Things haven't been easy for dairy farmers in recent years. Farm-gate milk prices have been driven down due to pressure from big supermarket chains buying power and a shrinking number of milk processors. Add in rising feed prices, increased energy prices and evolving technology requirements and you have a very tough trading environment.
For many dairy farmers, milk is actually being produced at a financial loss, and lack of processing facilities in some areas limits the collection of milk. There's surely something wrong when farmers are being paid less per litre than it costs to produce.....and milk is cheaper than bottled water in some supermarkets.
Many dairy farmers have simply given up, unable to keep going at a loss - driven out by crude market forces. But, there will always be innovative, imaginative farmers who'll fight back - and here's a super example.
Forest Farm is near Kinellar, close to the busy A96 road but in a rural setting. The Willis family farm 260 acres here with over 100 Friesian and Holstein cows. This is longest established organic dairy farm in Scotland, using no chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or GM feed. If you visit between 3.30 and 5.30pm you can watch the cows being milked.
This is all good, positive stuff, and the Willis family have gone much further into a what at first glance seems a niche market. The secret is in the small building next to the spotless and modern milking parlour.....
Scotland's first milk vending machines! The milk is pasteurised but not homogenised, and comes, quite literally, from grass to glass. This has undoubtedly been a leap of faith for the family, but it's great to report that it's a very successful venture and the machines sometimes get more demand than the "girls" can supply.
Reusable screw top glass bottles are available for £2.50 for a litre bottle, the bottle is then yours to keep, re-use and fill from one of the two machines at a price of £1.20 for a litre of whole milk. The innovative approach continues at the point of payment, which can be by cash or contactless card payment. Plastic bottles are also supplied if you must, but we saw nobody taking a complementary plastic bottle, everyone who bought milk while we were there used glass - which is a good thing.
And this is what it's all about. Organic whole milk as fresh as it can be, and providing a link between the livestock and the customer. Small children who have never really considered where their milk comes from can now watch the process, connecting them with what they consume in a small way.
We chatted with one of the family who was very pleased with the way this venture is developing - it's surely something that other farmers could adopt. He pointed out another benefit of the machines and viewing arrangement - the family get to meet people on a daily basis. Farming can be an isolated, lonely existence and this social contact is a real plus point.
By chance, we had some organic whole milk from a supermarket in our fridge at home, so were able to do a comparison. Really, there's no comparison - the Forest Farm milk was just so much nicer, smoother and just wholly better. Although Forest Farm isn't that local to us, we'll be calling by regularly!