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McCloskey sets extraordinary example

With two cows freshening in the “birthing theater” behind him, Fair Oaks co-founder and manager Dr. Mike McCloskey gave visiting Pennsylvania and Indiana dairymen an inside look at his life's work and opened up to answer plenty of questions. A highlight for participants was McCloskey's five keys to success in developing operating systems and managing employees on the dairy: 1) Teach them how to do the job you want them to do; 2) Explain why it is done the way you want it to be done; 3) Give them the tools and properly maintain those tools so they can accomplish what you want them to do; 4) Evaluate their performance to maintain the consistency of the process; and 5) Compensate them fairly.

Humble childhood in Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico shaped a visionary with heart and soul

Special for Farmshine

FAIR OAKS, Ind. -- “Capitalism with a soul” is what ultimately drives Dr. Mike McCloskey’s involvement in all aspects of dairy production from cow to consumer. A self-made dairy business man, who worked his way each step of the way, McCloskey said he believes in capitalism but also touched on the “soul” of his business as he shared childhood memories with Pennsylvania and Indiana dairy producers recently before their joint tour of the Fair Oaks Farms’ Dairy and Pig Adventures in northwestern Indiana off I-65 between Indianapolis and Chicago.

McCloskey is co-founder and chairman of the board at Fair Oaks Farms, as well as co-founder and CEO of Select Milk Producers, which is a parent company of Fair Oaks Farms. And he is also chairman of the Sustainability Initiative at the Dairy Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and member of the National Milk Producers Federation’s executive board.

He doesn’t take lightly the Fair Oaks motto that farming is “a calling and a commitment” -- setting forth a mission to help consumers discover modern farming while being able to enjoy farm-fresh gourmet cheeses, ice cream and milk while they visit and at home. He spent over an hour talking with 30 folks attending the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania (PDMP) spring dairy tour and 60 from Indiana joining them for their first day in the Hoosier State on March 25.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, McCloskey went to live with his grandparents in Puerto Rico at age 6. There, his love of farming began as seeds planted by spending all his free time at his uncle’s small diversified farm. He also recalls his grandmother’s nightly admonition: ‘Clean your plate. There are hungry people in Africa.’

“We didn’t have a lot of money,” said McCloskey of growing up exposed to the “tiny farm” that is etched in his memory. “But we always had plenty to eat. My uncle’s farm had three dairy cows, two beef cows, a couple pigs and chickens, some fruit trees and vegetables. I lived in this abundance of food and it sort of focused my future.”

It didn’t take him long to connect his grandmother’s words about starving kids in Africa with the abundance of food in his own backyard, which led him to know early in life that he wanted to be involved in food production. He earned his veterinary degree at the University of Mexico, followed by a 2-year post-doctoral in dairy production medicine at the University of California-Davis.

After learning from thousands of dairy farmers over his time in veterinary practice, McCloskey started dairying in a partnership with Tim denDulk with 200 cows in California in the 1980s. They expanded to 1200 before moving to New Mexico. Together with several producers in the Pecos Valley, they formed a partnership and founded Select Milk Producers, expanding the cooperative through Texas and New Mexico.

Later, McCloskey began looking at where he wanted to set down new dairy roots, so he visited Argentina, Russia, China and the Ukraine.

“I came back convinced that the U.S. held the greatest promise for the future. No other country can beat our combination of natural resources and infrastructure,” he said. “That combination gives us our strength as an agricultural power.”

In the meantime, denDulk had established his dairy farms in Michigan, and after seeing the knowledge gained by his efforts in the Midwest, McCloskey and denDulk sold their New Mexico dairy and together with other partners built Fair Oaks Dairy Farms.

Having heifers grown in Tennessee and through his marketing experience in the Southwest, McCloskey was seeing a larger vision of marketing nationally, and as he became familiar with the lay of the land for dairy in the eastern Corn Belt, the idea of moving to northern Indiana made sense. It is close to feed and close to 64% of the population.

As he traced the phases of expansion and innovation intertwined with how the industry has grown and changed over the past three decades, McCloskey identified the importance of forming partnerships.

“I love partnerships, and I believe I am only as good as the partners I have been blessed to be involved with,” said McCloskey. “Partnerships allow for more expansion. Good partnerships are built on mutual benefit and value and the desire to succeed together. Partnerships require honesty, integrity, and transparency. It’s like a marriage or raising children.”

