How the milkbot in the Wirral could change the way you buy your milk
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 June 2017
Jon Appleby's Wirral business is thriving by attracting local people to enjoy both his produce and his land. Martin Pilkington reports.
Serving neighbouring communities is nothing new for the Appleby family. Jon’s father Roger first leased Greenhouse Farm in Greasby from Lord Leverhulme in 1961, and from the outset its free-range eggs have been sold to nearby shops, cafes and restaurants.
The supply chain to local consumers is even shorter now for some of the milk from their 160 dairy cattle, thanks to their ‘milkbot’, a vending machine selling raw milk to the health- and taste-conscious.
‘I’ve always been keen to sell our milk in the same way that we’ve sold quite a few of our eggs for years, and the milkbot gave us the opportunity to offer milk to the local community in a convenient and green way, in terms of food miles and allowing people to re-use their glass bottles,’ Jon said. ‘It also means people can come to the farm so we could have the connection with the customers, and they can see where the milk comes from and how it’s produced.’
Free plastic bottles or very smart glass ones for £2, complete with the Appleby’s milkbot logo, are filled from the machine, which delivers a minimum of two litres at a time. ‘We spent a lot of time trying to work out our brand, and ended up with a robotic looking cow because of the milkbot,’ he said. ‘The glass bottles are greener, people stick them in the dishwasher when they’re empty and re-use them next time.’
Interest in raw milk – that’s milk that hasn’t undergone pasteurisation – has surged of late for health reasons. ‘We’ve got customers who like it because it’s thought to be good for eczema and asthma, and somebody came who said it helps their arthritis,’ Jon added. ‘The probiotic bacteria are still in it – when you pasteurise milk it kills all that bacteria, and then people buy expensive little bottles of products which add bacteria back in! Quite a few of our buyers are lactose intolerant so can’t drink supermarket stuff because while lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose, is present in raw milk, it’s denatured when you pasteurize it.’
To sell raw milk the farm has to be licensed by the Food Standards Agency, which tests the herd and milk every couple of months, on top of which Jon sends samples to the National Milk Laboratories, an attitude perhaps rooted in his scientific background; he is a former biology student at the University of Birmingham. ‘The last thing I wanted then was to be a farmer, he said. ‘I worked as a buyer for Bass, and was spending too much of my life on the M6. About 20 years ago my dad was considering retirement and I was getting married, so gave it a go.’
As Jon speaks, a regular customer from Wallasey, Anthony Miller, arrives to re-fill his glass bottles. Anthony offers his own reason for buying aw milk. ‘I remember as a lad getting lovely yellow cream on top of the milk, so when I heard about this I thought I’d give it a try. It tastes better, when you have your cornflakes in the morning and put the top-of-the-milk on them, it’s like it used to be in the fifties and sixties.’
That golden cream rises to the top because the milk is not homogenised. Jon suggests other reasons for the taste difference, particularly that only that day’s milking is sold via the milkbot, making it far fresher than the milk most of us normally enjoy, and that nothing is removed from it. And he farms mainly Friesians, smaller and less productive than most dairy cattle in this country, but suited to feeding on grass year round – even when they’re brought inside for the very coldest months they live on silage.
‘There’s a little niche starting of free range milk, which is how we’ve branded our milk now as it’s from a low-yielding, extensively farmed herd,’ he said. ‘People who buy from us are interested in the fact that our cows are grass fed, again that’s about the taste of the milk and its properties.’
In the summer Jon hopes to hold farm walks, to be flagged up on his website, applebysfarm.co.uk, again as a way of building bridges to the surrounding communities. For similar reasons, and to help the farm’s income, he has established a five-caravan campsite with shower block. ‘Surprisingly we often get people from nearby towns staying here,’ he said. ‘Recently a group of mums and kids from four miles away booked – they wake up overlooking the fields and don’t have to drive for hours to do so.’
That extra local link is an unexpected bonus, but fits in with his determination to connect with North Wirral communities. ‘We’re a family farm, we treat our animals well, and showing that helps contradict negative press about some dairy farming. The greatest sight for me is parents and kids walking into the farmyard to buy their eggs and milk from their local farm.’