Fair Oaks Farms is a dairy and agri-tourism destination in Indiana. It prides itself on opening up its operation, being transparent and educating the public.
Yet, the farm’s reputation was hindered in June when an animal activist group released undercover videos of several employees allegedly abusing cows and calves and doing drugs.
In an interview, co-founder and owner Mike McCloskey says he didn’t think it would ever happen on their farm.
“We had a breakdown in our system that unfortunately resulted in some mistreatment of our animals,” McCloskey says.
The videos became an investigation. The Newton County, Indiana, Sheriff's Department says three former employees were charged with animal cruelty. Only one was apprehended and detained.
In a social media video, McCloskey said three of the employees had been reported by their co-workers for animal cruelty. All three were terminated before the owners knew there were any undercover videos.
We asked McCloskey if law enforcement has updated him about the suspects.
“I really have not [been] involved in the investigation other than to cooperate with [law enforcement] in anything they’ve asked for,” said McCloskey.
McCloskey says he’s made harsh changes to fix what happened. That includes continuous employee training and installing new cameras in every place a cow and an employee would have any interaction.
“I brought on a third veterinarian who is 100% dedicated to animal welfare,” said McCloskey. “That individual has, I think right now, has six employees under her observing all of this footage on an ongoing basis.”
Those employees went through intense animal welfare training, even training on how to observe footage and protocols to report it.
“I can’t assure you or anyone that there may not be another person who decides to maybe do the wrong thing,” said McCloskey. “But I can assure you we will detect it immediately with the systems we have now.”
The Animal Agriculture Alliance says animal activist tactics have ramped up over the last three to five years on farms, especially using undercover videos.
“These campaigns are not a new tactic in any stretch of the imagination,” said Hannah Thompson-Weeman, the vice president of communications with the Animal Agriculture Alliance. “What we’ve seen them do with targeting large, well-respected, household name brands has really upped the ante.”
In an effort to be more transparent to the public, Fair Oaks Farms will soon open a "Robotic Dairy" center as it unveils robots in some of its parlors. McCloskey says it's not just a benefit for the cows.
“We need to look for ways to be more efficient with our labor,” said McCloskey.
It helps eliminate the decades-long struggle of finding a good, high-quality and legal workforce. It’s an issue still impacting all of agriculture.
As this agri-tourism destination slides back to normalcy, their goal stays the same. It’s to educate, offer resources and clarity.
“We need to gain back that trust,” said McCloskey. “We are working every day to gain it back. We’re continuing to be open and sharing with everyone what we’re doing to make sure an incident like this never happens again.”