Once upon a time, there was a dairy farmer in the south-west of France who was struggling to make ends meet. One day, while surfing the web, he uncovered what he believed may be his ticket to a prosperous future. Sure enough: two years later, he’s already boosted his yearly income by 25 percent without increasing his production. And that’s only the beginning. The trick, borrowed from his Italian peers? Two raw milk vending machines set up outside local supermarkets.
“The local dairy processor was buying my milk 0.24 euro/liter at the time I set up my first vending machine. Overnight, I was selling 200 liters of milk per day at 1 euro/liter directly to consumers,” Michel Cantaloube explains. He keeps 100 percent of the proceeds, since the supermarket CEO, Patrick Bardot, to whom Michel Cantaloube brought his idea, understood the lure of a machine providing fresh raw milk 24/7 outside his door. He offered Michel Cantaloube a free spot with free electricity, in exchange for the commitment that the farmer would not colonize any other supermarket chain with his raw milk offering.
“Leclerc has a strong presence on each side of town, so I felt that gave me a big enough opportunity,” the farmer says in reference to the giant French distributor. Today, his two Italian-made vending machines sell 400 liters daily, or 20 percent of his production. Each one represents a 40,000-euro investment, 30 percent of which was covered through government grants.
Here is certainly one lucky dairy farmer with many lucky customers. No armed SWAT team descending on his family farm in the wee hours of dawn, as has transpired in America, nor seizing his vending machines against public will. In fact, the 24/7 direct-sale initiative has drawn national attention.
The sale of raw milk is legal in France. The regulation calls for controls of the product by the public veterinarian services three times a month, with one extra in-depth analysis every quarter; the assessment of the health of the herd once a month; and the inspection of the sanitary conditions of the milking facility once a year.
One of only two dairy farms in the vicinity of Montauban, the picturesque town where I grew up (disclaimer!), La Ferme des Tilleuls has been producing milk for 30 years. Its practices are certified sustainable and health-promoting with the Bleu Blanc Coeur label. Established in 2000, this independent label guarantees that the farm’s 50 Holstein cows are well-treated, receive no growth hormones or antibiotics, and are fed only natural products that enhance their health and pack their milk with Omega-3. ” ‘Healthy animals, healthy human beings’, that’s what we believe,” says Michel Cantaloube.
He adds: “Many customers have come to me to share that, after years of staying clear of milk because of a perceived lactose intolerance, they’re enjoying my raw milk with no side effect. They’ve come to realize that they were never allergic to lactose per se but to the compromised product that is pasteurized milk.”
Most likely, the success story doesn’t end here. La Ferme des Tilleuls is the preferred provider of some local restaurants, including La Pays’ Anne, the famous ‘farm-diner’ opened last year in Montauban by MasterChef Winner Anne Alassane. As a result, it got a special mention in her recipe book published last May.
Even more importantly, Michel Cantaloube doesn’t intend to sell the remaining 80 percent of his production to the dairy industry for much longer, if all goes according to plan. For he has discovered an even more lucrative way to monetize his raw milk than direct sales: unpasteurized yogurt. He’s enrolled his nephew in his new business venture. As it turns out, the latter invested in yogurt-making equipment several years ago, which he has been utilizing below capacity. “After deducting all the production costs, making yogurt enables me to sell my milk the equivalent of 1.30 euros/liter,” Michel Cantaloube says. Yogurt is also much easier to ship than raw milk, and has a longer shelf life.
So far, the product has been successfully tested in four local small shops, including one food coop. Michel Cantaloube expects his big breakthrough next month when his yogurt is distributed through… local Leclerc supermarkets.
“We’ve been selected as one of the local producers that Leclerc intends to push starting in November, as it launches its national strategy designed to improve its offering and distinguish itself from the competition, supermarket by supermarket,” Michel Cantaloube explains. “If the full 80 percent of my 400.000-liter annual production could be turned into yogurt, I would be in Heaven!”
Image: Raw-milk vending machine set up by Michel Cantaloube outside a Leclerc supermarket in Montauban, France. On the left, a glass-bottle dispenser. On the right, customers access the "raw milk fountain" behind the small shiny door. The machine sells 200 liters per day. It is restocked every morning. Sensor chips keep its owner informed in real time, via his cell phone, of the milk temperature and volume.