Fresh and natural at the farmgate

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Mark Houston, left, and his son Richard have installed a 24-hour vending machine at their farm dairy in Takaka. Photos: Tim Cuff.

Milk lovers in Golden Bay are lapping up a unique initiative that's making the farm-fresh variety accessible to the public any time of day or night.

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Permission was finally granted to produce the milk for domestic supply in April last year.

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LAPPING IT UP: Local Amanda Thompson buys milk from the Houstons’ vending machine.

Since the Houston family installed a 24-hour vending machine at its farm dairy in Takaka, demand has grown so rapidly it is looking to roll the idea out nationwide through franchises.

And it's not just the dispensing method that is unusual about the milk – it's novel in that it's straight from the cow, not pasteurised, homogenised or processed in any way. And the family believes that's one of the attractions.

Mark Houston says those who like the taste will be pleased by a recent announcement by Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson signalling greater acceptance of the sales of raw milk and a possible increase in the quantities that can be sold on the farm.

That could increase significantly opportunities for the Village Milk brand to expand, says Houston, a fourth-generation farmer who with wife Phillipa stumbled into the business of selling raw milk by chance.

They had sold their 700-cow, 200-hectare dairy farm in South Canterbury, where they supplied Fonterra, and moved to Golden Bay in search of a new project.

"We'd bought a small farm of 172 acres (69.6ha) in Motupipi near Takaka because we needed somewhere to store the machinery we were bringing with us," he says.

To graze the land they'd taken along 35 of their stock, including Number 13, who happened to be in calf. She was milked with a portable machine for the family's daily supply but another lucky local reaped the benefit too. He was a friendly electrician doing some work on the farm, who persuaded the family to let him buy some milk. He agreed the taste of the raw, unprocessed variety was pretty special.

With no interest in getting back into the milk business the family had the other cows mated and inseminated, with the intention of selling them before calving. However, DNA testing led to half of them being kept instead to milk, because it was found that so many were A2.

Always one to relish a project, Houston saw an opportunity and dug out a derelict milking shed on the property that had been in-filled for use as a stockyard for beef cattle. The shed was renovated, second-hand milking equipment was installed and Village Milk began.

To avoid standing at the farm gate with a hose for enthusiastic locals wanting to buy, he decided to make a machine to dispense independently. Searches on the internet for design tips led him to realise milk-vending machines were popular in Italy and after a trip there to investigate further he placed an order.   

The machine was installed in a purpose-built shed alongside the milking area. Following months of applications, inspections and certifications, permission was finally granted to produce the milk for domestic supply in April last year. Since then the venture’s popularity has astonished even the Houston family, which includes daughter Amelia and sons Richard and Andrew and their wives Rachel and Jana.

"We take the milk, chill it rapidly, check the somatic cell count for udder health and milk quality, then wheel the 300-litre tank into the dispenser," Houston says.

He especially enjoys the positive comments because Village Milk has brought him back to early-morning milking, a far cry from his mostly hands-free role at the previous farm.

"It's fresh every morning, ready to drink, straight from the cow."

Any surplus is fed to the calves.

Hygiene and health of “the girls” have always been a priority, with high standards imposed.

"We have rigorous teat-cleaning procedures, including washing each one, then spraying it with an iodine solution before wiping and drying it and then applying the milking cup," says son Richard, who is also involved in the day-to-day business operations.

"Before we collect any the milking canal gets stripped too, to make sure there are no speckles. It all takes just as long as the milking itself but we wouldn't have it any other way. Getting it right's the important part, not least because we don't have pasteurisation as a back-up.

"People love that the milk is from a small herd of happy, pasture-fed cows, all of which have names and many of which are A2."

So much so that it's not unusual for the local policeman to call in at 2am to top up his bottle with the white stuff, nor for mussel workers to fill their flasks on their way out to their boats before dawn.

The Food Act allows people to buy up to five litres of raw milk at the farm gate to drink themselves or give to their family.

Responsibly, the Houstons have a sign in the shed notifying customers that raw milk is not recommended for everyone. Those advised to avoid it are the more vulnerable groups such as the frail and elderly, expectant mothers, babies and toddlers, and anyone whose immune system could be compromised because of a chronic illness, long-term medication or a recent operation.

"We have around 100 cars drive in during a day to buy the milk and that’s great, because we get personal contact with so many of our customers," Mark says.

The farm has a summer and winter herd, each of 30 mainly Friesian cows, providing up to 280 litres of milk a day. 

"Most people just love that they can visit and have a connection with where their milk comes from."

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MAGIC NUMBER: Mark Houston with treasured cow Number 13, which got the ball rolling on the Takaka farm.

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Richard Houston: "People love that the milk is from a small herd of happy, pasture-fed cows, all of which have names and many of which are A2."

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