The freshly pasteurised, non-homogenised milk that comes from Salt Rock Dairy is something special and Catherine Kinsella’s loyal customers are unstinting in their praise. This local milk for local people is sold direct from the family-run dairy farm that she owns with her husband Paul on the coast near Gorey in north Wexford.
When I visit, their black, white and pink trailer, emblazoned with the distinctive Salt Rock Dairy branding, is parked at the farm gate. Inside, there’s a simple-to-use milk vending machine flanked with neat wooden shelves of reusable, branded glass bottles. Buy your bottle, or bring back a clean one, pop a few coins in the slot (1 litre, €1.50, ½ litre, €1) and watch the milk flow.
Catherine also has a selection of flavoured syrups mounted on the wall for anyone who’s looking to add a shot of extra flavour - chocolate, perhaps, or the surprisingly tasty rhubarb and custard special that was available on the day I called round - to the bottle. The milk doesn’t need it, though: it already has a naturally full, rich, creamy sweetness. In terms of flavour, this is an altogether different beast from the standardised supermarket milk that’s readily available. It’s also more sustainable, cutting down on food miles, plastics and packaging.
Catherine and her husband, who grew up nearby at his family farm on Tara Hill, have been farming dry stock on 80 sea-view acres here since 1993. Ten years ago, they moved into dairy and now run a herd of 72 Holstein-cross cows. They also raised a family of four children, aged from 19 to 27, with the eldest three currently living abroad in Dubai, London and Wiltshire while their youngest daughter has just left school. When her family was young, Catherine - also working part-time as a nurse - started baking bread for her local farmers’ market in Gorey.
“I always wanted to be involved in food,” she laughs. “Eighteen years ago, I was involved in the farmers’ market in Gorey selling bread and my sister had a cheese stall - we really just wanted to see the market working. Within weeks I was making all sorts of olive and tomato breads. I had a great few years there.”
Economics pulled her back into full-time nursing around 2009 but it wasn’t until COVID hit that she had an opportunity to get back into the food world.
“The idea for the vending machine was in the back of my mind but it wasn’t until I had to be out of work and isolating for two weeks because of COVID that I had time to do the research.”
Funded with the help of AIB Gorey, who she found “very supportive,” along with solid advice from KDA Doyle Kelly accountants, Catherine invested approximately €120,000 on a second hand machine, which was fitted out by local cabinet maker, Robert O’Connor Kitchens.
First class milk
From a farming background herself, Catherine already knew what people were missing out on: “I grew up drinking milk straight from the tank and I knew what it tasted like. Every farmer in Ireland is producing milk that tastes like this.”
Her belief that “good natural products should be untouched and available to consumers as close to source as possible” was the inspiration behind the vending machine. But none of this would work without first class milk.
She credits Paul with farming “grass rather than cows” and ensuring that the cows - “the employees” - are happy. After milking, the milk is transferred via a holding tank to the flow through pasteuriser, which heats it to 73 degrees Celsius for 20 seconds. “It’s very quick,” says Catherine, “and it doesn’t seem to affect the flavour.” Nor does this minimal processing homogenise (break down the fat globules) in the milk, another reason why there’s no change in the deliciously creamy, old-fashioned taste.
While the mobile milk vending machine sits at the farm gate from Saturday afternoon to Tuesday, on Wednesdays it heads to John Bass Tyres in Gorey so that people in town can restock. Thursday sees it pop up in Ballymoney, Friday is Inch and then on Saturday mornings the trailer parks at Gorey Farmers’ Market.
“A lot of local people do use the yard,” says Catherine, “but the idea is that you could bring it [the trailer] as close to people as possible so that they can refill.”
Catherine launched the vending machine on 23 October 2021 at Gorey Farmers’ Market. “It was a great time to set up there,” she remembers. “Markets were very popular at that stage in time because people preferred to do their shopping in the open air. Gorey [Farmers’ Market] has been strong for years and there are core stalls, like veg from Fortune’s Farm Fresh Produce and Helen Lyndon Home Baking that have been there from the start. Now we draw people into the market as well. People love coming to the market and being able to refill the bottles.”
In total, she sells from 500 to 600 litres of milk through the vending machine every week; the farm also supplies Strathroy Dairies.
Meeting the customers
The vending machine is self-service. During the week, customers pay for milk on the machine, by SumUp or via an honesty box, but Saturdays see Catherine taking a more hands-on role.
“I wouldn’t be enjoying it as much without the market. I have the one day when I get to meet the customer and the market is great for that. I love chatting,” she admits. “I do create a queue!”
She had one customer who after queueing to gain access to the vending machine exploded with “Jesus, Catherine! It’s like a confession box!” Describing herself as “a talker by nature” Catherine is very much a people person and the one-on-one market chats are one of her strengths.
“The reaction from customers: that’s part of why you keep going. People love the whole principle of the reusable system, that it’s local, that they can talk directly to the producer. That’s the hook for them,” she notes.
For kids - and some adults - a big part of the appeal is being able to make their own flavoured milk and that has been a real draw at the market.
“I started doing it at the beginning,” says Catherine. “I tried all sorts of different flavours before I settled on a supplier. A lot were just too sweet. For me, it would be lovely to be able to produce the syrups but at the moment if it takes 25ml of syrup to get children to drink 475ml of milk, then I feel that it’s justified.”
She also encourages children to try the plain milk as well or to start drinking it on their cereal. “My creamy milk on porridge or in hot chocolate: it makes such a difference.”
Taking the risk
While Catherine has her systems running smoothly after almost two years in business, the set up wasn’t easy. She was advised by several people not to do it but, as she says, “I had enough determination to keep going. I was at a stage of life when I could take the risk and it was a risk well worth taking. I’ve learned so much and met so many people. There’s been a lot of personal growth and development.”
There has also been a lot of hard work put in by Catherine and her family to prove that a small dairy can viably supply the local area with delicious milk. A graduate of the ACORNS rural entrepreneurship initiative - “a really good programme” - she is also involved in the local Taste Wexford Programme, which supports producers keen to develop food tourism experiences, and is a member of the Wexford Food Family.
Catherine has plans to produce more than milk as well: she recently received an innovation voucher from Teagasc to work on product development and now she’s thinking about “yogurt, butter, kefir, buttermilk, possibly ice cream down the line. I’d love to build a production unit on the farm, producing multiple dairy products on a small scale, and have a demonstration kitchen where I could show people how to make their own yogurt and butter - how to do the basics and do the basics well.”
From a high quality basic product to brilliantly delivering it to locals in a sustainable manner, Salt Rock Dairy is ticking all the boxes.
Track the Salt Rock Dairy mobile vending machine on Instagram and Facebook.
Salt Rock Dairy, Tarahill, Gorey Co Wexford, Y25 RC62