Approximately a kilometre from the hidden treasure of the Lough Boora Discovery Park, the former peat harvesting site turned into an Irish biodiversity project, is the Boora Bainne Milk Company founded by Paul Molloy. Yes, there are dairy cows involved. Yes, those dairy cows will unwittingly contribute to climate change through emissions. But there is a difference. Paul has set-up a milk vending machine where you buy a glass bottle and then fill it with either milk, or flavoured milk of your choice. Using a recyclable glass bottle eliminates the need for any single-use milk cartons or containers and is a far more sustainable way to buy your milk.
Paul is the third generation of Molloys to run the family-owned dairy farm in Leamore, Boora, Co. Offaly. His father Joseph is well-known, and highly respected in the area’s farming circles but it was Paul who came up with the initiative to pasteurise and then sell the milk from his 130 Friesian Jersey cows – directly to the consumer.
“This farm has been in my family since the 1960s and I naturally wanted to follow in my grandfather, and father’s footsteps. After secondary school in Ferbane, I went to agricultural colleges in Kilkenny and Gurteen, Tipperary where I learned about the business of farming. For the past nine years, alongside running the farm here, I’ve been involved in the breeding and genetics side of the dairy industry. However, that’s only seasonal work, which I do in the summer. Often, I’m out at 5 am and don’t return till 10 pm. So, for a good while now, I’ve been looking for ways to drive new revenue into the dairy side of the business without simply increasing the number of dairy cows we have.”
Not Cheese but Sunny Somerset
Paul had ruled out getting involved in making cheese because he felt that it was very labour intensive and perfecting a cheese that would stand out from the competition was a tall order. He wanted to keep things as simple and ideally wanted to find a way to add extra value to the milk itself.
“I came across a vending machine set-up that I thought would work very well here on the farm, and contacted the distributors in the UK. The most important thing was to see the machines in action, and so I travelled over to the UK last year to meet with suppliers in Devon and Somerset. I saw a few of the vending machines in action at a few sites and picked out the one that provided for the flavours to be directly added to the milk in the dispensing process. For the whole thing to work, I needed to source glass bottles and found a supplier in Scotland that could provide me with two different sized ones.”
Once Paul had the machine picked out, he came back to get the finance he needed to acquire the equipment. The process itself was not as difficult as he had first imagined, and he was able to obtain the funding within a few weeks of filling out the paperwork. He placed the order with the UK supplier in September of 2020.
The milk needed to be pasteurised before it could be used in the machines, and so his next task was to find equipment for the pasteurisation process. He was lucky to be able to buy a second-hand pasteuriser. The process of pasteurisation is important because milk is heated up to kill off any harmful bacteria and then is cooled back down before it can be approved as being safe for use. Paul’s milk is also non-homogenised which means it’s a lot creamier because the cream is intact unlike the normally creamless milk found on a supermarket shelf.
“There was so much more legislation than I anticipated, and thankfully I had a lifesaver: Jolene Minogue. Jolene was able to ensure that my project complied with all the necessary legislation, and she liaised with the Department of Agriculture and the HSE. Her knowledge and expertise were invaluable.”
Building a Hut
Paul had decided to build a wooden hut to house the vending machine and watched as many YouTube videos as he could find to help him in his endeavour. The end result is a very handsome looking hut which is distinctive and can be easily accessed by customers from the main road itself.
“I knew that I needed somewhere to position the two machines that I had ordered, but had nowhere suitable. The hut needed to be big enough to house two massive vending machines as well as, a separate room for equipment and supplies such as glass bottles. The pasteurised milk is brought over in two big tanks to fill the machines, so ease of access was also very important.”
Paul found his Local Enterprise Office team in Offaly to be very supportive and helpful. They organised training sessions that equipped him with new skills in social media marketing, which he has put to very good use since. He has created much awareness and buzz around his new venture.
Though it might appear that the whole project was plain sailing for Paul, he did have a few headaches which were down to delays.
“I had placed an order for the vending machines but felt that the UK suppliers were not really that interested in speeding up the order. I know that Brexit has had made things difficult but at the end of the day, Ireland is only across the sea from the UK mainland, and it took seven months for the vending machine to arrive. The customs process is bonkers! Secondly, I had a problem getting the glass bottles that I needed. The Scotland based supplier told me at one point that they were stuck on the Suez Canal! Now I know that I could have bought both the vending machine and the bottles from here in Ireland. A big lesson learned!”
The venture went live on July 31st, and Paul was a very happy man. In total, he believes that setting up Boora Bainne has cost him about €80k because he had acquired used equipment. If it had all been brand new, then he was looking at upwards of €150k in costs. That is a hefty amount of money, but he knew that he already had the raw materials: an endless supply of milk, so it was really about finding a new way to sell more milk.
Since launch, Paul tells me that his vending machine has dispensed 5000 bottles of milk which he estimates has saved 100,000 single-use plastic milk cartons and bottles. “Lots of families hear about us and take a drive out to the farm to buy a bottle of milk. Children love that they can add their favourite flavour, and parents love how our glass bottles are both nostalgic and environmentally friendly. Then of course they all come back on another day with washed bottles ready to be filled again!”
Paul has also been approached by lots of coffee shop owners, who see his recyclable glass bottles as a way for them to minimize their commercial use of plastics. They buy a quantity of bottles at the start and then simply return to fill them up with as much as they need, this also helps them to control any wastage. “I would love to see more milk vending machines installed, but don’t want the headache of setting them up!”
This article was published in the Offaly Independent 17/09/2021.