Sarah Ford meets Mary Mead, the co-founder of Yeo Valley yoghurts who has been named the BBC's Farmer of the Year

Sarah Ford meets Mary Mead, the co-founder of Yeo Valley yoghurts who has been named the BBC's Farmer of the Year

There can't be many people who haven't heard of Yeo Valley. Famous for its yoghurts, milk, cheese, ice cream and desserts, this household name is one of the very few British-owned dairy companies and is arguably the best-known organic brand in the country.

It is a Somerset success story which goes back to 1974 when Roger and Mary Mead first began making yoghurt on their farm in Blagdon from skimmed milk left over from clotted cream. Today the business supplies most of the country's retailers, has an annual turnover of �200m and employs more than 1,200 people.

When Roger died in a tractor accident in 1990 Mary was determined to carry on with their plans and now her hard work has been recognised by the BBC, which has awarded her the title 'Farmer of the Year'. Hailed by Jamie Oliver as the 'Oscars of the food world', the Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards are designed to acknowledge individuals who are helping to keep alive the tradition of the best in local and sustainable food. The judges were impressed by Mary Mead's animal husbandry and her detailed knowledge of her 400-strong pedigree British Friesian herd, and by the fact that she combines diary farming with rearing beef cattle, sheep and laying hens.

Back in 1959, when she married Roger, farming was a completely new way of life for Mary. Nevertheless, she was a country girl and recalls carefree days growing up in Backwell. "Few mothers had cars then so we bicycled everywhere and we ran wild - it was a classic country childhood," she says.

Mary, who first met her husband at a local gymkhana, left her nursing training at St Bartholomew's in London, married Roger and they moved to Holt Farm alongside Blagdon Lake in the Mendips.

"We had 150 acres and in 1970 we bought a neighbouring 40-acre farm where we grew potatoes, did pick-your-own strawberries and sold cream teas for fishermen and passers-by," she said. "Roger came up with the idea of making yoghurt. We used to experiment a lot, testing it out with friends. Roger used to say it must taste 'yummy' and be as pure as possible, with nothing artificial."

By 1978 they were producing own-label yoghurt for Waitrose and Sainsbury's, while the farm continued to expand. Today, Yeo Valley consists of three production units at Blagdon, Cannington and Newton Abbot, with packaging facilities at Axbridge and distribution at Isleport beside the M5.

The Meads were in the middle of expansion plans when Roger died and Mary says she never felt like giving up. "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."

The couple had two daughters and a son, Tim, who took control of the yoghurt business, leaving Mary to focus on the farm. Holt Farms Ltd is a separate business from Yeo Valley and is named after the original farm, which now stretches to 1,200 acres.

For five years, some 300 acres have been run organically and the rest is currently being converted to organic status. But the land has always been managed with great efforts to care for the environment and this is obvious as Mary gives me a tour which takes us to the top of the Mendips. Here, thousands of native trees and shrubs have been replanted and dry-stone walls meticulously rebuilt. Hedges have been relaid and woodlands replaced, providing natural habitats, while set-aside land on the field margins has seen an increase in wildlife.

Holt Farm's carbon-neutral education centre was visited by the Duke of Gloucester in 2007, whilst the Blagdon Dairy received a visit from the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. This followed Yeo Valley's second Queen's Award for Enterprise - this time for its contributions to sustainable development, including the fair-trading support it has given to organic dairy farmers.

Farming's poor image, milk imports and the decreasing numbers of UK dairy farmers (a loss rate of two a day) are issues that worry Mary, who has always felt that farming is a rather noble activity because of the importance of the land and food production.

"Dairy farming is the backbone of British agriculture. Farmers generally receive a monthly milk cheque, which circulates back out into the industry and steadies the situation. I have nine grandchildren and would like to think that some of them would want to be farmers, but they have got to really want to do it."

Over the years, Yeo Valley and Holt Farms have helped a number of charities, particularly those for children, health, education and the countryside. They include the Calvert Trust, which offers adventure holidays for disabled people, and Hop Skip and Jump, a centre for children with special needs.

Mary is due for retirement, yet this will not see her taking a back seat in farming. She is on the Council of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers and is a member of the prestigious 300 Cow Club - a private club established for the sharing of information amongst dairy farmers. She plays an active part in the British Friesian Breeders Club and is keen to continue her genetic research into pedigree breeding. Meanwhile, semen from offspring from Holt Farm's Lakemead herd is now being exported to many countries around the world. It looks like Roger's vision of a successful, traditional farm working in harmony with the land was very accurate indeed.