Christmas and cows are two of Mariah Busta’s favorite things. So when COVID-19 hit in 2020 and caused canceled events everywhere, she was determined to find alternative ways to spread Christmas cheer and still connect the community with dairy at Iowa’s Dairy Center in Calmar, Iowa.
“With the holidays approaching as we were still in the middle of a pandemic, I noticed a lot of events where kids would normally get to see Santa Claus were being canceled,” Busta says. “So I thought, what if we bring Santa to the farm and do a drive-through event where people can safely meet Santa Claus.”
From there the drive-through Santa on the farm event was born. As the dairy center coordinator, Busta booked a Santa Claus and obtained Christmas lights through donations from community members and employees at the Northeast Iowa Community College. She also relied heavily on social media to promote and get the word out about the event as well as their local newspapers and radio station. On the Iowa Dairy Center’s Facebook page, she created a Facebook event that included the details and served as a place where she could post reminders and photos in the weeks and days leading up to the event.
“We already have a good following from community members and people who have visited us in the past,” Busta says. “So when we post our events on social media, we get a good response just from that.”
On the day of the event, Christmas lights line the drive from the parking lot to around the dairy’s freestall barn and cow statue. From 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., visitors drive their vehicles past the colorful lights, up to the freestall barn and drive right down the middle of the feed alley.
“People drive their cars through the barn, which is really fun and a totally new experience,” Busta says. “I kind of think of it like driving through Yellowstone, where the animals come up to the visitors while they are in their vehicles.”
When the vehicles first enter the freestall barn, they are greeted by the Iowa Dairy Princess, where they receive milk and cookies and a goodie bag with educational materials to take home and learn more about dairy and agriculture. After the milk and cookies, they continue down the feed alley, where passengers get to look around and enjoy the view of the 250-cow herd of both Holstein and Jersey cows. Then, at the other end of the freestall barn, they get to meet Santa Claus.
“Santa Claus will of course greet them and chat with them, and after that they get to go back on their way,” Busta says. “It's a simple concept, but it's really fun and impactful.”
In the first year, Busta estimates they had about 800 people in attendance in 2020, and during 2021 they had around 300 people, which was lower due to an ice storm happening that evening.
“We’re in northeast Iowa and not close to a large city,” Busta says. “So having that many people come out for an event is a huge win given our rural population and our rural location.”
Seeing the event come together the evening of is a very gratifying experience for Busta.
“For me personally, I have so many good memories of the holidays, and the Christmas season has such a special place in my heart,” Busta says. “Honestly, that first night, from the first time we hosted the event, it was probably one of the highlights of my career, getting to see it all come together and getting to see the smiling faces, and the happiness and joy we brought to those families.”
Afterward, seeing the comments on Facebook and people sharing photos of the event made all the planning and setting up lights in the cold worth it to Busta and warmed her heart.
In the coming years, Busta wants to add more of the Christmas lights to improve the experience while vehicles are waiting to go in the barn. She also would like to continue strengthening their partnerships with local ag organizations, Farm Bureau and Midwest Dairy to contribute new exciting educational materials to send home in goodie bags.
This year’s drive-through Santa on the farm event at the Iowa Dairy Center will be held on Dec. 9.
“I just love the way we can immerse dairy into the joy the holidays bring to people,” Busta says. “So when we can host people to our farm, even in unconventional ways like this, we're building support and advocates for the dairy community which benefit not just us, but all dairy farmers and the entire dairy community.”