtney Schafer

Published: Friday, September 22, 2017

Mike and Sue McCloskey didn't grow up on dairy farms but once exposed to dairy cattle, they easily found out they had a passion for them. Last Wednesday, Sue McCloskey shared about the start of Fair Oaks Farms to a small group of men and women at the conclusion of touring the farm's Dairy Adventure and Pig Adventure.

McCloskey, a mother of four, began her journey in the dairy industry with her husband, Mike, 25 years ago. Their first farm consisted of 300 dairy cows in California. After working to update the farm's facilities and get the herd back to good health, McCloskey said they were approached by a neighbor asking if their farm was for sale.

"With Mike being a veterinarian and a dairy farmer, we thought, of course, the farm is for sale," said McCloskey.

After they sold their small farm, they then invested in a 1,000-cow dairy where they made modifications to both the herd and facilities and were approached with the same question, just 18 months after purchasing the farm.

"At this point in our lives, we were ready to start having kids. We ended up selling the vet practice too, because we were really starting to fall in love with dairy farming, and that's when we ended up moving from California to New Mexico where we began our 5,000-cow dairy farm."

This new farm was the foundation for the rest that has happened with Mike and Sue. After settling in New Mexico, they decided to start their own cooperative.

"We weren't really happy with how the cooperative we were with was doing things and we knew some other dairy farmers weren't either," said McCloskey. "We wanted a cooperative where it and the farmers who are members of it have the same goals in terms of sustainability, connecting consumers to their food sources, etc."

According to Sue, starting the new cooperative marked a significant advancement within their family and business. They believed that their farm had the best quality milk because of their components—which included low somatic cell and bacteria counts, how they fed their cows, what they fed their cows, how they created comfortable environments for the cows, their employees, etc.

"If one of those components fails on the farm, you are going to see a decrease in your milk quality," she said.

The dairy in New Mexico led Sue and her husband on another adventure. After dealing with a water well caving in and having to come up with a new idea to give their cattle good-tasting and quality water, Mike and Sue were forced to create a water system that included reverse osmosis.

"With this situation, it really got Mike's mind thinking," said Sue. "He started thinking about filters and that if milk could be taken apart and put back together, then there is an option of creating a higher protein milk product."

Having four young children at the time, Sue said, "I told Mike that if he could make me a drink that would give me all of the calcium, protein and vitamins and minerals I need in just one or two servings a day, I could market it to moms all across America."

Sue said that both she and Mike feel that conventional milk is a great thing, but people in this day and age want more. They are looking for something that is nutritious but yet is going to give them the most for their money. It needs to be as nutrient dense as possible, thus the creation of Fairlife.

"Fairlife literally started at our kitchen table 25 years ago. We thought it would be some overnight dream, but in reality, it has taken a lot of trial and error to get it to taste the way we want it to while offering the most nutrients and protein as possible in a single serving," she said.

In addition to creating a wholesome, safe milk product, Sue said she and Mike have loved being able to tell their story through the adventures at Fair Oaks Farms.

"When we were in New Mexico, we would always have groups of people come out to our farm to show them around, to see how the cows were cared for and milked, and just to see the livelihood of being on a farm," she said.

When they moved to Indiana in 1999, Sue said they knew they had a huge potential of people to tell their story to and they were tired of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and HSUS (The Human Society of the United States) telling that story for them.

"We decided that we needed to do something about telling our story, and with the birth of the Fair Oaks Farms Dairy Adventure in 2004, what better way than to tell our story and combat the rumors and half-truths that were being shared than by allowing people to come see the farm for themselves," said Sue.

A few years later, individuals from the pork industry said they wanted to be a part of allowing consumers to see the life of a pig. Then shortly after that, crop farmers wanted to be able to share their story through Fair Oaks Farms.

"We were open to both the pig and crop ideas. However, we told the pig producers that they had to find the best design possible and that they couldn't use gestation crates, the pigs needed to live in groups, etc.," she said. "The crop farmers wanted to be a part of it because they felt that when a seed is placed into the ground, that's when everything really starts."

Recently, Fair Oaks Farms has been approached by the owner of one of the biggest egg farms in the country who wants to incorporate a 600,000-bird egg laying facility, which, according to Sue, will be open in approximately 18 months or so.

"Everything about these animal facilities have to be what's right for the animal, environment and the consumer," she said.

Each year, Fair Oaks Farms sees 500,000 guests from those just stopping for gas, getting a grilled cheese sandwich, eating at the restaurant, taking part in the different tours, etc.

"At the core of everything, Mike and I believe that there needs to be a place for people to come, enjoy themselves, learn a little something and have fun. The bigger picture of Fair Oaks Farms, to me, is that this is a place where the world can come and have conversations about how we are going to feed the world, how we are going to be fair to our animals, create nutrient-dense products for consumers, and what modern agriculture needs to do to always be sustainable. That's what our true goal is as owners of Fair Oaks Farms."

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