Exmoor House, Lime Way
Pathfields Business Park
South Molton, Devon EX36 3LH
Telephone: (+44 1769) 573-431
Fax: (+44 1769) 573-821
Web site: http://www.molevalleyfarmers.com
Sales: £464 million ($742.4 million) (2017)
NAICS: 453998 All Other Miscellaneous Store Retailers (except Tobacco Stores); 423820 Farm and Garden Machinery and Equipment Merchant Wholesalers; 424510 Grain and Field Bean Merchant Wholesalers; 424590 Other Farm Product Raw Material Merchant Wholesalers; 311211 Flour Milling
Mole Valley Farmers Ltd. (MVF) is a leading cooperative of farmers in the United Kingdom. The company operates across a range of businesses, providing both support services and supplies to its farmer members and others, as well as wholesale and retail outlets for their production. Mole Valley operates through two primary units: agriculture and retail and other services. The agriculture unit provides a full range of agricultural services, ranging from barn construction services to feed, supplements, and fertilizer supply, to veterinary services. This unit includes businesses such as Mole Valley Forage Services; Mole Valley Feed Solutions, which operates feed mills and feed supplement production facilities in nine locations; Witheridge, a provider of engineering services; Three Counties Feeds; Bridgmans; and A. Nichols (Cow Mills) Ltd. The retail unit includes more than 50 Mole Country Stores and other retail businesses, including Cox & Robinson Farm Direct, with three locations in southern England, and TCS Country Supplies in Berkeley, as well as the cooperative's 10 Mole Valley Farmers bulk agricultural supply depots. Andrew Jackson is CEO of Mole Valley Farmers.
MVF owes its success to Devon-region farmer and longtime chairman John James, who founded the cooperative in 1960. Born in Golders Green, in north London, in 1925, James spent most of his youth in the London area. Nonetheless, he developed a fascination with farming from his family's tradition of spending their holidays at a farm in Stibb, in north Cornwall. James began working on the farm during school holidays as well, and soon decided to become a farmer himself, enrolling in Reading University for an agricultural degree. After interrupting his studies to enlist in the Royal Air Force in 1943, James completed his degree, then took out a loan to purchase his own farm, in Romansleigh, Devon, in 1947.
At the time, British farmers were subjected to the stipulations of the 1947 Agriculture Act, which established government-imposed prices for farmers' crops. Although the price scheme was initially meant to ensure farmers reasonable prices for their labor, the system soon began to break down. This was in large part due to another scheme, the recommended retail price system, established during World War II as a means to protect consumers. In the 1950s, however, as newly implemented intensive agricultural methods brought about dramatic increases in crop yields, crop prices began to drop. Recommended retail prices, however, remained high, ensuring that profit margins for manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers remained high, reaching as much as 30 percent for the goods sold to farmers. Small-scale farms, such as those run by James and others in Devon and elsewhere in Great Britain's West Country, suffered the most under the system, as they struggled to remain profitable.
Inspired by Thomas's efforts, James invited him to come visit the Devon region and give a speech to local farmers. Facing resistance from the local branch of the National Farmers' Union, which refused the use of their hall, James instead organized the first of several private meetings in 1960. Persuading the notoriously independent Devon area farmers to join together was no easy task. Nonetheless, after James succeeded in organizing a bulk purchase of Wellington boots, reselling them at a lower price than available to farmers elsewhere, James persuaded a small group of farmers to join him in founding the area's first cooperative, in South Molton. The name Mole Valley Farmers was derived from the River Molton, which had given South Molton its name as well.
Starting with just seven members, whose £10 membership fee represented the entirety of MVF's initial capital, the cooperative launched a fight to lower farmers' costs for essential items such as livestock feed, tools, and farm equipment. In order to persuade manufacturers and distributors to accept smaller margins, MVF reduced its own margins to as low as 2.5 percent, and even sold some goods at a loss. Much of the cooperative's success was due to James's tenacious and occasionally pugnacious nature.
