The Land Girls: Essex women leading the future of food and drink
PUBLISHED: 14:21 24 July 2017 | UPDATED: 14:22 24 July 2017
To mark the tenth anniversary of its award-winning Sourced Locally initiative which brings local produce to shoppers, the East of England Co-op is celebrating some of the inspiring women who are helping to lead the future of food and drink production here in Essex. Essex Life introduces you to four of them
Name: Hannah Marriage
Business: Marriage’s Flour
Hannah Marriage is part of the sixth generation to help run W & H Marriage & Sons, a family-run miller in Essex now in its 193rd year, and the first woman in the family to join the business. It therefore comes as no surprise that she has a passion for farming and for food production.
‘People increasingly care about where their food comes from,’ says Hannah. ‘There is much more awareness and people are more informed than ever. However, food provenance continues to be something which requires further awareness, be it educating children on the farm to fork process or through schemes such as Sourced Locally which highlight to consumers the local origins of their food.’
Marriage’s mills a wide range of bread-making and culinary flours, organic varieties and speciality flours, producing approximately 650 tonnes of flour every week. The company sources much of the wheat it uses from local farmers based near its historic site at Chelmer Mills, many of whom have worked with Marriage’s for generations.
Working for the family business was not inevitable for Hannah, who studied History at Edinburgh University before joining a PR agency in London, which she describes as ‘amazing grounding’. She had been there for two years when an opportunity at Marriage’s for a marketeer caught her eye.
It was by no means a shoo-in and Hannah went through three interviews before she was formally invited to join the business. That was seven years ago and since then Hannah has become a family director, overseeing many elements of the company. ‘Being a family business, I turn my hand to all sorts of things, such as HR and product development, but primarily I still lead on our marketing.
‘From the beginning, I’ve been given the autonomy to get on, which has been so useful. I love getting under the skin of the business and growing our brand, and I find working in the food manufacturing sector and the tie we have to agriculture particularly rewarding. To see the flour leave us in tankers, bags and sacks, and then see it turn into something incredible on our bakery customers’ shelves or in a home baker’s Instagram photos, is a satisfaction that is hard to beat.
‘As the first woman in the family to join the company, my grandfather was so chuffed. Like many other sectors, the food industry can feel male dominated at times, but it’s a great employer and there are so many roles. I have thankfully never felt that my gender has been a barrier. There are so many great businesses in our region and opportunities, and lots of supportive people who are happy to help anyone looking to develop their career.’
Hannah has helped the business evolve its marketing, launch new speciality products (such as Golden Wholegrain, spelt, rye and seeded flour) and led on a pivotal re-brand of Marriage’s flours.
Marriage’s also produces animal feed using wheat feed, a by-product when making white flour, at its animal feed mill next to the flour mill.
Marriage’s Flour started supplying the East of England Co-op in 2007 as part of the Co-op’s Sourced Locally initiative. ‘While our business is diverse and our export growing, it is so important for us to be working with a local retailer, which has good opening hours and that people trust. The Co-op isn’t just paying lip service with Sourced Locally. They genuinely champion local food and we have a great relationship.’
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For more information on Marriage’s flour, visit www.flour.co.uk
Name: Laura Strathern
Business: Fairfields Farm Crisps
Laura Strathern and her husband Robert founded Fairfields Farm Crisps, near Colchester, in 2007, producing hand-cooked potato crisps and Fairfields Farm potatoes. Since then the family business has grown into an award-winning enterprise, producing 10,000 tons of potatoes every year across 550 acres, and exporting to 20 countries.
Both from farming backgrounds, the couple grow all their produce using natural and local ingredients powered with renewable energy from their own anaerobic digestion plant and solar panels on the farm.
Laura says: ‘Coming from a farming background, I have always had an interest in agriculture and food from an early age, so this felt like the natural choice. My role now is overseeing payments and wages within accounts, planning our trade and consumer shows as well as making daily decisions about the business with Robert.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the ten-year-old business. ‘Starting out you have to have a firm plan, stick to your core values and work hard,’ says Laura. ‘However, growing a brand and running your own business you are always going to make mistakes. The important thing is learning from the mistakes and addressing problems straight away. As a small family business, we can tackle any problems head on.’
Fairfields has been widely praised for its flavours and in 2016 scooped more Great Taste Awards than any other crisp maker in Great Britain. Laura adds: ‘I think another memorable highlight was winning the East of England Co-op Producer of the Year for 2016, it was a great honour and we are both very proud of the award.’
For Laura, her two children – eight-year-old Angus and six-year-old Imogen – are her main motivation. With much of her free time outside of work spent attending football matches, children’s parties and play dates, both Laura and Robert are busy juggling work with family life.
‘We rarely get a lie-in! With the office across the garden we have no excuse, but we are very lucky we can walk to work. Work life balance can be tricky sometimes. It is hard for any parent to juggle work and children, especially when you are running your own business, as you can never just step away from it.’
Producing locally-grown and sourced food is something that both Laura and Robert are very passionate about, and Laura strongly believes in the importance of buying local. ‘It is vital to shop local to balance the rural economy. Our customers want high quality, traceability and something unique to the local area; they want to buy products from local producers who they can identify with.’
Laura’s sister is also involved in agriculture and has been running the family farm since 2003, when their father sadly passed away. Laura explains: ‘On the farm, my sister drove the combine harvester and I had to drive the corn cart, as we had to get the harvest in – there are plenty of women out there driving tractors!’
For Laura, it goes without saying that women are as involved as men in agriculture. ‘I would encourage anyone, especially women, to go into agriculture and the food industry. They are both fantastic industries with so much to offer. I am proud to set an example for my children and show them there is so much opportunity.’
