Yeo Valley co-founder and farmer Mary Mead

Co-founder of Yeo Valley Mary Mead built a multi-million pound family business and won the title of Farmer of the Year at the Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards. Henrietta Green meets the multi-talented farmer

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Mary Mead is an extraordinary woman; a rare mixture of steely determination, clarity of vision and precision, tempered with a sense of fairness and justice. On first meeting she strikes you as impressive, if modest, as there is little about her manner that hints of her contribution to the success of Yeo Valley, the family business.  

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Recently named Farmer of the Year at the Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards when I went to see her one dull, drizzly day. “Secretly, winning the award means a lot,” she told me. “I felt it was a tribute to my late husband for setting me on the path.” When pressed, she admitted an inherent disapproval of self-promotion and a possible embarrassment, but that “I’m fairly chuffed.”

And chuffed she should be. Here is a woman with 1,200 acres, a 500-strong pedigree British Friesian herd and a family-owned company turning over in excess of £180m. But it wasn’t always like that.

Poll Dorset sheep, Wensleydale, North Yorkshire

Let’s go back to the beginning – 1961, to be precise, when Mary first started working on a farm with her husband Roger. Recently married, with financial help from the bank and their family they bought the 150-acre Holt Farm, a dairy farm southwest of Bristol, and it was a very different world then. No computers, no automatic milking machines and no equal opportunities for women, particularly farmers wives, who were consigned to the backroom role. Mary, the daughter of an auditor, had gone on a farm secretarial course and Roger supplied a typewriter. “But that was what was expected. If you married a farmer, you knew what you were in for. And you had to work hard,” she says.

Winning team

For the next 10-odd years they worked as a team – Roger on the farm and Mary raising the family and keeping the books. Mary remembers: “We felt that we were pulling together – working for our country as well as for ourselves. If you worked hard, you felt the nation would prosper, as would you. We didn’t have expensive hobbies or needs.” Life was simpler then, less about consuming and more about community. Who knows, the current recession may bring about a change back to these more considered ways.

There is no denying that the work ethic, coupled with a sense of responsibility, runs very deep in Mary. “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow, farm as if you’ll live forever,” Mary quotes. And as we chat on, sitting in an eco-friendly stone barn that doubles as an educational centre, she makes it clear that her philosophy also encompasses concern for and custodianship of the land with a desire to do the right thing – a theme she returns to frequently.

In 1970, Roger and Mary were in a position to buy the neighbouring 60-acre farm. The extra acres were relatively modest but it was the farm buildings that really made the difference. Sited by a busy road, the Meads launched into pick your own and a tea shop with home-baked scones, homemade jam and cream from the dairy herd – and it was at that point that Roger had his brainwave.
Something had to be done with all that skimmed milk left over from making cream, and Roger decided that yoghurt was the up-and-coming thing – remember we are talking early 70s, when it was virtually unknown in Britain. He certainly backed a winning horse – their first yoghurt was made in 1972, and it soon began to grow into the company we know as Yeo Valley today.

Family tragedy

However, in 1990 tragedy stuck. By this time the Meads owned 350 acres and employed 135 people in the yoghurt business, which was turning over £15m. But the family was rocked when Roger died in a farming accident. Roger’s death might have caused lesser women to withdraw, opting for a quiet life, but not our Mary. “Of course it was hard, very hard, but the programme was set by Roger and I felt I’d be letting him down if I stopped. My son Tim was already working at Yeo Valley so I told him: ‘Don’t take your eye off the yoghurt, I’ll do the farm’.”

Thus the business was divided up – land and livestock and yoghurt and plant, each to be run as an independent cost centre while the family retained ownership of the whole. Mary kept her word, leaving Tim to grow the factory while she developed just about everything else. But how does someone who has worked – both literally and metaphorically – in the back office step up to such a task? “Well, I knew Roger’s plans and I got help, lots of help and advice. People were so kind.” That is all very well, but Mary has achieved much in her own right since then – from honorary degrees to expanding the farm – so surely she has not been following a blueprint all these years? Did she ever, I wanted to know, disagree with Roger? “Rarely,” she says, before talking of a battle over their dairy herd. The Meads had been building up a pedigree Friesian herd, but Roger wanted to introduce Holsteins. “We kept arguing about it, but in the end I put my foot down. It was his call but he listened to me,” she says.

With a closed herd for the past 20 years, it is currently in conversion to organic standards, and as I watch contented cows munching away, I realise that it represents good husbandry, common sense and modern technology – Mary’s values brought to life. Incidentally the herd also has a reputation as one of the finest in the country, but Mary insists that the bottom line – the profit – is, and always has been, equally important.
Courageous enough to admit to a few regrets and mistakes, Mary remembers wishing she’d had “enough confidence in my own knowledge to convert to organic farming earlier. And I neglected my children and now don’t spend enough time with my grandchildren.”

Community contribution

Throughout the visit, I sense how seriously Mary feels about doing the right thing. This does not stop at her dairy herd, but includes the land and the employees. From one organic farm she produces vegetables in open fields and two bio-domes, keeps chickens, a suckler beef herd and sheep. The produce is either sold to Holt Farms’ Lakewood conference centre, served in the staff canteen or sold on at a fair price. In other words the employees can buy quality organic produce at non-organic supermarket prices. From another farm, on land that was unsuitable for arable farming, she grows the biofuel Miscanthus, or elephant grass, that is grown, cut, stored and burned all within 2 miles. With one stroke Mary has cut the company’s fuel costs, greened its fuel consumption and provided cover for birds and other wildlife. The company also employs a full-time conservation team for hedgelaying and growing the vegetables that, in its spare time, quotes in the village for jobs. A cost centre in its own right, the team contributes to the local community and the environment.

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Mary’s unique vision makes her a worthy winner of this year’s Farmer of the Year and her sense of purpose also makes her a worthy role model. With her energy and drive, I suspect it will still be sometime before she gets to spend that time with her grandchildren.