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Everything you thought you knew about farming is wrong

Despite spending much of her life in the country, it wasn’t until Bella Bathurst started writing about farming that she grasped the complex reality of the industry

In every farm there is something going on which isn’t at all like you think it is, writes Bella Bathurst. Illustration: Joseph Joyce

In every farm there is something going on which isn’t at all like you think it is, writes Bella Bathurst. Illustration: Joseph Joyce

Seven years ago, I moved into a farm cottage on a hill near Wales. Rise Farm was run by Bert and Alison Howell, a couple in their seventies whose son had gone to live in Spain and whose main source of assistance was now their two collies – Bryn and a dog who for a long time I genuinely believed to be called Come Here You Useless Bugger.

Rise was one of a declining number of small farms making the best of the high places in the Black Mountains, places which would once have represented a generous living but which now struggled by on rents, subsidy and the heart-attack price of lamb.

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The more time I spent with Bert and Alison, and the more I got to understand about the way the farming view of this world diverged from the non-farming one, the more compelling it seemed.

Farming seemed to embody so many switchbacks and contradictions. It was seen as insular, but expected to be global, a secretive industry which you could see from space, requiring everlasting reserves of emotional resilience from a group of people who never talked. It was seen as lazy and low-status, but I’d never come across a group of people who worked harder. It was seen as fixed, but most farmers were meant to be six professions in one day, from accountant to vet, mechanic to economist, midwife to chemist, manager to gambler. A gambler most of all.

Shakespearean family dramas unravelled over generations in places that only inspectors and vets ever went to. It lived by a set of different regulations, had separate lawyers and accountants, needed a separate government department, abided by footnotes, exemptions and addendums. It had done more to influence our history than half our wars. It seemed to be the exception to every rule, but it still provided the basics of existence.

The farmers I came across were as varied and various as the land they farmed. They were as infinite in age, condition and outlook as mothers are

And it seemed to have moved so far, so fast. In the space of a generation it had gone from being a well-regarded profession stood solidly at the centre of British life to something regarded as semi-criminal. Everywhere you looked it seemed like either farmers were vast, grasping grain barons driving 90-metre combines and skiing all over the subsidy, or they were held up with hope and baler twine, living in conditions disdained by goats.

But the farmers I came across were as varied and various as the land they farmed. Some farmed thousands of acres and millions in credit. Some looked after pigs or sheep, and some strawberries or firewood. Some said they’d discourage their children from coming into the business and others relied on it. Some said you did have to be born to it, and some said you didn’t. Some said it was a vocation, some said there was nothing that separated it from any other business. They were as infinite in age, condition and outlook as mothers are.

Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land by Bella Bathurst is out now (Profile, £16.99)
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Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land by Bella Bathurst is out now (Profile, £16.99)

Though I’ve lived in the country for much of my life, I’m not from a farming background. But when I started working on this book, I knew I wanted to stand and translate – not to preach or campaign, but to play the useful idiot in the middle. To say, this is what it looks like from one side and this is how it might seem from the other, so you can make your own mind up. Or, better still, don’t. Just keep it open. Or at least ajar.   

To give the most rounded picture I could, I tried to cover as many sectors as I could. I shadowed a fallen stock operator (previously called knackers), a master butcher in an abattoir, a large animal vet, and a mixture of fruit, dairy, beef and sheep farmers.

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I spoke to succession facilitators, counsellors and someone who ran a rural dating site (advice from members: ‘Remember that you come second… worst time to date a farmer is when the milk price drops… don’t even think of planning anything during the harvest… often smell of poo’).

I wrote it before and during lockdown, watching the way the status of farming shifted almost overnight from optional holiday extra to essential workforce.

I learned a lot, and I still have a terrifying amount to learn. But I suppose the biggest lesson of all was that out beyond everything at the end of every road there is still always a farm, and in every farm there is something going on which isn’t at all like you think it is.

Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land by Bella Bathurst is out now (Profile, £16.99)

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