(Correction: Chuck was not a national pork board member, but served as a delegate and welfare committee member)
SOUTH SOLON, Ohio — A big change is taking place at the Wildman family swine farm, Standing Oaks Enterprises, in southwestern Ohio.
Chuck Wildman and his wife, Carol, and their adult children are in the process of converting the farrowing (birthing) barns into nurseries that will soon house 4,000 head of piglets, to be purchased from Legacy Farm in Fair Oaks, Ind.
The Wildmans are the seventh and eighth generation on the family farm and have been raising swine since 1985. Chuck Wildman has served as a welfare committee member for the National Pork Board and was an outspoken member of the Ohio Livestock Care Standards swine subcommittee that helped create new care standards for raising hogs in Ohio.
The move to a feeder-based operation will replace the family’s breeding and birthing program with something more efficient — and much more transparent.
In Indiana, where the pigs will now be born, Legacy Farm has partnered with a new nonprofit called Fair Oaks Pig Adventure — a consumer-based project designed to show people what goes on inside swine barns.
The project is based on the success of Fair Oaks Dairy — a tourist-friendly 30,000-cow dairy farm located about an hour south of Chicago along Interstate 65. The dairy alone draws a half-million visitors a year.
The “Fair Oaks Pig Adventure” will rely on the same concept, but with pigs. Its founders are calling it “the pig equivalent of a Disney-like adventure,” full of interactive displays involving hog barns and everything it takes to raise hogs.
Construction is under way and the public tourism areas are expected to open in early summer.
Fair Oaks Dairy — and now Fair Oaks Swine — are all tied to the greater trend in the swine and livestock industry, to provide more openness about how food is produced. And at a time when many consumers are unfamiliar with modern farming practices.
“I think that we, as a country, have gone from an agrarian to an urban society, and there’s really been a lack of knowledge or a lack of experiential knowledge of where our food comes from,” said Jon Hoek, general manager of Legacy Farm. “We want to be a leader in showcasing why agriculture has to be efficient, why agriculture uses technology and, in some cases, why family farms have to be so large.”
By the time the pigs are born and trucked to the Wildman farm in Ohio, they’ll be several hours away from Fair Oaks Pig Adventure. The Wildman farm won’t be set up for visitors — per se — but it’s not stopping the family from doing a few things along the Fair Oaks line, and trying to share more of what goes on inside the barns.
To do this, Chuck and his oldest son, Sam, 22, have installed four digital video cameras inside their barns, so they can watch what goes on from a computer screen or their cell phones.
The Wildmans installed the cameras in the summer of 2012, following recommendations by animal welfare experts like Temple Grandin.
It’s been a learning process so far, and one of the things the Wildmans have learned is to pick the camera location carefully. As soon as they put the cameras up, a bad storm blew them down, and there were some malfunctions related to moisture damage.
But with some adjustments, the family has found the right locations within the barns and the cameras now work. Chuck figured his cost in the project has been about $2,500 — not cheap, but worthwhile.
“That doesn’t sound uneconomical to me,” he said. “A new tire on your tractor would get you $2,500 pretty quickly.”
And more than a new tire — the Wildmans get to share more of what happens inside their barns, as recorded on a live camera.
“The name of the game is transparency,” Chuck said.
If a visitor to Fair Oaks has a question about where the hogs end up, Chuck said he would “like for the presenter there to say ‘well, let me show you’ and be able to pull up live footage of the barn, so they can see it.”
Sam Wildman is a senior agricultural communications student at Ohio State University. He shares his dad’s philosophy toward transparency by blogging and through Facebook and Twitter.
He manages a personal blog called Reflections from a Country Boy and is a freelance writer for swineweb.com. The videos and pictures taken on the farm give him the opportunity to reach non-farmers.
“I can take those images, I can take those videos and I can throw them right there on the blog,” he said. “It allows me to take the farm to the consumers. There’s more desire for that.”
The Wildmans are still unsure exactly how the videos will be used, but they’re exploring all options. One that’s new, is the possibility of using the live videos as a way of meeting pork quality assurance requirements. Chuck Wildman is hoping he can convince the national pork board of a video’s value for assuring quality.
Sam said the paperwork for quality assurance is often cumbersome, and if there’s video of what’s going on in the barns, it could reduce some of the time spent documenting conditions.
The videos can also be used to monitor the animals when the farmer is away from the barn, a handy tool since he can pull up the video from virtually anywhere where there is Internet.
And, the videos will likely help keep the swine healthier and free of human-carried bacteria. Swine are especially susceptible to human-carried germs and a sickness can easily spread throughout the barn and cause the farm to temporarily shut down.
The Wildmans are planning an intentional shutdown once all their breeding sows are removed, to clean and sanitize the barn before the arrival of piglets.But to shut down a barn is expensive — takes several weeks — and is something to avoid.
“If I let a visitor come in and they happen to bring something with them totally unintentional, the only way I can get rid of it is to break the system. That becomes economically punitive.”
The Wildmans could have chosen to expand their sow operation, instead of converting to a nursery. But Chuck said the added benefit of transparency and efficiency they will get from Legacy Farm made that option more favorable.
“Larger operations can be so much more efficient in management and labor and the mechanics and the quality of the pigs,” Chuck said. “I save the labor and the risk and the management. It should simplify my life and, hopefully, financially put me in a better situation.”