The cooperative's success soon attracted new members, giving it additional clout when negotiating its purchases. As a result, the cooperative also faced growing resistance from U.K. suppliers, with a growing number refusing to sell to the cooperative at all. In one instance, when farm machinery manufacturers refused to supply water-filled rollers to the cooperative, James established a new company, which claimed its business to be that of exporting farm machinery to Portugal. Through this company, James succeeded in securing a large order of the rollers, which were then rerouted to Devon, where they were repainted and resold to the cooperative's members at a significant discount. In other cases, manufacturers raised their prices specifically for MVF, rather than meet the cooperative's terms.
In the meantime, MVF began developing its farm services infrastructure to accommodate its expanding membership. The company opened its first collection depot in Winkleigh in 1964, followed by a second in Witheridge in 1965. These were joined by collection points in Loxbeare in 1967, Brushford in 1969, Petton in 1971, and Burlescombe in 1972.
MVF also expanded its own farmers supply depot, moving its offices to several locations before opening the Mole Valley Farmers Centre on South Molton's Station Road. The company had also begun developing a mobile supply service, called Flossie, which supplied farmers from a van at markets in Bideford, Exeter, Holsworthy, and Taunton. The success of the Flossie shops led the company to add the first in a series of new permanent locations, starting in Willand in 1972. The following year, after opening a third depot in Holsworthy, the company discontinued use of the Flossie van.
MVF also found other ways around the ongoing blockade from manufacturers and distributors, notably by expanding its own operations into various agricultural supply business. The cooperative took a stealth approach to this effort, acquiring preexisting companies and providing financial backing to others. An early example of the latter was Stoneman Bros. Ltd., established by a group of MVF members in 1967. That business was later absorbed into MVF's Mole Valley Machinery Services business in 1977.
In the meantime, the company developed its own feed supply business, Mole Valley Feeds. This business became an important spearhead for MVF's expansion, particularly after its acquisition of Devon Group Feedingstuffs, based in Risdon Mill, in 1982. Later that same year, the company acquired a feed mill in Croucheston as well.
MVF was among the most militant of the various groups supporting farmers in the United Kingdom. James personally led many of the cooperative's actions. In 1969, for example, he led a protest by 500 dairy farmers (and one cow) to Westminster to protest low milk prices. James also stood up to Imperial Chemical Industries PLC, the chemical giant that dominated British fertilizer sales at the time, persuading it to lower its margins on sales to MVF members. In 1974 in front of the Ministry of Agriculture, James led a group of farmers (and three calves, each weighing 500 pounds) to protest the collapse of beef prices. In another escapade, James teamed up with two other farmer activists, Ian Pettyfer and Geoffrey Cox, renting a plane in order to “kidnap” British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The plan, however, which involved taking Wilson to a pub in order to discuss farmer issues, fell through because of poor weather.
James's militancy extended beyond the United Kingdom. In 1984, amid the Band Aid efforts led by Boomtown Rats' singer Bob Geldof to come to the aid of famine-stricken Ethiopia, James flew to Africa. There he helped advise farmers on how to grow crops more suited to the region's conditions. Geldof later credited James with saving the lives of thousands, and possibly millions, of people through his efforts. In 1987 James was awarded Britain's Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his work in Africa.
Back in England, meanwhile, James's efforts had enabled MVF to grow into a major force in the British agricultural industry. By 1985 the cooperative counted more than 500 members and had annual sales of more than £50 million. The company had also added several new branches, including in Yeovil in 1977, Bridgwater in 1980, and Frome in 1982. Other branches opened later in the decade, including in St. Columb in 1986 and Newton Abbot in 1987. MVF also continued to add to its range of businesses, opening a fertilizer blending and bagging plant in Woodsford, near Dorchester, in 1989.
MVF restructured in 1993, absorbing all of its various operations, which had previously operated as independent subsidiaries. The restructuring became the prelude to a new era of expansion, as the company began a series of acquisitions, starting with the purchase of the Huntworth branch of rival West Midland Farmers in 1993. The company then acquired Moorswater Industrial Estate in Liskeard, in 1994 (opened in 1995), and a site in Heathfield in 1997. Along with opening new branches, MVF carried out a refurbishment of its existing locations, including in Yeovil and Bridgwater. Toward the end of the decade, MVF also took its first step into the retail sector and had opened 10 locations by 2002.
