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Outstanding Contribution to British Agriculture 2018: Mary Mead, Yeo Valley Dairy

Mary Mead reflects on her journey, which has seen a dairy farming family conquer the organic market to become a well-loved and respected brand across the UK and beyond.

Mary Mead is a force to be reckoned with. Astute and precise, a businesswoman and dairy farmer, her career has spanned more than 60 years.

She might be modest and softly spoken, but the grandmother of nine is armed with a steely determination, which has most definitely spearheaded Yeo Valley as the biggest organic brand in the UK.

The award-winning portfolio now reaches nine million homes across the UK every week, as consumers buy at least one Yeo Valley dairy product for their fridge, including milk, yoghurts, creme fraiche and butter.

It has been a journey punctuated with challenges, but tackling each and every one with integrity, Mary’s resilience and refusal to compromise on livestock and land management have been key to her success.

Despite originally training to be a nurse, a decision to join forces with her husband Roger has seen her carve out six decades in dairying, beginning as a grass roots farmer and latterly taking an active role on committees and as an integral voice in the wider agricultural industry.

She says: “I am very proud to be a British dairy farmer. It has not come easy and it is a hard journey, but we have just kept going and never given up. We have not followed fad and fashion, but stuck to what we know.”


Behind production is a robust 567-hectare (1,400-acre) enterprise, a 450-strong pedigree British Friesian herd and a family-owned company turning over more than £300 million. But as with most dairy farm businesses, success was borne out of somewhat more humble beginnings.

Mary moved to Holt Farm in Blagdon, Somerset, with Roger in 1961, after securing lending from their bank to purchase the site. The 61ha (150-acre) farm, located in the Yeo Valley, had just 35 cows.

Over the next 10 years, Roger managed the farm, while Mary raised their three children, Sarah, Tim and Amanda, and managed the paperwork after completing a secretarial course.

In 1970, the couple accepted the opportunity to purchase the neighbouring 24ha (60-acre) farm, which brought with it an array of farm buildings that eventually provided the catalyst for significant growth.

Located by a busy road, Roger and Mary soon launched a pick-your-own strawberry enterprise and a cafe providing home-made scones with jam and cream from their dairy herd for the local community.

Around the same time, Roger  spotted the potential growth of yoghurt which had begun to hit the market and this, combined with a glut of leftover skimmed milk from making cream for their scones, sparked the idea which transformed the face of the dairy business.

Mary says: “Roger came up with the idea of making yoghurt. We used to experiment a lot, testing it out with friends. He wanted it to be as pure as possible, with nothing artificial, so that is what we did and continue to achieve.”


Their entrepreneurial spirit saw the couple grow the Yeo Valley brand from beyond their farm gate to major retail outlets, farm shops and restaurants across the country.

Sadly, the family was dealt a huge blow when Roger died in a farming accident in 1990. But far from shying away from forthcoming duties, Mary continued to lead the dairy farm business alongside her son Tim, who stepped up to become managing director.

Mary says: “Roger had this clear vision of where we were going with the farm and the dairy. We had just started building a new milking parlour and the dairy was all set for expansion.”

Over the years, the business  model changed and today the business runs 450 pedigree cows across two farms, employing more than 1,700 people and achieving a turnover of about £300m/year.

As Yeo Valley’s popularity has grown, demand outweighed supply and over the years the business formed partnerships and pooled resources with other farmers in co-operatives. Yeo Valley takes milk from 100 farms within the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative.

Recognised for its product quality, innovation and sustainable farming practices, the company has been awarded three Queen’s Awards for Enterprise for the revolutionary way it works with its farming suppliers, encouraging them to turn organic and giving them long-term ‘fair trade’ contracts, and latterly for their sustainable dairying work.


The British Friesian Lakemere herd has become synonymous with Yeo Valley and Mary’s detailed knowledge of her cows is evident and has seen her champion the merits of the breed for many years.

She says: “Since day one, we have  only ever had British Friesians because they are really well-suited to the grazing we have on our farms. We have worked
incredibly hard to build up our pedigree herd in this very productive area in the Yeo Valley and long may it continue.”

As well as the closed herd of dairy cows, the family also rears beef cattle and has a flock of 600 sheep, all of which supply the impressive restaurant located at their Blagdon HQ.

In 2010, the family made a pioneering decision to bring Yeo Valley to a mass audience, as it balanced its traditional farming practises with a contemporary £5m advertising campaign.

What began as the Yeo Valley Rap went on to be used in commercial breaks during the X Factor finals and, after much positive feedback, became available to download digitally via iTunes.

It featured model farmers who were shown rapping inside the barns, out in the grass with cows, in tractors and eating Yeo Valley Organic yoghurt.

The follow-up campaign, which featured a spoof boyband, The Churned, launched during an X Factor live show in October 2011.

Despite enjoying mass media coverage, farming livestock and land remains central to Mary’s ethos, and a passion to protect and nurture the countryside has been pivotal throughout her career.


Thousands of native trees and shrubs have been replanted and dry-stone walls meticulously rebuilt across both farming units. Hedges have been relaid and
woodlands replaced, providing natural habitats, while set-aside land on field margins has seen an increase in wildlife.

Mary says: “Farming in the Yeo Valley has allowed us to develop a sustainable farming system and it is all about building resilience for a better future.

“The future of British dairying should be in a good position because it has the ability to produce more milk from grass.”

When asked what has been her biggest challenge, Mary’s immediate  response, as many other dairy farmers would echo, is TB threats and recruiting
good staff, but then she considers the longevity of her career.

“Over the course of 50 years, I have seen the number of dairy farms reduce by 90 per cent, so the challenge is fighting for your right to be a dairy farmer and to be respected and proud and allowed to produce good products to feed the nation.”

While Yeo Valley has licensed the production of its milk, butter, spreads, and cheese under the Yeo Valley brand to Arla Foods UK, the production of its yoghurt, ice cream, cream and desserts remains with Yeo Valley Group.

Mary says: “Looking forward, I want to make sure that the foundation for the British Friesian breed is secure for future generations of farmers to be able to make quality milk from grass.”