Instone Court in Hereford is one of only three farms in the UK to host a refrigerated on-farm vending machine selling a wide range of fresh produce year-round from the farm drive. We catch up with owners Simon and Lenny Parker on their motive behind the farm vending machine and their journey so far.
Instone Court Farm history
Simon and Lenny farm 250 acres in the picturesque Herefordshire countryside, with their core farming enterprises revolving around, cider fruit, laying hens and hops.
Introduced in the early 2000’s the laying hens provide a year-round income, and supply of eggs, with batches of 24,000 birds on-farm at any one time.
The cider fruit and hops dominate the autumn months with the glut of the harvest taking place between September and October.
With the diverse range of produce the farm has always produced, the family have always sold excess from the farm gate. “I remember even as a child mum and dad selling produce from our front door,” says Simon.
“People would come down the drive and ask for eggs or fruit, and for us it was a way of earning a little extra from what we were already producing.”
Simon explains that this is something he and Lenny have continued, however when bird flu first struck in the UK it forced them to make a change.
“When bird flu was brought into the UK and started to become a cause for concern, we no longer wanted people coming down the drive in an attempt to mitigate any risk of the disease being introduced to the farm.
“This did interrupt the system we had been operating for many years, but it also made us rethink our approach and consider other options for selling our produce.”
They came to the realisation that some people where a little intimidated by coming down the farm drive in the first place which was limiting their market, and in addition Lenny wanted to experiment with different types of soft fruit which had a slightly longer shelf life which would allow them to think of different selling approaches.
“We started doing farmers markets and car boot sales as alternative ways of selling our produce and it was only by coincidence at a farmer meeting that I came across the UK distributor of Roesler farm food vending machines – a German product that is still relatively new in this country.
“Having spoken to Stuart, it gave me food for thought on how we could evolve our offering to farm vending which in essence is what we had been doing all along,” says Simon.
Start of the vending machine revolution
To Lenny and Simon introducing a vending machine where they could sell multiple ranges of fresh produce seemed like a ‘no-brainer’.
“Having deliberated about it and looked into the costs and what we needed to do to get started we bit the bullet and went for it,” says Simon.
“There wasn’t and still isn’t anyone doing a similar thing near to us, and so it wasn’t as if we could replicate a model someone else had developed, we really were starting from scratch.
“We firstly went for planning as it was not a temporary structure and we also needed to put in power lines. We brought the machine from Stuart and did most of the work ourselves before finally opening for business in May 2017.”
From day one the vending machine has been a big hit. Simon and Lenny stock the lockers with a wide range of produce driven by what is available at the time of year.
The majority of the produce comes from the farm, however a local farmer supplies strawberries, garlic and asparagus and the milk and cream come from a local family-owned dairy.
“We currently stock just over 50 lines in the vending machine which has refrigerated and ambient lockers. It’s like any other vending machine in that people select the locker they want, put their money in and retrieve their produce.”
Simon adds, “When we started out, we had all the relevant inspections from trading standards and the food standards agency and as a food-based business we have to comply with all the relevant hygiene regulations.
“This side of the business is not necessarily something you think about at the start but are factors you have to take into account and make sure the set-up allows you to remain compliant.”
Challenges to date
As with any business, there have been teething problems which they have learnt from in their first year of trading.
The family have had to be mindful about security and have put CCTV cameras up in and surrounding the shed where the vending machine is. “We are at the bottom of a long farm drive and the vending machine is just off the road and the cameras mean we can keep an eye on the activity going on up there.
“It’s open all day every day, so the cameras have been an important addition for us,” he adds.
“Another challenge we have had is stock control and managing when to re-load the lockers. To start with this was guesswork and every time we drove past we would have a look if anything needed refilling.
“However, we now have a SIM card which alerts us by text when stocks are getting low. But, as of yet we haven’t seen any major trends or consistency in the usage of the machine. Usually, our busiest times are all day Friday, Saturday mornings and Sunday after 4pm after the shops have shut, but it varies.
“From this perspective, it is quite time consuming as you don’t want new and returning customers to be put off if they are coming to an empty machine, however there is no doubt in our minds that the vending machine is a great way for us to sell our produce at a local level.
“The motive behind introducing the vending machine wasn’t to make lots of money from it, but to be able to supply local people with fresh, quality produce all-year-round.
“We have worked it out that if we were to sell 70% of the produce each day, the investment would be paid back within three years which for a diversification project isn’t bad going.”
However, for the Parker family, the journey doesn’t stop there. “When we first built the structure for the vending machine we didn’t consider future proofing it, and therefore we have no room to expand the business and this is what we want to do.
“Within the next year we want to knock down the existing structure and start again introducing a bigger vending machine that can hold more lines, has lockers that are different sizes and allows card payments as well as cash.
“This was perhaps our biggest mistake, but we didn’t know how the concept of farm vending would go down in the first place.
“We also want to start working with our local butcher and baker to introduce further lines which means we can offer a more encompassing offering to customers, and without the bigger machine we can’t do this.”
Simon explains that there is a growing desire for people to buy British and support farmers where they can. “This type of innovation has allowed us to appeal to this market and respond to what they want.
“We can’t go large scale with this concept, and our marketing reflects this, but what we can do is provide quality produce at competitive prices, at a local level which helps educate consumers on where their food has come from. All while adding an extra income to our farm business,” says Simon.
Instone Court Farm fact file: