“Women’s contribution to the farming industry is significant but often overlooked. There are underlying barriers such as access to land, class, motherhood, lack of clear leadership roles”
When tasked with imagining a farmer who comes to mind? Women make up 28 per cent of the farming industry in the UK. But, despite playing a central role in agricultural progress throughout history, documentation of female farmworkers is slim. Over time, the stories of women who have shaped the land have been left unheard.
Joanne Coates latest project, created with Berwick Visual Arts and Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy and Institute for Creative Arts Practice, examines the unique challenges women in agriculture face. A Portrait of Britain 2020 winner, she focusses on rural issues from a socially-engaged standpoint, which places communities at the heart of her practice. Although still a work-in-progress, the series has seen her travel across Northumberland to document 40 women at work.
Farming is tough. Earlier this year, Coates photographed her partner asleep after a 14-hour shift on his farm at the peak of lockdown. Exacerbated by the pandemic, which put untold pressures on the key workers, the work of a farmer is never done. Growing up in the countryside of North East England, she knows this implicitly. She is determined to avoid the romantic idyll associated with rural Britain as is often portrayed by the outsider’s view. “I wanted to go into this complex subject and avoid farming cliches to look at the roots of issues,” she says. “To have the farmers speak for themselves.”
Coates has worked with Dr Sally Shortall, Duke of Northumberland Chair of Rural Economy Professor for the project. Together with the academic, whose research tackles gender relations in agriculture, Coates employs sociological methods. She uses techniques such as mapping, whereby women draw the lay of the land, revealing how and why they name fields; audio-interviews in which they can speak about their experiences; alongside disposable cameras that aid exchange of visual information. In understanding complex power dynamics manifesting in issues of sexism and class within the industry — a relativistic approach is needed. Many have differing ideas of their roles within farming, or feminism, for example: “For each woman the answer is different,” Coates says.
Everyday sexism prevails too. Candi, one of Coate’s subjects, is quoted next to her portrait. “Just today I had to chase up something from JCB, and the receptionist at the head office told me I had the wrong number because they only dealt with agricultural machinery,” the young shepherdess writes, “I said: ‘I know, it’s my tractor I am phoning about.’” She is not alone: a recent survey revealed 49 per cent of women in farming had witnessed sexist comments.
Photographing something as abstract as gender inequality can prove difficult, but Coates untangles it. She captures a pink gloved hand, outstretched, covered in an even pinker Ovine treatment. And a faded bucket kicked to the side of the yard, or a vast field of pale stubble against an unforgiving grey sky. “I would describe my style as a lyrical documentary,” she says, “I am focused on smaller moments and beautiful elements that to me are pieces, or lines, of a short story.”
The bigger picture soon becomes clear. “Women’s contribution to the farming industry is significant but often overlooked,” she says, “there are underlying barriers such as access to land, class, motherhood, lack of clear leadership roles.” By closing the gap in gendered representation, the project aims to engage the immediate community, but also women considering farming as an occupation.
In one image, Coates has photographed a farmer’s daughter, Poppy, who works each summer driving a combine. It’s this type of familial work that is in danger of going unnoticed and uncelebrated within the industry. The young woman lies in a field of wheat, held by the earth. “I try to make a portrait with them that speaks of who they are,” Coates says, “Poppy had mentioned that we have to look after the land as it looks after us”. The photograph is a reminder that the future of farming will rely upon the next generation — and, hopefully, it is women like Poppy who will take us there.
Ellie Howard is a freelance arts and culture writer, based between Lisbon and London. A graduate of Manchester University and University College London, she writes about material and visual culture. Her chief interests are rooted in popular photography and the photographic boundaries between science and art. Alongside writing, she works as a picture researcher for Atelier Éditions, most recently on the forthcoming publications Beyond the Earth: An Anthology of Human Messages in Deep Space and Cosmic Time and Nudism in a Cold Climate. She has written for Magnum Photos, Photomonitor, BBC Travel, Wallpaper*, Elephant Magazine, Huck, Dazed, and Another.