Fair Oaks Farms, the "agricultural Disney" that already is one of the largest tourist attractions in northwest Indiana, plans to add major attractions over the next few years.
The working agritourism destination in Fair Oaks has plans for new chicken and beef cattle adventures that would give visitors a close-up look at modern farming operations, said Fair Oaks Farms CEO Gary Corbett. The multi-million dollar projects would be similar in scale to Fair Oaks Farms' existing dairy, pig and crop adventures, which help the farm on Interstate 65 pull in more than 600,000 visitors a year.
DeMotte-based Belstra Milling invested $3 million in the pig adventure that opened in 2013, while WinField pumped $12 million into the Crop Adventure exhibit that debuted last year. Corbett said it was too early to estimate how much would be invested in the new attractions, but that they would be comparable in scale to existing ones.
A new chicken adventure for instance would house 500,000 to 700,000 chickens that visitors could see up close, behind plexiglass walls. The beef cattle adventure would have an estimated 50,000 steers.
Fair Oaks also is building a new hotel, growing a you-pick-them apple orchard and renovating its signature Dairy Adventure, the first exhibit the sprawling farm straddling the border of Jasper and Newton counties had when it opened its doors to the public in 2004.
"It's one of the largest attractions in the state of Indiana," said South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority Executive Vice President Katie Holderby.
Well-positioned on Interstate 65, Fair Oaks draws visitors who might not otherwise visit northern Indiana, including kids who attend an annual Future Farmers of America convention in Indianapolis, Holderby said. Fair Oaks also has been opening new attractions nearly every year over the last few years, giving people a reason to return.
"It's important that they're freshening the attraction," she said. "It's doing repeat business because people know they can come see state-of-the-art interactive exhibits."
Fair Oaks Farms aims to eventually have more than a million visitors a year. The farm plans to break ground this summer on a new hotel that would cost between $8 million and $12 million, and have between 100 and 110 rooms. Corbett said a hotel is needed to serve visitors in the fields of agriculture, business and academia who've said they'd like to visit Fair Oaks for more than one day.
The hotel will include a pool and be open to the public. About 45,000 cars pass by daily.
The pick-your-own orchard has been planted behind its 265-seat Farmhouse Restaurant. The orchard will include a variety of apples, as well as raspberries and blueberries. People should be able to start picking fruit next year; it is expected to be fully open in 2019.
"It's designed to have apples to cover all season, so it should be open for much of the year," Corbett said.
Other farms are interested in setting up chicken and beef cattle exhibits at Fair Oaks Farms, to showcase what modern-day farming operations are like.
People would be able to walk in Plexiglas alleyways among the chickens in a cage-free facility and see the space they have to run around. In the Beef Adventure, they would learn everything that happens to beef cattle, such as how they're fed and treated, before steak ends up on the plate.
The hope is to start construction on the chicken adventure this year or next year, but it's a moving target because of commodity prices and a drop in the egg market, where eggs recently hit a 10-year-low of 55 cents a dozen.
"You have to continue to add some new excitement on a regular basis," Corbett said. "You have to draw in new people, and give people who've visited an additional reason to visit."