The decision to move into retail led to increasing conflict between James and the cooperative's other leadership. These conflicts came to a head in 2002, as MVF completed the acquisition of the 19-store chain of Scats Countrystores operated by Southern Counties Agricultural Trading Society (SCATS). The acquisition not only extended MVF into southern England, it also added another £20 million to the cooperative annual revenues, which had already reached £115 million before the acquisition. Amid the rising disagreements, James was removed as the cooperative's chairman that same year. James was rebuffed in his attempt to win back the chairmanship the following year. The Scats stores continued to operate under this name, while SCATS itself retained ownership of the estates on the properties.
In 2007 the company also acquired D&I Bridgman, a leading wholesaler of agricultural supplies and equipment in the Devon and Cornwall regions. This was followed by the purchase of Three Counties Feeds in 2009. MVF also expanded its services offering through the creation of Mole Valley Forage Services, which provided consulting and other services to help improve farmers' grass production, and a fuel distribution business, Mole Valley Plus. Both new businesses were started in 2006.
In 2010 MVF marked its 50th anniversary with a new sales record, £281 million. The company had also succeeded in raising its operating profit to £4.3 million. This directly benefited the cooperative's membership, which by then included nearly 7,000 farmer shareholders, who received a distribution of £450,000 that year.
As its revenues continued to rise, topping £350 million in 2012, MVF continued to look for new acquisitions. In 2013 the company acquired Farmway, which operated as an agricultural supply business with its own retail operations, including eight locations in northeast England. The deal came as MVF mourned the passing of founder James, who died at the age of 87 in December 2012.
MVF celebrated a new sales record of just over £400 million in 2013 with the purchase of Leven Valley Agriculture, located in Cumbria, in March 2014. Later that year, MVF entered Scotland through a partnership with John C. Fergusson to build a state-of-the-art feed mill. In another partnership in 2014, MVF teamed up with St. Davids Farm Practice, based in Exeter, to launch the veterinary care joint venture Molecare Veterinary Services Ltd. On the retail front, MVF began bringing all of its retail businesses, including the Scats chain, under the single Mole Country Stores banner. The store conversion process continued through 2016.
MVF's sales growth reached £464 million in 2017. The company's expansion plans, however, hit a setback. In early 2018 the cooperative had reached an agreement to acquire 48 retail outlets from major rival Countrywide Farmers, after that company slipped into losses in 2016. In March 2018, however, the United Kingdom's Competition and Markets Authority rejected the deal, arguing that it would result in a lack of a competitive market, notably in the south and southwest regions of England. The ruling, however, prompted Countrywide Farmers to declare bankruptcy, resulting in the shuttering of many of Countrywide's stores. Although thwarted in the acquisition, Countrywide's bankruptcy had the effect of clearing the field for MVF to boost its own position as a leading agricultural products and services cooperative into 2020 and beyond.
M. L. Cohen
Mole Valley Feed Solutions Ltd.; D&I Bridgman and Son Ltd.; Three Counties Feeds Ltd.; Cox & Robinson (Agricultural) Ltd.; Mole Valley Wholesale Ltd.; Mole Trading Ltd.; Blackness Lane (51%); W B Publishing Ltd.; TCS Country Supplies Ltd.
Agriculture; Farm Buildings; Mole Valley Plus; Online; Renewables; Rural Stores; Veterinary Services.
Alexander Inglis and Son Ltd.; Balli Group P.L.C.; For-Farmers Ltd.; Fuerst Day Lawson Holdings Ltd.; NWF Group P.L.C.; Ronly Holdings Ltd.; Wynnstay Group Ltd.
Cunningham, Charlotte. “Mole Valley's Proposed Countrywide Takeover under Scrutiny.” Farmers Weekly, February 28, 2018.
Home, Suzie, and Andrew Meredith. “Countrywide Farmers Calls in Administrators.” Farmers Weekly, March 7, 2018.
“John James.” Telegraph (London), January 28, 2013.
“Mole Valley Farmers Move to Acquire CWG Retail.” Farmers Guardian, June 25, 2010.
Spackman, Paul. “Mole Valley Farmers Continues to Grow.” Farmers Weekly, November 15, 2011.
Taverner, Charlie. “Mole Valley Farmers Launches Joint Businesses.” Farmers Weekly, June 11, 2014.
Triggs, Malcolm. “Store Is Just the Start.” South East Farmer, March 31, 2016.