Mrs Mary Mead, along with the two men in her life, her husband and her son, represent the best in British agriculture in that they have always been willing to innovate and diversify, yet remain faithful to their belief that farmers, basing their actions upon sound scientific principles, should always aim to achieve a good balance of care both for their animals and their land. Her life story also illustrates both the pain and the joy of what it is to be a farmer.
Mary was born 1938 into a non farming background. Brought up in Backwell, she attended Fairfield PNEU School near Bristol, which offered training for future missionaries and governesses. Here she came under the influence of an inspirational headmistress, Barbara Lambert, who instilled in her charges a great zest for life and the belief that one should not sit on the sidelines but should “do something about it”. Mary still remembers at the age of 7 being led on a nature trail to Bourton Coombe and waiting patiently to catch sight of a great spotted woodpecker.
Mary was an energetic and independent young woman. She was usually outdoors with her friends, riding either a pony or a bicycle. One summer, when “Alice”, the family car, was bursting at the seams with holiday luggage, she “did something about it” and got on her bicycle and rode the 50 plus miles to join the family at the seaside. Her younger siblings still remember their great astonishment at such a feat. After Fairfield she attended Clifton High School where her interest lay mainly outside the sciences. She did well at school, but finding little encouragement, as a girl, to follow her ambition to be an architect, she left after O levels to train to be a nurse in London at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. But she had earlier met her future husband Roger William Mead when just 17. He came from the local Tripp family who had been farming in the Worle area since the1400’s, and this had opened up a new world for her. Roger and Mary then had the opportunity to move into a farmhouse with buildings for pigs and poultry, an opportunity not to be missed. Ignoring family disapproval, Mary left nursing before qualifying, to get married in 1959. An early sign of Mary’s determination to take the chance when it is offered. In 1961 they moved to Holt Farm on the edge of Blagdon Lake, which they purchased with family help and an NFU mortgage, for the grand sum of just £28,000! The land was highly productive and lent itself to dairying, and the Lakemead herd of pedigree British Friesians was established.
When Mary got married it was not just to a man but also to a farm and, what for her, was a completely new way of life. Initially her role like many farmers’ wives was to rear the children, keep the accounts and records, inject the newborn piglets, collect the eggs and when required drive the tractor. BUT she still found time to serve on the Weston-super-Mare bench and Juvenile court as a Magistrate for twelve years. Her children were born in rapid succession, Sarah in 1962, Tim in 1963 and finally Amanda 1969. In 1970 Roger and Mary increased their holding with an extra 50 acres by purchasing the adjacent Lag farm. Innovation and diversification characterised Roger and Mary’s approach to farming from the very outset. Theirs was one of the first local dairy farms to use cow cubicles, and they majored on quality grass and silage. They also diversified into production of cash crops. Pick your own strawberries and pick your own sweet corn. The increased numbers of visitors to the farm from Bristol required refreshments – thus the diversification into farm cream teas. This was so successful that the milk they were selling to the milk marketing board rapidly was becoming skim milk, since so much cream was being taken to feed the visitors. This dilemma was quickly identified and solved by the decision to diversify even further and use the skim milk to produce Yoghurt.
By 1974, they had established a thriving yoghurt business at Blagdon, supplying local outlets in the region. Deliveries being made in an un-refrigerated Morris Traveller, a luxury no longer available to the modern farmer! To the highly organised Mead family, if you are supplying local suppliers with yoghurt which you produce, then naturally you also should supply cheese and other local produce produced by your neighbours. Thus you enter the Factoring business acting as the middle man between the producers and the retail outlets. From 1974 until the mid eighties this side of the business grew, operating from a wharfside site near St Mary Redcliffe. All milk from the farm was utilised for yogurt and thus fortuitously avoided milk quotas when they were introduced. In 1987 having recently qualified as an accountant, Tim Mead, Mary’s son came home to join the family business at a critical time in its expansion.
Then in 1990 tragedy struck. Mary’s husband Roger, was killed in a tractor accident. Typically for him, he was spraying some unsightly weeds which were in view of the village. At the time Mary was in America visiting her sister and had to return home with her son to decide what to do next. Typically of Mary, she felt there was absolutely no choice but to continue the plans that he had been working on. She decided to take direct control of the farms in order that Tim could concentrate on the not insubstantial yoghurt business. Both enterprises continued to grow under their joint leadership, even though some outsiders found it unusual to have a woman clearly at the helm. Tractor salesman for example, to their cost, found it strange to deal with a woman farmer, who quickly pointed out the error of their chauvinistic ways.
The farming business has rapidly expanded by progressive acquisition of a substantial area of the Mendip Hills. It now consists of several farms extending over 1400 acres with two dairy herds totally 420 cows, rearing its own young stock and growing much of its own cereals. The Yoghurt business is a similar success story of growth and diversification. In 1993 it launched its own organic brand. It now has an annual turnover of £140 million, produces 25% of all UK yoghurt and employs over 1000 local people. The Yeo Valley organic brand has just entered the top 100 listed UK Food brands. But it would be wrong to suggest that Mary is just a businesswoman. Her family, her grandchildren, of whom she has nine, her community, her environment and her desire to put something back, especially into farming, are all vitally important to her. It is thanks to Mary Mead's generosity that Blagdon Local History Society now has splendid premises in the centre of the village. At its official opening in September 2000, Mary accepted the offer of being President of the Society - 'providing,' she whispered in the chairman’s ear -'I don't need to do anything, because I've got so many other things I have to do'. It is thanks to Mary Mead that the church has access to the lovely grounds of Blagdon Court House, her home, for its annual fete. It is also thanks to Mary Mead that UK Sire Services, a bull stud formed to provide facilities for independent breeders of native cattle and which also provides storage for semen from rare breeds, when it was starting up, had both premises, and crucially, access to liquid nitrogen in an offsite store– which just happened to be found for them in the Yeo Valley ice-cream factory in Bovey Tracey, North Devon.
Finally it is important to recognise Mary’s significant contribution as an applied scientist. Mary argues that successful farming starts with an appreciation of the fundamentals, the weather, its impact upon the land and soil type, and the quality of the crops grown. This provides the nutritional base for the production animals. The successful management of the complex interactions between nutrient supply, genetics and husbandry is the core business of the farmer since it controls both the reproductive performance and milk yield of the modern dairy cow. Evidence that Mary has done this at the highest level comes from being elected on to the Council of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers, being invited to be a member of the prestigious 300 Cow Club, and the Award of Associateship of the Royal Agricultural Societies. Further evidence of Mary’s skill as a scientist is her application of the science of genetics. Her passion for the British Friesian breed is well known in farming circles. Her motivation is the strongly held belief that the Friesian is a more robust animal, better suited to the UK, which achieves the right balance for the British farmer of good milk yield and good animal welfare. As past Chairman and President of the British Friesian Breeders Club, she has cajoled, bullied and persuaded the industry to re-define the breed for genetic evaluation. The result is a vastly increased uptake in the use of semen and breeding bulls, as the attributes of good fertility and longevity are now easily recognised. To her great satisfaction, progeny from bulls from the Lakemead herd can now be found in far flung places such as Australia, USA, South Africa and South America.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, there stands before us a person who has triumphed over harsh adversity, a farmer, scientist and businesswomen of the highest achievement and distinction. It is my privilege to present to you Mary Veronica Mead as eminently worthy of the degree of Master of Arts, honoris causa.