If you were to pay attention to the deluge of a certain type of marketing campaign during this month in particular (cough, cough, veganuary), one might be misled into thinking dairy products are in decline.
When in fact, the situation on the ground paints a very different picture.
Irish Country Living recently paid a visit to The Milk Bar in Co Donegal. Located on the Porter family farm, 20 minutes from Letterkenny, near the border with Co Derry, people come from all over for milk from the Porters’ cows.
We visit on a Friday during mid-morning and there’s a steady stream of people. Avril and Bill Cormie travel from Derry city twice a week. Lorraine Burke and Harper Lee McCarron come from Burt regularly.
Other families come from Letterkenny town and the surrounding areas, filling cold, creamy milk from the vending machine into glass bottles, condensation trickling down the side.
These on-farm milk vending machines are rising in popularity of late, popping up across the country as farmers seek to sell directly to consumers.
Shannon Porter is the woman behind this particular one, The Milk Bar.
An agricultural science graduate and sales rep for Smyths Daleside Feeds and, at the age of just 23 Shannon has undertaken this venture. She studied ag science at Harper Adams University in England, finishing her final year in the summer of 2021.
It was in England that Shannon first saw milk vending machines on farms, an idea which stayed with her and obviously one she decided to put into practice at home. Due to the pandemic, her lectures were all online last year, so she ended up being at home in Donegal, giving her an opportunity to have a go at starting her own business in tandem with study.
Chatting with Shannon over a bottle of milk in the seating area of The Milk Bar, she explains how the whole thing came about.
“I was over in England for five years and I first saw it there,” she explains. “As a family, we had talked about it, but I had never actually been home to get it off the ground. I was at home finishing uni last year and I was like, this is it.
“I said to my family, ‘Are we doing this or are we not?’ They said, ‘If you want to do it, let’s do it.’ We made the decision in February of last year. There was no messing around. The equipment was ordered in April and that was it.”
While the decision to go ahead with the business was a relatively easy one, there was a lot in the process of getting it off the ground. The overall investment in the project was roughly €100,000, which she borrowed. Of that €60,000 went on equipment, including a pasteuriser, the glass bottle vending machine and the milk vending machine.
The modular structure that is The Milk Bar also had to be purchased, as well as the glass bottles and a dispenser for the milkshake syrup – more on that later. Alongside all of that, there were Department inspections, samples to be sent away for testing and becoming HACCP compliant (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, a hygiene code of conduct).
Making The Milk Bar aesthetically pleasing was also a goal of Shannon’s. The structure is spacious. She decorated it herself, painting some of the wood detailing pink, putting up window boxes and even hanging clusters from the ceiling.
Bit by bit, everything came together. On 24 September 2021, The Milk Bar opened.
Thankfully, business has been booming.
“It’s been crazy,” Shannon reflects. “It’s been so overwhelming. We’re out in the countryside, so we’re off the beaten track. We were paranoid no one would actually come. It’s unbelievable what social media can do. I’d say without it we’d hardly have anybody come.
“See weekends here, people were queuing over an hour one day. That car park wasn’t big enough. I’m serious, Daddy had to go out there and direct the traffic it was that mental.”
In the beginning there was much discussion among the family about the location of The Milk Bar. The Porters’ farm, while taking in a stunning view of the River Foyle, isn’t particularly near any towns. It’s a very rural location. They wondered for a time would it be best to bring the milk to the people, instead of the other way round. But Shannon knew in her heart she wanted it on the farm.
“We were so paranoid that because we’re off the beaten track nobody was going to come,” Shannon says. “There were offers to have it near the main road. Daddy was like, ‘Will we do it?’ I said, ‘Daddy, I want people to see countryside and get an actual feel of where the milk’s coming from.’ So that’s why I wanted it here.
“If it didn’t work we could look at it down the line, but I knew I wanted to have it at home. The thing is, it worked out so well, because we’re here people can speak to us if they have an issue and they get a feel of where the milk’s coming from, where the cows are. There are lots of people that I’ve shown up to that shed and wee ones that I’ve shown around the calves. They love it.”
Shannon and her family also thought a lot about who their customer would be. When they asked people in their circles, some of them weren’t sure they would use a service like The Milk Bar. However, this didn’t deter Shannon.
She knew the customer wouldn’t be other dairy farmers like themselves – who make up a lot of their friends and family. She thought it would be particularly people from more urban areas who would want to see the countryside. This has proven to be true.
As a customer, the process of purchasing the milk is quite simple. But first, Shannon pasteurises milk from the bulk tank, just a couple of hundred yards away and brings it down to The Milk Bar. The milk is pasteurised but unhomogenised.
When a customer comes in they buy a glass bottle from the first vending machine, either 500ml or a litre, which they can reuse on subsequent visits. There’s a milkshake stand with milkshake syrup (particularly popular with the kids) where if you wish, you can add a flavour like chocolate, strawberry, banana or pink candyfloss, paying 25c per pump into the honesty box.
Then you put your bottle into the second vending machine that dispenses the milk. You pay €1 for 500ml or €1.50 for a litre and voilà, it fills your bottle. The whole thing is self-service, although there are numbers to ring for people up on the farm if you run into difficulty. This allows Shannon to continue on with her day job, while doing her work for The Milk Bar in the mornings, evenings and on weekends.
As you can imagine, balancing everything is a lot, but Shannon is very quick to pay tribute to her family.
“I wouldn’t have done it without Mum and Dad. They’ve been a great help. If I’m away to work, Dad’s the first man I call if there’s an issue. I wouldn’t have done it without them. Then you have to praise the men that are out there milking the cows too.”
Her father Jack, alongside her 21-year-old brother Luke, run the dairy herd. They milk over 400 cows, with a main spring-calving herd and a smaller autumn-calving herd. This means they milk year round, which is ideal for Shannon’s setup in The Milk Bar.
Shannon’s mother Judith is also very involved in the farm, while her 17-year-old brother Justin is already a big sheep man, keeping 200 ewes. Alongside dairy and sheep they also have beef cattle.
Jack bought this farm in 1990. He comes from a dairy farm himself, as does Judith. Jack’s parents ran Millburn Dairies. They sold milk in glass bottles, just as Shannon does now.
What did her grandparents think when she told them she would be following in their footsteps?
“They thought I was mad,” she laughs. “It was a shock for them, but they think it’s great. I think it’s so nice seeing the third generation going back to glass bottles. Milking cows is in the blood on both sides and there’s such a passion for it. Granda and Da, that’s what they do, farm every single day. My mum’s parents aren’t here anymore, but I know they would definitely be proud now too.”
In a way, things have come full circle through the generations of the Porters. And a visit to The Milk Bar will certainly reinforce the popularity of milk among the general population for anyone who’s wondering.
The Milk Bar is located on Foyleview Farm, Lusticle, Carrigans, Co Donegal, F93 ED34.