Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How We Made It: Michael and Clare Marriage of Doves Farm Foods

THE Marriage family have been millers for more than 400 years. Michael and Clare Marriage have been selling wheat for almost 40 years. “My father was a grain trader specialising in malt barley, so it’s in the blood,” said Michael.

He and Clare met in 1976. Two years later they asked Michael’s father if they could begin growing organic crops on the family farm, Doves, at Hungerford in Berkshire.

“At the time there weren’t many organic farms in the country so it was an unusual choice,” said Michael. “My father was very supportive — he lent us £1,000.”

The cash paid for a stone mill in the barn and the pair were soon weighing out their first batch of flour into packets. “Our earliest thoughts were to process and sell the crops ourselves,” said Clare. “We realised people would want to buy organic flour.”

In 1978, Doves farm became Doves Farm Foods, a specialist organic flour miller and baker. Its organic and gluten-free flours, cereals, biscuits and pastas are now sold by Waitrose, Tesco and Amazon. The business reported a turnover of £14.4m in the year to June 2013 and a profit in excess of £1m.

Michael and Clare, who married in 1979, have rejected several offers for Doves Farm Foods. “The modern pattern has been to build a business, sell it and retire,” said Michael. “But we feel it’s better to pass it on to the next generation.”

Their sons Jethro, 31, and Rupert, 32, joined the business in 2010 and 2013 respectively. “They’ve grown up with it so they are keen to be involved,” said Clare. “Jethro is the bakery production manager and Rupert is our mill production manager.” They have a daughter, Madeleine, 29, who is not involved in the business.

“It’s certainly exciting having the next generation join us,” said Michael. “They have a lot of energy and ideas.”

Michael, 62, was born in Newbury, Berkshire, and attended Leighton Park, a Quaker school in Reading. His father began farming at Doves in 1958. His mother was
a housewife.

Michael enrolled at Berkshire College of Agriculture, then went to Sierra Leone with Oxfam in 1972. In 1975 he spent a year delivering heavy machinery in Iran before he returned to work with his father.

“Organic farming was an appealing idea so I started going to meetings and festivals,” he said. “In those days even wholemeal flour was rare and certainly the brown rice and pastas we now take for granted were very unusual.”

Clare, 60, was born and raised in Hammersmith, west London, where she attended Sacred Heart High School. Her father worked in the timber industry and her mother was a cook. “My mother inspired me hugely,” she said. “She would talk to me about Elizabeth David and [the environmentalist] Rachel Carson, which gave me an early interest in food.”

Clare started a catering company, Clare Cooking, in 1974, specialising in whole-grain catering. While running it she studied for a fine arts degree at Central Saint Martins and went on to complete her associate teaching course at Goldsmiths, University of London.

She gave up Clare Cooking in 1976, after meeting Michael. As the couple were starting Doves Farm Foods, she discovered her mother was gluten intolerant. “We started to mill maize for her,” she said. “Speciality grain processing and products are now central to the business.

“The face of retailing has changed so we’ve had to adapt our products and equipment.” In 2001, allergen-free areas with separate staff and gluten-free processors were set up.

Growth has been slow but steady. Doves farm opened a bakery in 1986 to make wholewheat digestive biscuits and has since expanded to breakfast cereals (1990) and fair trade organic baking ingredients (2003). In 2009 they opened Doves Farm online shop. They employ 70 staff, operating 24 hours a day, five days a week.

“We now have a packing plant and four flour milling systems,” said Michael. “We have great capabilities now and we’re investing all the time to improve.”

The Marriages live on Doves Farm, which now covers 350 acres. The rural location brings its difficulties. “To find good people who live within commuting distance of our facilities has always been a challenge,” said Clare.

Michael and Clare, who own the entire business between them, enlist contract farmers to grow their crops, helping to experiment with ancient grains such as spelt. “We now produce more than 50 types of flour from 10 different grain species, which separates us from the competition,” said Michael. “We supply most of the big outfits with products they don’t want to make themselves.”

His advice to budding entrepreneurs is to have a passion for the product. “We are both very interested in food and farming, which makes it easier and a pleasure to do. You want to be passionate, but not obsessive, about your subject.”

Clare suggests an open mind. “Whatever the subject, read up on it and find out about the people involved and the products out there,” she said.

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Michael and Clare Marriage of Doves Farm Foods

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