The Chestnutt family have come up with a novel way to add value to their dairy business by installing a milk vending machine selling milk direct from their farm in Portrush.
One of the first installations of its kind anywhere in Ireland, the venture has been a huge success since it was launched on July 11 last. A strong presence on social media, combined with the farm’s location on the picturesque north coast and the delicious natural flavour of the milk in a glass bottle, resulted in a “phenomenal demand” for the produce.
“We have a large following on Instagram and Facebook, and that helped to get the interest going,” explains William Chestnutt, who is involved in the venture with his wife Alison.
“The big selling points were our location and the idea of customers being able to buy the milk by the litre in reusable glass bottles. Our farm is situated less than a mile from the coast on the main Ballymoney to Portrush Road, so a lot of tourists and holiday-makers pass our gate every day, especially during the summer months.
“There are a number of caravan parks in the area and we get a lot of business from them. In the weeks after we opened, about 60% of our visitors were non-locals and we couldn’t keep up with demand at times. We’re selling an average of 120L per day.”
William continues: “People like to know where their food is coming from and being able to buy it directly from the farm is a bonus for them. There has been an incredible response to the glass bottles. People want to move away from plastic waste and the older generation, who remember the milkman delivering milk bottles to their doors every morning, will tell you that you can’t beat the taste of milk in a glass bottle. Our milk is proper whole milk with nothing taken out.”
William and Alison, who worked in the food industry, got the idea for the milk vending machine while on a trip to Holland two years ago. Subsequent to that, they travelled to England to the main vending machine distributor and visited a number of farms that were already selling milk directly to the public.
“We were part of the Agri-Food Co-operation Scheme which encourages the ‘farm to fork’ model. My sister Susan and her husband Shay O’Neill, who raise and process their own pork for direct sale from their farm to customers, were also eligible for it. We saw the milk vending machine in operation in Holland and that sowed the seed. We were looking at ways to add value to our milk and felt this was a good way to do so.
“With Alison’s technical skills and my dairy cows, it seemed like the perfect combination.”
A pasteurisation room was built near the milking parlour which allows the milk to be directly pumped to the pasteuriser. The machine is capable of pasteurising 150L of milk and a fresh batch is done daily. It takes 30 minutes for the milk to reach the optimum temperature of 63.5 degrees. It is then held at this temperature for another 30 minutes to ensure all harmful bacteria is removed.
The milk is then chilled to below 10 degrees by using a separate cooling system. The final stage of the process sees the milk transported across the yard to the ‘Milk Hut’ which houses the two vending machines. One machine dispenses 1L or 250ml of milk, while the other allows people to buy reusable 1L or 250ml glass bottles.
“The milk is gently pasteurised via a batch pasteuriser and is non-homogenised or standardised, thereby retaining its delicious flavour and giving it an extra creamy taste, which is perfect for making frothy coffees. It also allows for potential expansion into supplying local coffee shops.
“The milk is sold in 1L and 250ml reusable glass bottles which offer our customers an alternative to the throw-away plastic cartons. The 250ml ‘mini milk’ bottles are specifically aimed at children who can also choose their milkshake flavour of choice. They’re also a good way to promote milk within the younger generation as a good source of calcium and minerals.”
The ‘Milk Hut’ also sells free range eggs, hot chocolates, coffee and other local produce. William adds that customers are happy to pay £1 for a 1L bottle of his milk because of its great taste. “It’s cheaper to buy milk in a shop, but I’ve yet to hear anyone complain about the price.”
The milk sold through the vending machine enterprise only accounts for about 2% of the milk produced by the Chestnutt family’s 250 cows. The rest goes to the Green Pastures creamery in Convoy, Co. Donegal. William, who runs the 145-hectare, 107-year-old farm with his parents James and Ruth, is committed to improving his grazing system to drive up milk production from forage and by changing his breeding policy in tandem with his innovative diversification venture.
“We have an all-Holstein dairy herd at the moment, but we’re going down the cross-breeding route by introducing Viking Red and Montbeliarde breeds with the aim of producing a more robust and fertile cow,” he concludes.
211 Ballybogey Road,
Portrush BT 568NE
Telephone: +44 7860481423
Email: [email protected]
First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 9 No 2, March/April 2021