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For further information about Fairfields Farm Crisps, visit www.fairfieldsfarmcrisps.co.uk.
Name: Louise Jones
Business: Dan Hull Prepared Foods
Role: Chief Executive Officer
Dan Hull Prepared Foods near Chelmsford sells premium fresh and frozen handmade food using quality ingredients from local suppliers. Established in 2013 by Louise Jones and business partner Dan Hull, the company provides retailers with a range of quality, local, handmade products, from deli and cold meats to pâtés and luxury pies.
Louise and Dan began the business after being introduced by a mutual friend following Louise’s return to work after having her family. Using her previous experience in the food industry, working as a senior buyer for a major UK food retailer, Louise saw a business opportunity to help artisan food producers secure important relationships with retailers.
She explains: ‘Dan happened to be the first artisan I worked with. We just matched and shared the same core values of what we wanted to buy and make. We were, and still are, both really passionate about getting high quality food onto the shelves. There was a gap on supermarket shelves for locally-produced food that tastes as it should. I believed if this was important to us, then it would be important to others as well.’
Louise’s passion for handmade quality food stems from her childhood when she would watch her grandmother’s enjoyment as she cooked homemade food for their family to enjoy. It is these memories, combined with the satisfaction in receiving great customer feedback, that Louise believes are her main inspirations to do the job she loves.
She says: ‘Turning my computer on each day and seeing that our customers have taken the time out of their busy lives to contact us to say how they much they enjoyed our food, or tell us that our products tasted like the food they used to enjoy when they were younger, is just fantastic.
‘Our customers constantly tell us they want to be informed about where their food comes from and it is this that gets me out of bed in the morning, as these consumers genuinely appreciate the efforts we go to. Sharing my passion for the best quality food is my absolute reason for going to work.’
As well as being the catalyst for her lifelong interest in quality food, Louise’s close family has also provided a strong foundation for the success and development of Dan Hull Prepared Foods, with her parents helping with childcare for Louise’s children, Fin, aged 10, and Mac, aged 12.
Over just four years the business has grown and evolved, and recently relocated to a new 5,000sq ft, purpose-built premises in March 2017, to accommodate its young team of 11.
Louise says: ‘We started in a small kitchen at the back of Dan’s family farm shop in Burnham on Crouch. Year on year we have experienced a substantial growth in production and currently produce between 5,000 and 6,000 products a week.’
To other women who are thinking of embarking on a career in the food and agricultural industry, Louise strongly encourages them to do so. ‘My job is very flexible and still allows me to attend my boys’ sports matches and parents’ evenings. I would definitely recommend it to anyone as there are massive opportunities in this industry.’
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For more information about Dan Hull Prepared Foods, visit www.danhullpreparedfoods.co.uk.
Name: Jane Hadley
Business: Handmade by Hadley’s Ice Cream
Jane Hadley will be on the road this summer. She has recently been to Glastonbury with her hip, airstream trailer. Last year was her first experience of the world famous music event and they also supply ice cream for events at Chelmsford City Racecourse, with UB40 and Boyzone concerts coming up.
‘We don’t get to see much of the performers,’ says Jane, ‘but we can hear them.’
Jane has also recently opened the Ice Cream Parlour in the Suffolk tourist trap of Lavenham. ‘It means that we can experiment even further with flavours and those we decide not to use on a larger scale, we can still have available at the shop. For example we made a coconut which tasted really lovely, but we realised we couldn’t scoop it! Recently we made Broadside ice cream for Father’s Day and also a raspberry sorbet with Copperhouse gin, which both went down a storm.’
Jane makes her bespoke flavour ice cream, along with milkshakes and sorbets. ‘We are hoping to add smoothies and sundaes to the menu soon too,’ she adds. ‘We’d love to have another Ice Cream Parlour here in Essex. I rather fancy the idea of an ice cream shack by the sea – that would be our ideal, but we’ll just have to wait and see if something comes up. I don’t want to fall in to the trap of having too many balls up in the air at one time.’
Hadley’s Ice Cream also offers bespoke ice cream for weddings. ‘We’ve found that since the parlour opened and we’ve been supplying even more of the farm shops and the festivals and events, we’ve had to restrict the number of weddings we can accommodate.’
You can also catch Jane and her Handmade by Hadley’s award-winning ice cream and sorbets this year at the Tendring Show, the Essex Food & Drink Festival, Jimmy’s Festival in Suffolk and finally the Game Fair at Hatfield House.
Since increasing the amount of small pots she supplies, she’s found demand has grown further as she now supplies the Tiptree Tearooms across Essex, plus other cafes, bars, theatres and cinemas too. This autumn the Ice Cream Parlour turns into a cosy café offering Chocococo, an award-winning hot chocolate served in differing strengths - satisfying as either a shot or a warming drink topped with handmade marshmallows.
‘You can choose from a single origin Ecuador with a lovely every day chocolatey taste or our Crayfish Bay Grenada, which is rich and deep with the wonderful taste of Grenada chocolate. It gives an intense hit. Or maybe try our Madagascan, the fruity notes linger and it’s just a delicious chocolate shot.’
Nevertheless, ice cream is still Jane’s number one passion and she has recently launched a popular Passionfruit Curd ice cream. ”It is one of our newest flavours and we are also working on some new sorbet flavours. I like to keep our plans firmly under wraps however, to keep the competition guessing!’
And who can blame Jane for that with the Hadley’s name synonymous with quality and exceptional taste, winning several Gold awards for handmade ice creams in the National Great Taste awards.
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For more details, visit www.handmadebyhadleys.co.uk