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LOU'S VIEWS: Snout and about for a day at Fair Oaks Farms

February 25, 2016
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On many a trek to and from Chicago, I’ve driven past Fair Oaks Farms, the growing agricultural attraction just off Interstate 65 at exit 220, about seven miles northwest of Rensselaer. Occasionally, I’ve made a stop, usually to appease a family member’s desire for a grilled cheese sandwich or ice cream (and I never complained about the fresh cheese samples).

Lou HarryBut as Fair Oaks’ slate of offerings grew, I became more curious about what’s going on beyond the cheese shop. And so, recently, I stopped to check out The Pig Adventure, the newest addition to the mix. (A Crop Education Center will be added this summer, along with a farm and tractor museum, and music festival. A hotel is in the negotiation stages.)

The Pig Adventure starts in the Pork Education Center. In this free-standing building, an indoor ropes course—with pig trivia on the platforms to justify its inclusion—provides a distracting activity for kids while they wait for the next shuttle bus out to the actual swine facilities.

Pork factoids dot the interior here (a single serving of pork is about the size of a deck of cards; heart valves from pigs have been implanted in human hearts). There’s more to do outside in better weather.

After a brief two-mile van drive to the facility—complete with pun-filled introductory audio—visitors enter a reception area loosely filled with solidly produced interactives, including one where a pack of pigs virtually wanders past your mirrored reflection.

That’s about as close as you’ll get to the creatures themselves. The Pig Adventure is far from a petting zoo. In fact, the next space you enter is a simulated shower room echoing the cleaning up and cleaning down that workers have to go through before and after their shifts in order to bio-protect the pigs.

From there, bright corridors lead to three long observation areas—gilt, gestation/breeding, and birthing—built above the working pig farm. In the gilt area, female pigs are prepared for breeding. With 80,000 pigs per year born here, you’ll always see plenty of little ones, with a good chance you’ll catch a birth, albeit from a distance. Newborns are shown, behind Plexiglas, in all their still-umbilicalled glory.

ae-fairoakspigs-190pigadventure-15col.jpg At Fair Oaks Farms’ Pig Attraction, education and fun interactives supplement the swine barn. (Photos courtesy of Fair Oaks Farms)

Interactives and information stations are here as well, including one where you use an ultrasound to try finding all of the 27 soon-to-be piglets inside a sow statue. But they never fight with the main attraction, which is the sight of thousands of pigs eating, suckling, and eating some more.

With three-pound babies and 270-pound mamas—plus an occasional boar who seems bored—The Pig Adventure feels like a living, breathing factory tour. As with others, there was an occasional feeling of information overload mixed with a newfound appreciation for the logistics of such a large-scale operation.

Watching one of the latest little guys, it occurred to me that Fair Oaks should be given credit for not over-anthropomorphizing the process. While cartoon pigs make their way into the signage and Miss Piggy and others are part of a pop-culture collage, the real-life pigs aren’t given cutesy names or presented as anything but feeders and breeders. It helps, of course, that no slaughtering goes on. That task is discreetly off-loaded onto partner farms

But, no, I still didn’t have the heart to indulge in a breaded tenderloin sandwich afterward.•

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This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.

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