Yeo! Yeo! Rappers send dairy farm to the top of the charts

As the new television advert for Somerset organic yoghurt producer Yeo Valley goes viral and threatens to take the Christmas No 1 spot, Joy Persaud talks to its chief executive, Tim Mead
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Rapping farmers in the rolling hills around Blagdon, Somerset, is an unlikely sight for Top of the Pops.

But Yeo Valley's latest ad, featuring gorgeous actors and models frolicking on the farm with its yummy yoghurts, has become such a hit on the social media scene that thousands of fans are calling for the song to be 2010's Christmas No 1.

Yeo's chief executive, Tim Mead, is as surprised as anyone by the extraordinary success of the £5m advert which was launched during this year's first X Factor show; it's now the number one music download in the UK, has secured "most viewed" status on Facebook and YouTube and is still being tweeted about.

His eyes widen when he talks about how the rappers went viral within days of the first ad. "The fact that more than a million people have watched it on YouTube is just mind blowing. Why did we choose rap as the music style? Well, when you've got 'Yeo' as the first three letters of your name, I mean..." he laughs. "When the creative geniuses asked what music should we use for Yeo Valley, it was – bing! We linked music with the 'in harmony' message of sustainability on the farm and it captivated people. There are a variety of farmers doing their versions all over the internet – but I didn't do one, as being accused of daddy dancing wouldn't have been appreciated by my teenage children who wouldn't have talked to me for a year."

The 47-year-old former accountant is the son of Yeo's founder, Roger, who died 10 years ago in a tractor accident. Tim stepped into his father's shoes, helping to continue Yeo's success which has seen growth triple over the past decade, but he's still careful with every penny. "We are a private family business, so we have to make our money work harder. The only way you can do that is to take more risks and be entrepreneurial."

It may also turn out to be a boost to the farming industry, a hard market to crack. Last year, about £250m was spent by the industry on trying to sell itself so Mead's £5m punt was worth every penny. But if the song does go to the top of the charts, does Yeo take a cut? Unfortunately not.

But he hopes the ad will boost sales as well as promoting Britain's farming and food industries, and help to change the stereotypical view of farmers as "straw-chewing, wurzel-munching characters".

Mead is no bumpkin. Self-contained and carefully spoken, he is affable but reveals little of himself as he discusses Yeo Valley's fortunes, which he shaped with his mother, Mary. Mead's parents, who bought the original farm in 1961, began producing organic yoghurt in 1974 to use up the skimmed milk left over from their clotted cream. They tested flavours on friends, aspiring always to make the product as "yummy" and natural as possible. Today, they have 420 cows which provide two million pots of organic yoghurt from the Yeo Valley processing plants each week and employ 1,400 people.

"My mother was a mum – a great mum – to three of us. When my father died, she said she would learn to be a farmer, and last year she was named BBC Farmer of the Year. It was exceptionally tough for her as you are dealing with emotions and there are lots of memories associated with everything you do. It's difficult if you ask people how they felt 20 years ago, and it is difficult to remember, but all I do remember is being quite numb, thinking 'you've got to get on with it'."

Mead believes the importance of organic farming will be realised as people become aware of "one of the most important issues the nation will have to deal with" – how we feed ourselves. "In the past 15 years it's gone from five million litres of organic milk to 450 million litres – sustained growth. Our ambition is that it will be a billion annually produced in the UK. If you want that to happen – the billion – you have got to get the consumers."

Part of the challenge is that price deters 58 per cent of people from buying organic (according to a study by YouGov SixthSense). Yeo Valley places itself in the second quartile as far as cost goes. The company made a loss of £2m in 2008 when £25m worth of cost increases – largely caused by energy price hikes – had to be recovered. But it has rallied and the forecast for 2011 is a turnover of £210m. This year's profit stands at £6m.

Mead, who buys British where possible, says: "The UK has reduced milk production by 15 per cent in the past three years. Consumption hasn't gone down – it's being produced in other countries, processed there and transported here. Transport is not sustainable. 'Buy British' can get taken over by nationalistic jingoism but..." he sighs, "I have no idea what the numbers are. But if, say, 50 per cent is imported and 50 per cent home produced, it would be interesting to see how much a 1 per cent swing to home produced – how many jobs that would create. The more we produce for ourselves, the more money the Government has, the better the pensions, hospitals, roads."

If the price of oil rockets, Mead stresses, there will come a point whenit will be unavailable or too pricey. Artificial fertilisers will be expensive to produce, he adds, frowning as he asks why anyone would want to "pour chemicals and pesticides on the top six inches of the earth, which sustains all of life". Healthy soil gives rise to vigorous plants and animals, he says. This is best achieved by rotational faming, where land is used for a different purpose – such as growing grain, sheep or dairy, or lies fallow – each year.

As a result, his British Friesian cows have a longer grazing period on the 1,200-acre farm, and trace elements keep soil healthy, as there's less build-up of harmful organisms. Additionally, healthy soil retains water and nutrients better than other methods.

That Mead loves the land is palpable. He's living in the house in which he was born and admits that he and his wife and four children sometimes forget how lucky they are to live in a place so beautiful it is advert-worthy. The premises are also a base for Yeo Valley's farm experience days, where employees can wander along the hedgerows to gather hazelnuts and rosehips, which are served as part of a barbecue of the farm's range of produce at the day's end. When asked what his favourite product is, Mead seems to surprise himself by announcing a love for whole milk. He laughs as he tries to recall why he started drinking it again six years ago and suggests it may have replaced cider or beer. "Take up drinking milk. Cold milk. Ah, yes, biscuits and cold milk." No question: this is a dairy farmer through and through.

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