It was the appeal of working on his family’s farm and bringing a new concept to the farming industry, which drove Angus Willis back to his roots.
Having previously worked as a solicitor in Aberdeen, the 30-year-old farmer is now taking the reins of the family business in Kinellar and driving farming into the 21st century.
Angus and his brother William came up with the concept of Forest Farm and the duo have been ploughing forward with their innovative ideas – one of which saw the launch of Scotland’s first milk vending machine.
Forest Farm is an extension of the family’s Glasgoforest farm, Scotland’s longest established organic dairy, having made the switch more than 20 years ago.
Using social media and recycling nostalgic traditions by trying to reignite the demand for milk delivery services, Angus and his brother have worked tirelessly to give the public a refreshing look into the dairy industry and showcase how an organic dairy runs day-to-day.
You’re back working on the family farm full-time now: how does it feel to have gone back to your family’s roots? Are you loving being back in the country?
My brother and I had been discussing ideas as to what we could be doing for the family business and having thrown a few ideas about I decided to return. I’d been working as a solicitor in Aberdeen for nearly five years and just decided I wanted a different pace of life and to really get back into the family business. I’d been working part-time helping out in the evenings and weekends on the farm, but I wanted to do it full-time and I’m really enjoying it. It’s something completely different, but it’s something I really want to do.
Forest Farm is a new branch of the family business and we love the idea of a milk vending machine. How did you guys come up with it?
We established the business last year and our first trading day was December 9, 2017. We’ve only been going for around six months now. It’s quite a new thing and a new side to the business. As a family we had this idea for a milk vending machine and we thought it would be a great idea to have something like this in Aberdeenshire, especially because we’re so close to the dual carriageway. We built the shed around four years ago as we wanted to allow people some diversification with their milk. We put the first vending machine in and it was really popular, so we put a second one in and it’s been the same. We’ve been really lucky with all the support from everyone and it’s been great.
Shopping for organic food and drink is popular and your family were the first farm in Scotland to go organic. What are the benefits of organic dairy?
We’ve been here on the farm since 1989. My mum and dad started the farm when they moved up from England. We converted the farm in 1998 to organic. We’re the longest established dairy farm in Scotland and we milk around 150 cows here daily. It’s not a huge herd, but it’s manageable for the family and it works really well.
It was my parent’s decision to convert the farm to an organic farm as they wanted to farm in a more sustainable way and to concentrate on the animals’ welfare. Obviously the cows are outside having a great time. The cows have been bred over the years to produce milk from grass and we feel this is the best environment for them and for us to produce quality milk too.
Milking 150 cows a day still sounds like a handful to us – how do you keep a handle on it all as a family business?
We’ve got my mum, my brother and myself all involved. We’ve also taken on a student who helps out too. He’s been brilliant and we also take some students from Scottish Agricultural College – which is just down the road from us – during the week, so they’ve had a great insight into what we’ve been doing. The students get a real hands-on experience and the hope is in years to come that they’ll either have their own dairy herds or be working on a dairy farm. It’s given them a taste of day-to-day farming.
We produce just over one million litres a year here. It’s fairly average for a dairy herd this size. We don’t push our cows to produce volume, we’d rather milk them less and get the quality milk we have. We milk them twice daily, once in the morning and then at 3.30pm, too.
We’ve got a viewing window into the milking area so that customers and guests can see what happens when the cows are getting milked.
We sell through a farmers’ cooperative who have farms from Inverness to Cornwall.
We sell through them and the milk typically goes down to Glasgow at the moment. Some of it will go out locally, Mackie’s make an organic ice cream so we provide organic milk to them.
Talk us through that whole process and how we end up with the finished product in the vending machine?
We milk first thing in the morning and the milk is put into a pasteuriser and then it’s cooled and goes into our vending machines. We’re not running all of the milk through the pasteuriser in the same way. You’ll get different tastes from the milk, so the milk we sell to supermarkets won’t taste as creamy as our milk from the vending machine on-site does. The vending machine milk isn’t homogenized which means the cream won’t run throughout the milk, it will set at the top of the milk – I personally think it gives you a better and more traditional product.
Your cows are out in the field all of the time, it sounds like they lead a wonderful life. What is the most important fundamental to the business?
Sustainability is one of the fundamentals for us. We’re trying to produce our milk as sustainably as possible. All the cows are grass-fed for 22 hours a day and we’ve got quite a low intensity system. We’ve got glass bottles, too, which can be bought at the farm, those are re-usable and we’ve seen a lot of our customers coming back and re-filling the same bottle with fresh milk.
There’s a lot of plastic being saved. Some of the families are saying they’ve not used much plastic since having changed to using our glass bottles. It’s been really well received. There’s a big movement away from plastic and the glass bottles look nice too so it’s been good. People use them for all sorts of things, sometimes even using them for things like vases, so it’s been great.
You’ve had a lot of international interest from farmers around Europe. How important has that been to the brand?
It’s been really interesting. We’ve always had a lot of visits to the farm whether it’s from farmers groups, the Scottish Cow Producer’s group, or young farmer visits. Since we’ve launched the vending machines we’ve been getting quite a lot of publicity and we’ve been trying to do heaps on social media, too, so people can see what we’re doing.
We’ve had a lot of interest from international farmers’ groups so we’ve had some people from Austria and Finland, and we’ve got quite a few others lined up soon. It’s been really interesting as we’ve got to meet farmers from all over the world who are doing some really incredible things in different places. Many of the groups that come here are organic farmers and that’s been really cool.
We love the Forest Farm Instagram page and seeing all of the daily pictures and videos of the cows. How has social media helped shape your business?
It’s just the way things are going these days. It’s harder and harder nowadays to get to see what farmers are doing and we’ve got a viewing window so anyone can come onto the farm any day to see the cows getting milked, but we wanted to give people an insight into the day-to-day happenings at the farm too.
Facebook and Instagram are really visual and for us, with the cows being outside and having a great time, it has worked really well. It’s all about engaging with our audience and letting them know what’s going on.
It sounds like you guys have achieved a lot in a short space of time – what’s been the highlight so far?
Actually having our own product is great. The big thing for me is meeting people who are using the milk. The milk is not all going away in a big container, it’s getting used by local people. Getting to meet all the people who come to the farm is brilliant and seeing everyone come and enjoy seeing the cows is really cool. It’s been really nice and rewarding.
More and more people turn up every day – it’s quite humbling, to be honest. We’re now producing around nearly 300 bottles of milk per day just for the vending machines. The weekends are incredibly busy for us and we’ve sold out of milk a number of times. The volumes are increasing and it’s great. The margins selling directly to the customers are much higher so it’s been great to see so many people come and support us. We really appreciate everyone’s support – it’s amazing that so many people are supporting local farmers.
So what’s next for the organic dairy farm that’s doing everything a bit different to the norm?
There’s a lot of different things we’re talking about. At the moment, we’re at the stage where we’re taking a step back and looking to see what would be best for us. There are other dairy products we’re thinking of potentially doing and we’ve had a lot of interest about delivery milk too so we’re just trying to figure out how we can do these things. We’ll definitely have some other things coming out soon, so it’s all very exciting.