On-farm vending retail has snowballed on one Flintshire family farm, where everything from raw and pasteurised milk to fresh meat, eggs and honey is available to buy from self-service machines.
Vending machine retail at Green Lane Farm, close to the Welsh border with England in Broughton, Flintshire, offers a different kind of food shopping experience.
Customers can purchase a range of home-reared organic produce, including beef, lamb, pork, eggs and milk, via several refrigerated and frozen vending machines which have been running since July 2018.
Housed in a purpose-built shelter on the farm close to a main route from Chester to Mold, Hope Cottage Farm Shop is now open to customers between 7am and 7pm seven days a week, the busy location in an increasingly populated district ensuring there are plenty of potential customers.
Everything sold through the vending shop is produced at Green Lane Farm, a 117 hectare (290-acre) tenanted site which has been run by the Arden family since they took it on in the late 1950s.
Together, they milk a 160 Ayrshire cows and have a herd of pedigree rare-breed pigs, as well as a small flock of native-bred sheep, laying hens and beehives.
Andrew Arden, who runs the business with his parents, Peter and Valerie, his wife Becky and sister, Jane Matthews, explains how the vending route has allowed them to sell their products direct without significant investment in components and labour associated with a more traditional farm shop set-up.
Andrew says: “We wanted to sell our produce direct to customers, but we wanted to make sure it would be viable relative to the size and scale of what we had to offer.
“We considered whether we wanted to employ someone, but settled with machines as the best fit.
“They can sit in the shop on their own, which means we do not have to be there all the time and can pop back and forth while doing other jobs.”
Vending retail originally started with raw milk, eggs, honey and rare-breed pork, but the range began to expand within about three months.
It now includes beef, mainly from the farm’s dairy bull calves, and lamb from the farm’s small flock of Llanwenog and Black Welsh Mountain ewes.
With more products to sell, they needed more vending machines.
“It got to a point where we were producing more than the old machines could hold,” says Andrew.
“We have also been doing deliveries on a Saturday during Covid-19 to local people, particularly those who struggle getting out or who have been shielding”
Initial market research involved several site visits to other locations selling milk via vending machines, but as Jane explains, no other units they visited were retailing produce via vending machines to the extent they had
Jane says: “We began looking for a local company to take advice from when we were researching how best to expand the number of machines we had.
“We approached Phil Matthews at Auto Retail Group in Chester, a specialist vending company, who helped us find out more about what vending machine retail options were out there.
“Through Phil and his team, we were able to find the type of machines we wanted which were produced in and shipped over from a manufacturer in China.
“Phil’s company worked closely with them to modify the machines to the exact specification we wanted, which
included some packing modifications and layout tweaks.”
The two new refrigerated and frozen machines, thought to be the first of their kind in use in Europe, are now stocked with a full range of vacuum packed and tray sealed meats, eggs, honey, ice cream, halloumi cheese, butter and cream.
They sit alongside the milk vending machines dispensing raw and pasteurised milk.
After a local abattoir the business originally began using closed, meat is now processed by a neighbouring family friend who has his own butchery.
Andrew says: “We pretty much offer a full range of meat cuts now through the machine and we also tend to run an order book, so if someone wants something that is not run-of-the-mill they can get in touch and we can organise that for them.”
Jane makes the halloumi, while either Peter and Valerie,or Andrew and Becky, with the help of their daughter Eleanor, 20, her boyfriend, Mike, and son Harry, 13, make the ice cream, butter and cream on-site.
Although popular before, the self-service model has worked particularly well during the past 12 months during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the new machines completely operated from a 32-inch touchscreen.
Andrew says: “Lockdown one was really busy for us. It was a bit like Christmas week every week for the first month when everyone started to panic buy.
“But I also think local retail has been put back on the map for a lot of consumers during the last year.
“Broughton is a big village close to us and we have definitely noticed more people out walking past
“Whether it is lockdown, Brexit, or both, I think more people are looking at the source of their food, particularly meat.”
Day-to-day running of the business is a case of everyone pitching in to do the job, says Jane, particularly on Saturdays when the shop is manned.
She says: “Hope Cottage is a vending machine shop six days a week, but on Saturdays we man it and also sell baked goods.
“We have also been doing deliveries on a Saturday during Covid-19 to local people, particularly those who struggle getting out or who have been shielding and so on.”
The farm, Andrew explains, converted to organic production in 2004 and two years ago received produced without antibiotics status, with surplus milk not sold through vending machines supplied to Omsco.
He says: “As a business, we had cut back on other enterprises and were focusing on dairying around the time we decided to convert to organic production, which we did as a result of struggling farm-gate prices and a desire not to become a factory farm.
“That said, I am also fully on-board with the ethos. It is the way I want to farm.”
The grass-based system sees the all year-round calving herd typically grazed for seven months of the year, milked twice daily in the farm’s 14:28 swingover parlour.
The top 30 per cent of the herd is AI’d to a dairy bull, with the rest served to beef bull semen, mainly Hereford or Welsh Black.
The shop, Andrew says, has provided a viable outlet for dairy-bred bull calves, which are kept and finished alongside beef-bred animals, the latter sold as required for the shop, with others finished and sold at local
“The Aryshire bull calves were averaging about £3/head at market and I hated the fact they no longer had a purpose,” he says.
“The shop means we can keep them and grow them on as we used to – people do not realise how good dairy
bull beef can taste.”
About 30 finished animals per year are sold direct via the shop for beef currently.
Jane, who is also current chair of the British Pig Association, started keeping her own pigs at Green Lane some 16 years ago and currently has 15 pedigree sows, made up of Oxford Sandy and Blacks, Large Blacks and Landraces.
The closed herd breeds all its own replacements, with only boars bought in to introduce new breeding lines as required.
About 60 per cent of finished pork is sold through the shop, with remaining weaners sold for meat direct via word of mouth or as pedigree breeding stock.
Harry is mainly responsible for looking after the farm’s 100 layers together with some of his own more unusual breeds, while Peter looks after the five beehives which supply honey for the shop.
The family have identified a local market and continue to expand their ranges in line with customer demand.
They recently installed milkshake optics which can be added to milk purchases, proving a hit with children as well as adults says Andrew, and also plan to expand the dairy range further with yogurts and a wider selection of hard and soft cheeses.
They also plan on introducing their own fresh chicken and possibly ready meals.