Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Loathe plastic? Milk deliveries and glass bottles are back!

As shoppers increasingly shun plastic, milk deliveries and sales of bottled pints are making a comeback

Got milk: Lois Caffrey tries unhomogenised milk at Airfield Farm in Dundrum, Dublin. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Got milk: Lois Caffrey tries unhomogenised milk at Airfield Farm in Dundrum, Dublin. Photo: Justin Farrelly

Lynne Caffrey

The demise of the doorstep delivery didn't just consign the rattle of the milk float and the creamy layer on top of a pint to history. It signalled a shift in attitudes toward food production that many believe is hastening the demise of the planet.

The growth of the supermarkets and our demand for convenience has seen small-scale farms disappear and tonnes of plastic milk cartons going to landfill every year.

However, there are signs the cream is rising to the top. Milk deliveries are up, while sales of raw milk - unpasteurised and unhomogenised - are also increasing after the State decided to regulate, rather than ban, its sale last year. In some areas, glass bottles are even making a comeback.

Chris Maloney, owner of the Ballymac Dairy in Kerry, delivers his pasteurised, non-homogenised milk to 134 doorsteps in Tralee, as well as to shops.

All supermarket milk is homogenised to evenly distribute the fat content through the product, standardising the fat content of full-fat, semi-skimmed and skimmed milk.

According to Chris, bottles of Ballymac milk - even semi-skimmed - have an unctuous layer of cream on top. A litre costs around €1.50 for home delivery.

Milky way: Lois Caffrey and Head Tour Guide Irene McGrane at Airfield Farm
Milky way: Lois Caffrey and Head Tour Guide Irene McGrane at Airfield Farm

While I didn't get to try it, when my six-year-old Lois tasted fresh, non-homogenised milk from the Jersey herd at Airfield Farm in Dundrum, she declared it like "melted ice cream". I can see why some milks command a premium price.

"My milk is at least twice the price of the milk in the supermarket - I just couldn't compete with them," Chris says. He supplies to smaller shops, "so people have a reason to go to them… to get something they wouldn't necessarily get in the bigger stores".

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As well as owning the dairy, Chris is the milkman, a job he says brings back memories of being a teenage paperboy in his original home of Queens, New York. Prior to moving to Ireland with his wife, who is from just outside Tralee, he was a teacher and a carpenter.

Despite the niche nature of his product, business is growing. In the last six months, the number of shops he supplies has doubled, something Chris puts down to environmental awareness, nostalgia and convenience.

"There's the recycling aspect, the purity of glass opposed to plastic," he says. "There's nostalgia too, but it quickly becomes about convenience. It's there every morning, they don't have to run out early in the morning to put it on the cornflakes."

Joan Lyons (76) from Tralee and husband Denis are two of his very happy customers. They get milk delivered every Monday and Thursday morning, having been won over when Chris went door-to-door with samples. She says the glass bottles in her fridge are a talking point with guests who nip in for coffee.

"I loved it from the beginning, being in a glass bottle, it's nicer," Joan says. "It has a heavier taste, more like cream. The cream is so thick on top we've had to shake the bottle, otherwise it won't move. It would take you back to the days when it was all bottles.

"We should go back to bottles. The glass feels good in your hand and recycling is no problem, you just rinse them out, leave them outside the door and in the morning it's there for you."

Behind this idyllic vision is harsh economic reality, one that has forced many farmers to think creatively. In 1984, 90pc of milk produced on Irish farms was delivered to a nearby doorstep, with the empties reused. Today, 90pc is processed into milk powder, cheddar or other milk products and exported, largely to Britain. Just 10pc, from 1,800 farms, is sold in Ireland as milk, while 26pc of the milk on our supermarket shelves is from Northern Ireland.

The main customers for Irish farmers are supermarket groups, which sign up a few suppliers each on limited contracts and demand high standards and yields on tight margins. To keep pace, dairies have become huge operations, meaning milk from many farms could be going into one carton. However, the product is so stringently monitored - for everything from anti-biotic traces to fat content - the consumer can't tell. While the farmers I spoke to welcomed the emphasis on quality, they said some of these practices are pushing smaller producers out, keeping prices unsustainably low.

Also looming is Brexit and the threat of tariffs that make Ireland's dairy exports uncompetitive. Could another, unsentimental version of the doorstep delivery offer Irish producers a lifeline?

Mum-of-one Fiona Lyons, from Kimmage, Dublin, has been using the online delivery service MyMilkman.ie for 14 months, buying milk and cheese. Dairy giant Glanbia is behind the service, which costs Fiona just over €1 per week for delivery and allows her to change her order online.

"I started just after my daughter Lauren turned one and I was weaning her off formula," she says. "The milk is Irish so I'm supporting Irish jobs and I get the cartons to avoid plastic bottles. It's handy. Of course, it would be cheaper to get it from Aldi but my milkman is so nice I couldn't cancel my order."

Avonmore, Yoplait and Innocent smoothies are among the brands offered from a range that includes sour cream, soup, butter, yoghurts and even eggs, bread and water, depending on the milkman.

Avril McArdle, head of marketing at MyMilkman.ie, says: "We have tens of thousands of homes who get milk delivered a number of times a week. The numbers are growing as awareness grows that milk delivery still exists and we have seen consistent growth within the last decade. We have found that the typical user of the service is a busy household with young children and both parents working and commuting."

Also growing in popularity is raw milk, despite the Food Safety Authority of Ireland's long-standing warning that it poses a serious health risk. Elisabeth Ryan from Raw Milk Ireland, a body which represents farmers, says the customer base for this artisan product is diverse.

Parents treating kids' eczema, bodybuilders and milk purists are among the consumers. It's often supplied in glass bottles and sold by farmers themselves.

"Anyone who has visited their local farm has a better respect for the product. Without it, you have no sense of how the milk is produced, or a sense of place," says Elisabeth.

I can imagine - my daughter was amazed to see a Jersey calf being fed milk at Airfield, she had no idea of its primary purpose.

"For me, drinking raw milk is about flavour, texture, place, and the person who made it," adds Elisabeth. "What people are buying into is the story - the farm, the cows, the process, the quality of milk, the chat with the farmer at the gate. It's very different than going to a supermarket and buying a faceless brand that's the amalgamated product of God knows how many producers. It also enriches the farmer's lives.

"Instead of waving bye to the rear end of a tanker, they're meeting customers. When they're out there at 4am, it makes things just a bit easier."

However, Elisabeth has practical concerns about the return of glass bottle deliveries, especially for raw milk.

"There's a reverence to having the glass bottle in the fridge, the weight of it and the tradition. It's a neutral vessel that least impacts the product, but the logistics of storage, washing, bottling and transport are difficult for the average farmer, and the appetite of the average consumer to bring the bottle back isn't there. They may talk about liking it, but when it comes down to it, it's not in our culture in the way it is in, say, Germany.

"I'd love to see the return of the glass bottle on our doorstep. I love the idea of lessening that chain between the product and the consumer, but health and safety might have something to say about it!"

For more info, visit Airfield.ie, Rawmilkireland.com. Contact Chris, Ballymac Dairy, on 087 068 6045.

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