'Milk, sweat, and tears' is the phrase Tim Mead, owner of organic dairy brand Yeo Valley, uses to summarise the journey from a dairy of 30 cows in Somerset, to the nationwide brand that uses over 100 million litres of organic milk, and 350m pots of organic yoghurt a year.
Mead took over family business at 26 as a qualified accountant rather than equipped with the traditional farming education, and he credits this lack of formal agricultural training as a decisive factor in his decision to go organic.
With a typically self-deprecating tone, he says: “Not getting the grades to go agricultural college has perhaps saved me from a life of more industrial farming."
“As an accountant, you look at the farm getting bigger and bigger but never getting a bigger slice of the pie. And it was partly the fact that I wasn’t a trained farmer that attracted me to organic because there was no, ‘you’ve got to have this technology or this spray’.”
It is exactly this non-conventional approach that has been Yeo Valley’s forte, and there’s no greater example than their 2010 viral advert featuring rapping farmers, which has racked up an incredible 2.7 million views on YouTube to date.
Competing with big business names such as Nestlé, Danone, and Yoplait, all 50 to 100 times the size of Yeo Valley, the challenge to gain visibility in a congested market was sizeable. “I thought, blimey how are we going to make a difference. The only way is to go a bit riskier,” says Mead.
Using apt dairy metaphors, Mead refers to the purple cow theory: “If you drive down the motorway and you see a cow, no one mentions it, but if you paint one purple, all the kids will say ‘look at the purple cow’. If you want to stand out in marketing, you have to do things that are remarkable.”
It seems that Mead has never shied away from a challenge, and this is further evident with his attitude to climate change and the objective of net zero by 2040. With tangible excitement, he presents the findings of the report he received yesterday on the carbon sequestration study completed last year on his farms.
“Last year we sampled 1,000 soil samples at three different depths on our own farms. We measured all the carbon stored, and when we compared that with what we did five years ago. We have been net positive sequesters of carbon to the tune that that the sequestration is greater than the footprint of the milk that we’ve produced on our own farms.”
As an ardent defender of the good that the dairy industry can do, it is easy to note the joy that it brings Mead to be able to reveal this, emphasising that it is an empowering time to be a farmer. “As farmers we’re standing on something that can store carbon. Surely our first port of call is to do everything we possibly can to lock up carbon in the very thing that we are harnessing to provide food," he says.
“As a livestock farmer, I feel really excited about being part of the solution. How brilliant would it be if we could produce healthy, nutritious food while also addressing and reversing climate change? That’s the panacea really.”
Mead talks enthusiastically about his organic oats as part of his farm rotation that uses grazing animals to return fertility to the soil, instead of using oil-based, synthetic fertilisers. However, when the conversation turns to oat and plant-based milks, the tone becomes slightly more defensive, perhaps unsurprising from someone who has spent their life in the dairy industry.
“Is it ultra-processed? All of them are ultra-processed. Is it produced using oil or soil?” The fact that there are few mainstream organic plant-based milks, means that they would have been produced using oil-based fertilisers.
But for all that, Mead insists that he is by no means anti-veg. “When someone says to me when we need to eat more vegetables, I absolutely agree. I grow my own sprouts for Christmas day. I love plants but my definition of plants is not something that has been transformed into a milk. I consume huge amounts of porridge and almonds but not the ultra-processed method that turns them into something that they’re not.”
When it comes to ultra-processed foods, Mead believes we should be wary: “The one thing we know about food, is that the more processing of food, the more corporations can disguise what is actually costs and therefore make shed loads more money.”
He also refers to the big business interest in plant-based milks, such as PepsiCo and Coca Cola, asking “why if you produce fizzy water and crisps would you have an interest in plant-based milk? Probably because there’s scope to make huge margins.”
On whether he still considers himself a farmer, the modest Mead returns. “I’m a farming apprentice; my mother is still very much the farmer of the family,” he says, referencing how he took over as managing director as a result of his father’s tragic death in a farming accident. His mother retrained as a dairy farmer.
“She is very wise, there are lots of things that she has championed for 20 years, that were ignored, and now people are coming around to the fact and going actually, you could be right you know,” he says.
And when it comes to Yeo Valley’s ambition, Mead has got absolutely no plans for a private equity takeover. “We’re quite simple folk really, we try not to complicate things. I’ve always had this desire to see organic dairy farming reach 10 per cent of the milk market. 26 years ago, there were six or seven organic dairy farms and now there are around 400; we are halfway there. To double that again in five or 10 years, would just be brilliant.”
Get to know: Yeo Valley
- Yeo Valley own two farms in Somerset producing over 3 million litres of organic milks a year.
- Yeo Valley is supplied with dairy products from 120 farms in the Organic Milk Supply Co-operative (OMSCO), that Tim Mead helped to set up in 1994.
- In 2018, Yeo Valley partnered up with Arla Foods, a farmer owned dairy co-operative. This allows Arla to use the Yeo Valley brand in milk, butter, spreads, and cheese.