Public lap up sales of raw milk

VILLAGE PEOPLE: Mark and Richard Houston with the automatic raw milk dispenser that is the centre piece of the Village Milk business.
VILLAGE PEOPLE: Mark and Richard Houston with the automatic raw milk dispenser that is the centre piece of the Village Milk business.

A Golden Bay dairy family has imported an automatic milk dispenser and begun selling raw milk from their farm in Clifton.

Mark and Phillippa Houston supplied Fonterra from their farm in South Canterbury before downsizing and setting up in Tasman for the climate and the lifestyle. The idea for selling raw milk evolved in response to strong community interest and support.

"The motivation with the machine is that we didn't want to stand there all day with the hose to fill up people's bottles," said Mr Houston.

Mr Houston flew to Italy where farmers are allowed to sell raw milk from dispensers in urban areas. The legal framework in New Zealand makes selling milk off the farm complicated, so the Houston family developed the idea to sell raw milk from their place.

The 1981 Food Act stipulates that farmers can sell raw milk from their gate, provided they limit the sale to 5 litres per person per day.

There is no limit on the total volume of milk that can be sold and at present the Houstons are consistently moving about 200 litres daily, at a price of $2 a litre.

They have two herds of cows that they rotate to get a year-round supply of milk from staggered calving seasons.

Mr Houston said the smaller herd size allows them to better understand the health and needs of the cows, resulting in good, healthy milk.

"You're a lot closer to the small herd," he said.

"You know them better, you understand their moods, their health and what's happening."

After six months of applications, inspections and certifications, the Houstons are fully certified by MAF to produce raw milk for domestic supply from their farm. The detailed inspections looked at their methods and daily testing process and gave the green light last month.

While the certification was pending the Houstons have built up a loyal and enthusiastic customer base in Golden Bay since they began selling milk in December.

"We're really humbled by the positive feedback we're getting from the locals," Mr Houston said. "They thank us for doing it and that is a huge surprise. We seem to be on to a winner."

Mr Houston said they have "almost broken even" from initial investments and are looking to expand their daily output. The success of the local operation has inspired the Houstons to import more automated milk dispensers and set up a franchise called Village Milk.

With a loyal Facebook following and a website in the works, the operation is set to expand across the country in the next 12 months.

The Houstons say they have had only positive feedback from other farmers, even nostalgic reminiscing about the bygone days of the small dairy farm.

Mr Houston said representatives of Fonterra visited the operation at Village Milk and voiced their approval.

"Even Fonterra have been down and had a look and they think it's fantastic," said son Richard Houston. "We're not badmouthing Fonterra, we're just doing our own thing."

Despite the expressions of support, representatives from Fonterra headquarters made it clear that Village Milk and raw milk sales had nothing to do with their business.

"Fonterra doesn't sell raw milk," said a company representative. "If our farmers choose to do so at the farmgate it's at their discretion. There are a number of MAF regulations in place around the sale of raw milk including limits on volumes consumers can buy."

The Houstons are also eager to distinguish their product and business model as separate from the milk giant.

"They don't sell the product that we sell and they are in a different market," said Mark Houston. "They are in the market of modified milk; we are in the market of real milk. Our milk comes from the cow exactly as humans have consumed it for thousands of years."

The Nelson Mail