Why inviting consumers to your farm is a good idea

On-farm events give consumers the opportunity to learn about modern dairy production.

Two women each holding a child, standing around a dairy cow
Photo by Michigan State University Extension

A while ago I wrote an article to encourage dairy farms to host tours and open houses, with the goal of bridging the gap between today’s consumers and agriculture, and most importantly, to show them how well farmers take care of their animals. Considering the recent controversy around the dairy industry, now is a good time to welcome the public to your dairy to demonstrate all the care and dedication that cows receive on dairy farms around the country.

As an MSU Extension dairy educator, I had the pleasure to help with multiple tours last year. In two of these events, I was the resource person in the milking parlor. I had a short speech that I gave to every group of visitors, where I included the number of cows in milk, the number and duration of visits to the milking parlor, how a cow spends her time during the day, daily milk production (in gallons) and more. A few visitors were surprised to learn that cows do not have the milking units attached all the time, some were impressed by how calm the cows were while in the parlor, and many were fascinated watching the cows leave the parlor. I guess that being in parlors so many times has affected my capacity for amazement. Things that we take for granted in seeing working farms and animals everyday are impressive to those who have not had the same opportunities. 

Still not convinced hosting visitors is a good idea? Here are some statistics and survey results from two events that show the impact of dairy tours.

Ice Cream Social at Preston Farms – Branch County, Michigan

Preston Farms
Annual ice cream social at Preston Farms from Branch County, MI. 2018. | Photo by Preston Family.

The Preston Farms ice cream social is an annual event that is planned and organized entirely by family members and usually has around 100 volunteers on the day of the event. Last year, more than 1,400 people came to the event and for almost half of those surveyed (44%), it was their first time on a dairy farm. Only 6% were from out of state, but they represented 6 different states including Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Washington.

The family members and volunteers served 78 gallons of ice cream and provided hundreds of pint bottles of milk. Visitors enjoyed these delicious dairy products as well as being able to ask questions, visit the educational stations and ride on the hay wagon.

Breakfast on the Farm at Hood Farms Family Dairy – Van Buren County, Michigan

Breakfast on the Fart at Hood Farms Family Dairy, Van Buren County, MI. 2018. | Photo by Ashley Kuschel, MSU Extension.

In 2018, the Hood family hosted a Breakfast on the Farm (BOTF) event that attracted 2,296 visitors and volunteers. This was the second time that the family has hosted this type of event. In Michigan, Breakfast on the Farm is a program of Michigan State University Extension. Extension staff members help the host family and planning committee with the organization and execution of the event.

One of the major goals of BOTF is to offer the opportunity to visit a modern farm to consumers who have never been on a farm, and for this event, 37% were first-time visitors. Almost 70% of the people who completed the survey agreed that their level of confidence in Michigan dairy farmers increased and 61% agreed that as a result of the tour, they were likely to buy more milk or dairy products.

One of the educational stations at this BOTF offered information about GMO (genetically modified organisms) crops, and as a result, over half (53%) of those surveyed indicated that they have a better understanding of why farmers use GMO crops.

The survey also looked at changes in impressions before and after the tour. Before the tour, 67% of first-time visitors indicated that farmers will do the right thing when caring for food-producing animals. This percentage jumped to 91.4% after the tour. Before the tour, 66% of first-time

visitors indicated that farms are providing adequate housing for animals. This percent jumped to 89% after the tour. With regards to caring for the environment, 66% of first-time visitors had a high or very high level of trust that farmers would do the right thing when caring for the environment before the tour. After the visit, 87.7% of first-time visitors indicated the same.

During BOTF, hundreds of questions were answered by farmers, Extension educators and industry representatives with knowledge and expertise in the field, having a positive impact on the visitors. For more information about BOTF, visit www.breakfastonthefarm.com.

Opening your farm to the general public, no matter the size of the group, will require extra work and patience, but the benefit of the interaction with those consumers can be vast. Michigan State University Extension educators and program coordinators are available to encourage and assist you with on-farm educational events. For more information, contact Paola Sanguesa Bacigalupo, dairy educator at (517) 279-5419 or at paolabs@msu.edu. For information about Breakfast on the Farm, contact Mary Dunckel, ag literacy educator, at (989) 354-9875 or dunckelm@msu.edu or Ashley Kuschel, BOTF coordinator, at (586) 469-7616 or kuschela@msu.edu.

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