His business models are examples of free market capitalism; but he is quick to point out that, “If a business does not have a soul, it’s not fun.

“The soul of this business is communication,” McCloskey said of Fair Oaks Farms.

The world famous visitors’ center has grown after McCloskey partnered with the producers who own each of the 10 separate 3000-cow dairies that make up the Fair Oaks milk production of 250,000 gallons of milk per day. The 11th dairy is the one that is also home to the Dairy Adventure and its on-site gourmet cheese and ice cream production as well as bottled milk. A 12th dairy will be added in the future, and the new Pig Adventure was added last July.

Next year, the goal is for Fair Oaks to add one million laying hens and a western-style beef feedyard, which would feed dairy calves but would also include a beef cow/calf herd. The site already includes a one-year-old grove of 6000 fruit trees, where visitors will be able to “pick their own” when the trees mature. The new Fair Oaks restaurant is nearly complete, with expectations of a 120-room hotel with an indoor waterpark and small convention center to follow.

McCloskey envisions Fair Oaks as a premier destination for families.

“I want to go back to that little farm I was exposed to as a child, but in a modern way, to show our visitors everything: milk, pork, beef, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. You have to study a lot of things to do this, and it challenges you to reconsider practices that are hard to explain to visitors,” said McCloskey. “We do not want PETA and HSUS to tell our story; we want to tell our story. Not only do we have this opportunity to talk about animal care, the environmental and food safety components of the message are also incredibly important.”

To that end, McCloskey has partnered with for-profit and non-profit entities to create what has fast become a major agritourism destination. “We had to feed it to make it grow, and it took a lot of time and sleepless nights, but now it does cash flow,” he said, answering farmers’ questions about whether such ventures are profitable.

“But this isn’t just about us, it’s about our industry. Everything we talk about here is to show consumers not just how we do things, but the entire industry. We have learned that people will stand up for you once they understand who you are,” said McCloskey. He observed that “the new Farmland movie may make us all feel good -- and it is a start -- but the overall messaging about agriculture needs to resonate with young people. It needs to compete with high-dollar, cutting edge, imaginative mini-series such as Chipotle’s ‘Farmed and Dangerous.’”

‘Farmed and Dangerous’ is a comedy produced by Chipotle Mexican Grill, with a subtle undercurrent that portrays conventional agriculture in a twisted and negative light. As a comedy, it has become popular with young people who download and watch episodes on YouTube and at a special website.

McCloskey believes agriculture needs to keep pace. “We need to redefine our message. We are talking to ourselves -- isolated from consumers and the youths out there. Messaging of things like ‘Farmed and Dangerous’ speak to our youth,” he explained. “We have to learn how to do that. We have an incredible story that is real and true and better than the stories others make up for us. Yet, we don’t tell that story because we are fearful of looking foolish amongst ourselves. That’s why our industry is losing the communication battle.”

Last year 180,000 people paid to tour the Fair Oaks Dairy Adventure and McCloskey expects this year’s paid attendance to break 250,000 with the addition of the Fair Oaks Pig Adventure.

All told, he says: “We had more than half a million people visit us last year when you include those who stop in for a sandwich at the deli or to buy our ice cream,” McCloskey relates.

According to McCloskey, more than 95% of the people who are skeptical and come with negative attitudes, leave Fair Oaks with positive attitudes after seeing modern farming firsthand.

In animal care, Fair Oaks’ employee training includes written protocols, standard operating procedures, performance evaluations, and signed agreements.

One cattle management practice they discontinued is tail docking. Instead, tails are shaved to keep them clean. That decision was made when McCloskey confessed: “I had a tough time telling the story about why we dock tails, so we stopped docking tails. I didn’t want the perception of that one thing to ruin the rest of the story we have to tell.”

Likewise, the new Pig Adventure does not use gestation crates. Instead, a well-orchestrated timeline of commingling bred gilts at about three days post-breeding allows gilts to get their group hierarchy battles over with before their pregnancies implant.

The Pig Adventure came about when the pork producers recognized that the Fair Oaks Farms experiment of communicating about dairy was working, and they wanted to do something similar. The Pig Adventure covers farrow to finish, but the finishing area -- even though it is just like a modern hog finishing unit -- actually grows the gilts that will be bred for the farrowing area. The piglets that do not become breeding animals go on to finishing operations in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.