Larry Chetcuti marched into the Morningstar Farm market store like a man on a mission last week.
“Hey, listen. I’ve been running around like a chicken with its head off,” he announced to anyone who would listen. “You know where there’s a farm that’s sellin’ milk?”
Morningstar Farm co-owner Ray Gourlay broke off a conversation he was holding in the back of the store and turned to Chetcuti.
“You just found it,” he replied.
Minutes later, Chetcuti was filling his own jug from a milk dispenser just outside the store, the first of its kind in B.C. and possibly in Canada.
Since Gourlay’s parents, Clarke and Nancy Gourlay, started Morningstar’s dairy farm in 2001, all of its cows’ milk production had gone to the cheese marketed through its Little Qualicum Cheeseworks. That changed last year when Morningstar Farm “graduated” from the Canadian Dairy Farmers’ cottage industry program and became eligible to sell its milk.
“We knew we wanted to sell milk, because we’ve had a consistent demand,” said Ray Gourlay, co-owner and assistant manager at the family owned farm at 403 Lowrys Rd. in Parksville. “People have been asking for a long time. We knew we wanted to offer more value to the farm and keep in line with our value of bringing people onto the farm and promoting food awareness, food education and food empowerment.”
The coin- or token-operated milk dispensing machine resulted from the Gourlays’ research into starting up milk production. The most common method they discovered in Canada was a traditional bottling line.
“It takes lot of equipment, a huge investment, lots of infrastructure that takes up lots of space, and a lot of work cleaning all those bottles that come back,” Ray said. “We thought we could skip all that and also provide something that’s innovative and new and interesting by opting for a milk dispenser.”
Morningstar Farm offers its own, labeled one-litre glass bottles, for a one-time cost of $4. They can be used, washed and re-used, similar to refilling of a growler at a brew pub.
“We’ve compared it to refilling beer growlers, but don’t actually use a beer growler,” Gourlay said. “The top is narrow and they’re really dark, so they’re hard to clean. People can reuse the bottles we sell or bring in their own clean and sanitized milk bottles, juice pitchers, Mason jars; as long as you can reach into it and clean it out.”
The milk is pasteurized but non-homogenized, which means the cream will float to the top when the bottle has had time to rest. The average milkfat content is 4.1 per cent, Gourlay said, but it can vary depending on the season and the cows’ diet. The shelf life is rated for 10 days, Gourlay said.
Cost from the dispenser is $2 per litre.
“We’re not making a killing,” Gourlay said. “It’s not a get-rich project; it’s an add value project.”
Morningstar Farm has 50 milking dairy cows at any given time, and another 15-20 in juvenile and “dry” cows, which are resting between lactation cycles. Gourlay said the herd produces an average of 1,700 litres of milk per day, the bulk of which continues to go toward cheese-making.
“The amount we’re selling in fluid milk is negligible in comparison, under 50 litres per day,” said Gourlay. “We want to sell more milk, so we’re trying to get the word out. We absolutely have the capacity to sell a lot of milk.”
Just don’t expect to see Morningstar Farms milk dispensers popping up across Vancouver Island. At least, not in the short term.
“We’re not going to start putting these dispensers up all over the Island, at least not for the foreseeable future,” he added. “We love that people have to come here to get it, because it’s part of facilitating community as a concept.
“But there’s about four or five dairy farms that are also dairy processors, and there’s no reason they couldn’t have milk dispensers. It would be terrific if, one day, in any major community in the province you could swing by a dairy and get local milk. That’s the dream.”
And a dream come true for Chetcuti, who stumbled onto the farm for the first time after seeing a news report on the new milk dispenser.
“Hey, I lived here since 1966 and I don’t know about this farm,” Chetcuti said. “I don’t believe it.”