When a Welsh dairy farm revived its business after the pandemic with a milk vending machine, it was reflecting a quiet change in how dairy farms are financing themselves and people are buying milk in Europe that has been underway for a while. Two things have heightened the change recently – the pandemic, and peoples’ increasing concern about plastic waste.
Llaeth Beynon Dairy, run by the same family in southwestern Wales for three generations, was nearly destroyed by the pandemic lockdown. “The industry just collapsed overnight,” said Ifan Beynon-Thomas, who runs Goitre Fach farm with his parents. Twice they had to dump 7,000 litres of milk down the drain, and for three months, they didn’t get paid for the milk produced by their 250 cows.
Then Beynon-Thomas remembered having seen a milk vending machine at an English dairy farm, where customers filled their own bottles, and decided to buy one. Along with the vending machine, they bought a new pasteurization machine, with money borrowed from the bank.
When they started selling milk via the vending machine last October, as Wales was put under a 17-day lockdown, they had no idea how popular it would be. People line up as early as 6:30 a.m. and come as late as 2:30 a.m. and don’t seem to mind queuing. And things didn’t slow down once the lockdown was over. The family now has added a milkshake machine, and plans for more machines are in the works.
While the Welsh dairy dispenses pasteurized milk, many of the vending machines in 17 or more European countries dispense raw milk. The European raw milk vending machine market was worth US$6.45 million in 2015 and was expected to reach almost US$18 million by 2024, according to research cited by nutritionist Sylvia Onusic in 2018. New designs were emerging “with even better sanitation and slots for products such as cheese, buttermilk, yogurt, chocolate milk and ice cream,” she said, adding that Slovenian farmers were also selling products such as wine and olive oil directly to consumers through machines.
In Slovenia, depending on which stories you read, it seems that farmers were having a hard time making enough money to keep going because prices were driven so low by milk merchants and supermarkets. So they investigated and discovered Swiss-made machines that would let them sell their raw milk directly to consumers. Now there are some 70 machines.
The milk in the machines is kept at 4 degrees Celsius and changed every 24 hours. People can buy a bottle at the machine or bring their own, and they can fill it up with as much or as little milk as they want. Milk sales dropped in 2011 due to a raw milk safety scare which some thought was driven by milk merchants who feared losing business if farmers sold their milk directly to consumers. While farmers get the full purchase price of 1 euro per litre from the vending machines, the milk merchants pay them only 30% of that amount.
Other vending machines sell local farm products like apple cider, cheese, and local sausages – all local, fresh and organic. Farmers can monitor the machine’s inventory through an app on their phones.
Milk vending machines took longer to catch on in the UK. In 2011, Jonny Crickmore of Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk was the first UK farmer to install a farm-based raw milk vending machine, and he said it improved his cash flow ‘instantly’. He and his brother George milk 300 French Montbéliarde cows, run a beef herd and make raw cheese, butter and cream. Jonny likes the fact that he, rather than a processor or supermarket, is in control of the milk. He has been influential in persuading other farmers to adopt the machines. UK law allows both raw milk and pasteurized milk to be sold via vending machines at farms; raw milk sales are banned in Scotland.
There are many stories of farmers who credit the milk vending sales with saving their businesses, both during the pandemic and during earlier price drops. Farmer’s Weekly reported in 2016 on some of the stories, which included the Stevens family in Hampshire, who had heard about milk vending in 2013, but only started selling raw milk in August 2015 after milk prices slumped. They have built a loyal following, with one customer doing an 80-mile round trip from Oxford to buy milk, and by 2016, they were dispensing 80 litres of raw milk a day at £1/ litre from their vending machine.
Early in the pandemic, in fact, vending machines became a lifeline for many farmers, not just dairy farmers. Grocery store shortages encouraged both English dairy farmers and French farmers to adopt vending machines in order to sell directly to consumers. French farmers began selling fruit, vegetables, and eggs that way, with one French farmer saying the vending machine generated tens of thousands of dollars a month in revenue.
In 2017, Scotland’s first milk vending machine was installed at the country’s oldest organic dairy farm – the 360-acre Forest Farm in Aberdeenshire, which attracted customers from five neighbouring communities as well as commuters travelling between Aberdeen and Inverness.
In northern Ireland, William and Alison Chestnutt saw a “phenomenal demand” for their milk after they put a milk vending machine on their dairy farm in 2020 and were especially happy to be able to move back to glass bottles and away from plastic cartons. They’d seen a machine in the Netherlands and went to visit some English farms to see how they worked.
Milk is pumped directly from the cows to a pasteurization room and once treated, taken to the Milk Hut which houses two vending machines – one that dispenses 250 ml or one litre of milk and one that lets people buy reusable glass bottles in those same sizes.
The one place, it seems, where you can’t find milk vending machines is North America, as far as I can determine. There are vending machines that dispense plastic bottles of milk, but none like the ones in Europe where you can fill up your own bottle at the machine.
Sylvia Onusic, who first saw raw milk vending machines in Slovenia in 2009, spoke about them at the Second Annual International Raw Milk Symposium in April 2010 and said many Americans wanted to know more. But customs and regulatory authorities discouraged her from the idea. On the other hand, she said wryly, it is possible “to purchase milk machines that dispense pasteurized milk or milk powder products in sugar-laden chocolate and strawberry flavors”.
How a milk vending machine saved a Welsh dairy farm. Food News, May 15, 2021
From grass to glass: Selling bottled milk from a vending machine…on the farm. Agriland, July 31, 2020
Slovenian Farmers Take Back Dairy Distribution Through Vending Machines. National Geographic, Nov. 1, 2013
Country’s first milk-selling vending machine to be launched on farm. Evening Express, Dec. 2, 2017
How (and Why) to Use Slovenia’s Milk Vending Machines. Total Slovenia News, 18 Aug 2019
Vending machine boosts milk demand for farming couple. Farming UK, Aug. 3, 2020
Raw Milk Vending Machines Take Over Europe. Modern Farmer, Mar. 25, 2014
Raw milk vending machine sales soar on the world market. Campaign for Real Milk, Jan. 6, 2018