CHILLIWACK – A vending machine from the Netherlands has improved winter sales on a Chilliwack farm.
Berry Bounty Farms installed the Innovend machine last July, allowing it to display more than a dozen products from berries to eggs and honey in individual climate-controlled compartments with see-through doors.
An increasingly common sight in Europe, the installation in Chilliwack is the first in North America and represents a major development for Berry Bounty, a 37-acre mixed farm producing blueberries, raspberries, eggs and honey as well as jams and juices.
Dave and Janna Maljaars purchased the former dairy farm in the 1990s and leased it to others for forage crops. About 12 years ago, the Maljaars with their son Brian and his brothers-in-law Les and Steve decided the land should be more productive and planted berries.
Large fluctuations in the prices received from local packers prompted them to pursue direct farmgate sales to obtain more stable returns. They started with a fridge full of products and a cash box outside their garage door. With everyone working full-time off-farm, they found farmers markets took more effort than the revenue they generated.
“I’m a builder by trade and still work but I want the farm to be more than a hobby as I take it over, hopefully, to be a primary source of income,” says Brian Maljaars. “That means we need to do things differently to become the most efficient.”
This is where the Innovend began to make sense.
Originally, Maljaars’ wife Leanne (a teacher and also the farm’s social media marketer), noticed another local farm using a different vending system. They researched a few options and realized that climate-controlled vending compartments could boost berry sales in the winter and increase revenues.
It would also expand shopping hours, increase customer convenience and save time. There would be no more need to set appointments for customers to pick up products, especially frozen berries.
The machine arrived just as berry season was starting last summer. Hoping for strong demand for frozen berries throughout the winter, in addition to fresh market sales during the summer, the farm doubled its frozen berry inventory. Blueberries are packaged in four-pound bags and raspberries in three-pound packages.
“Sales in general have been absolutely phenomenal on the machine through December, January and now March and April,” says Maljaars. “We estimated about $7,000 a month and are now exceeding $10,000. We are going to run out of inventory so it might see a drop now but it’s given us marketing direction for 2022.”
The version of the Innovend machine installed in Chilliwack cost $60,000. The Maljaars liked that it had been in development for 15 years and could be operated by phone from their day jobs. Customers can pay by credit card, enabling self-serve shopping at their farm 13 hours a day, six days a week.
Typically, they’ve had 20 to 30 customers of all ages visit the farm daily, and not just from Chilliwack. Many are curious, though vending machines are being adopted by a growing number of farms for a range of perishable products including milk and eggs.
Maljaars credits a Dale Carnegie training course he attended a couple years ago with encouraging him to find new and better ways of doing things, from new technologies to building a better berry packing line.
One plus of the Innovend is that the machine is connected to the manufacturer via the Internet, allowing software updates to occur with ease.
“We have sold two other machines in BC in addition to the one at Berry Bounty within the last 16 months,” says Gene Keenan of AgPro West Supply Ltd., the Abbotsford dealer. “We have had farmers interested from Victoria, Terrace and the Fraser Valley. We’ve also been in contact with farmers from Alberta and Nova Scotia.”
Maljaars says vending machines could be a viable marketing tool for BC producers, particularly niche growers of meat, flowers and vegetables – all products that can be accommodated in a climate-controlled machine.