Where to find the freshest milk you’ll ever taste in NI
GRAEME COUSINS talks to Richard Lilburn of Brookvale Farm about the milk vending machines they have introduced on the farm
Lockdown has done funny things to people, and not all of them for the worse.
For example, could you have imagined 18 months ago someone making the 110-mile round trip from Omagh in Co Tyrone to Dromore in Co Down for a pint of milk?
The thirst for fresh, local produce has been one of the positive impacts of the pandemic, and arguably Brexit, and at the family-run Brookvale Farm they’ve diversified their business to suit those needs.
Richard Lilburn, who runs the dairy farm, explained the ‘It’s Just Milk’ business plan: “What we’ve done is we’ve put a self-vend vending machine at the farm. We pasteurise on the farm ourselves so the milk never leaves.
“It takes four and half hours to process the milk from start to finish then it’s straight to the customers.
“A whole lot of times the customers are getting the milk it’s only maybe six hours old.
“Like every product on the market – the fresher the better. So much produce is processed to make it last longer, to give it that shelf life. If you can buy fresh, local produce that hasn’t had to travel, it’s always going to taste nicer.”
He said that people have been prepared to wait for fresh milk: “We’ve had queues of up to three hours. We’ve found there’s been a bit of lull since things have opened up from lockdown. People are back to work, back to schools. We’re still selling a lot of litres a day, people are just spreading out more.
“We have a second machine that should be here very soon. We hope not to have queues because at the end of the day people want to stop in, grab and go. It needs to be handy for people.”
That said, people are willing to travel long distances to get the cream of the crop.
Richard said: “We have a regular who comes from Omagh once a week
“We have people coming from Newcastle, Belfast, all over, people from Louth and other parts of the south. There are people who are driving past other vending machines to come to ours. We are so particular about the way we process the milk, not damaging the milk, looking after our cows the best we can, getting good quality creamy milk.”
Explaining why the milk produced on the farm is different to that which you would get in a supermarket, Richard said: “Supermarket milk could be picked up one day, then taken to the factory for a day, be processed, then cartoned, then into a lorry again and sent to a distribution centre, then into a van, then into the shops to sit in a cold store before it goes out on a shelf.
“It could be a week old before you buy it, never mind the amount of food miles it will have clocked up.
“The biggest difference with the supermarket milk is that it’s all standardised and homogenised. It goes into the factories and is processed at very high temperatures which not only kills the bad bacteria but kills good bacteria as well. They take all the cream out and only legally add back in what they have to to meet regulations.
“We keep it all in and pasteurise it at a lower temperature but for a longer period of time so as not to damage the milk. Your creams and your fats and your proteins all stay whole when we do it.”
He added: “Another advantage of that is people with milk intolerances can cope with drinking our milk, whereas they couldn’t drink supermarket milk. Yes, some people are allergic to milk and dairy, we can’t change that. Quite a lot of people who have the intolerances, it’s more an intolerance of the way it’s been processed.”
Brookvale Farm is one of many dairy farms in NI selling their milk on site using special vending machines.
While they weren’t the first to do it, Richard said they were the pioneers of dispensing milkshakes directly into bottles for customers.
“Bringing in a milk vending machine was in the pipeline for us, but lockdown did encourage us to get started.
“It did make it harder in terms of getting the equipment, getting the stock. That held us back two or three months but as far as people’s attitude to buying local produce, it has really helped.”
He added: “The milkshakes were a big selling point for us. We have about 17 flavours – our core flavours are banana, chocolate and strawberry. They’re in the machine all the time. Then we have a flavour of the week.”
When I spoke to Richard it was blueberry muffin flavour. “That’s one of the more wacky flavours,” he said.
“We have a poll on our Facebook page for people to vote for the following week’s flavour.”
Richard said by using glass bottles the farm was playing its part in helping the environment: “Although people don’t believe us farmers, we’re very passionate about cutting down on our carbon and worrying about the environment, that is our children’s future. That’s one of the things I love about the glass bottle concept.
“Our customers return with their glass bottles and keep reusing them. We’ve sold thousands and thousands of litres of milk since we opened, that’s thousands and thousands of plastic containers that haven’t been used.”
For bigger quantities of milk Brookvale uses steel churns to supply customers.
Richard said: “We’ve just started supplying Taboo donuts with their milk, they go through thousands of litres of milk. It was all plastic before and now it’s steel. The churns are washed out and reused time and time again. A big factory like that is using local, good quality produce and cutting down their food miles and their plastic waste.”
The farm also supplies Glanbia Cheese Ltd in Magheralin: “The vast majority of our milk still goes to Glanbia to make mozzarella. They’ve been very supportive of us doing what we’re doing.
“I know that some of the other milk factories have criticised their farmers for selling their milk. As Glanbia said – they need to be realistic. We’re still sending them 6,000 litres a day, we’re only just trying to make a pound for ourselves the same way they’re trying to make a profit.”
Purple bottles for charity
Richard and his family are helping a local charity: “We’ve got a purple bottle at the moment with the NI Children’s Hospice logo on it. For every one of the those bottles we sell we’re going to donate a pound to the NI Children’s Hospice.
“We’ve had nurses from the hospice bringing children to the farm. When you see the work they do with those children, two or three times Pamela and I were standing in tears, this is a worthwhile charity.”
Farming for the future with kids playing role
Brookvale Farm is run by Olive and Thomas Lilburn along with their son Richard and his wife Pamela. The farm had been owned by the Lilburns for many generations though at one stage they had to move to Canada and give up the farm.
Richard, who has been farming since he was 17, said: “During the war they went bankrupt, the government helped to resettle them over to Canada. They ended up there but came back and managed to buy the family farm back again.”
Richard and Pamela’s children – Theo, seven, Harrison, five, and Evie, three – are involved in the running of the farm: “They gather the eggs, they look after the hens, it’s very much a family business.”
Richard said it had become a 24-hour operation: “Three and four o’clock in the morning is quite regular for me going to bed. My wife is up at six to get ready to open up for seven.
“My dad is up at five. The farm is now a 24-hour operation between pasteurising milk and looking after the stock on the farm, doing actual farmwork.”
Having got the milk-vending operation up and running, plans are to introduce other fresh farm items: “We’ve purchased 50 free range hens, we’re starting to get eggs from them. We’re planning on selling fruit and vegetables as well within the next few months.
“We have a picnic area on the farm, a quiet fenced off area beside where the hens are. People can watch the hens and chill out. “The long term goal is to turn it into a wee market style farm, but not a farm shop.”
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