Field Work: What Land Does to People and What People Do to Land by Bella Bathurst

Review by Liz Dexter

“This place, this land, wasn’t a job or a business: it was everything – past and future, identity and rhythm, daily bread and Sunday rest.”

Reading this book requires a strong stomach and probably a little less squeamishness than I can summon up. However, it’s also important reading and a book that needed to be written and needs to be read. How can we pay attention to what we’re eating and care for and understand the whole range of our fellow citizens when most of us have no idea what the people who produce British food actually do?

Bella Bathurst, a writer and photojournalist who has written several non-fiction books and won or been shortlisted for several awards, moved into a cottage on a farm in Wales. She saw the farmer around, sat chatting to him in her kitchen, profited from small repairs and bits of advice and watched carefully. The story of this farmer, Bert, his wife and son, his dogs, his animals and his farm, punctuates the book: she also travels around meeting farmers and those who work in the industries around farming, so she can gather and then give us a fuller picture of the industry. 

After the introduction, in which Bathurst sets the scene at Rise Farm, describes her own background and (lack of) relationship with the land and talks fascinatingly about the difference between how different people view the same piece of land, depending on whether they’re a farmer, a “blow-in” like her, a bureaucrat, a campaigner, a lettings agent … 

And all of us had an opinion, and all expected to be listened to. We all ate food and lived in some sort of an environment, whether it was urban or challenging or oxygen-deprived, so therefore we all had an opinion on the countryside. We wanted it to look and sound a certain way, conform to certain laws, remain worked but not working.

… and who were all talking about farming, not farmers, we hit the meat and bones of the subject, quite literally, with a day out with what used to be called a knackerman. Ian is an operative working for a fallen-stock operator nearby. He is there at the end of things, taking deceased animals or dispatching them (and yes, there is detail – but don’t we need to know about these things?). 

The difficult-to-read for the fainthearted comes back later with a description of what happens out the back of a local family butchers (though again, surely we need to know about this), but there are also, and happily, fascinating chapters about the work of farming mediators, a relatively new profession, who exist to help farmers deal with ideas of succession on their own farms, or disputes with neighbours which might have gone on for generations. This gave a fascinating insight into the psychology of what she admits are mainly older, white, men, although a little more diversity in terms of the farmers themselves is slowly creeping in (diversification of farms, however, is moving at pace and this is described, too). A chapter at the end covers social networks and dating for younger farmers, too, and we also look at an apple farm and the relationship between farms and big food and beverage companies. 

The changing nature of farmers and farming, as well as the auxiliary industries, is covered, from the above-mentioned succession and diversification to farmers renting several fields, many miles from one another, shuttling between them to tend them, and the tendency towards large farms as being the only way to make a profit (but also with much higher debts). Smallholders tend to be dismissed as hobbyists a little, and looked down on as going into it without enough knowledge, although it’s interesting that one of the civil servants features has his own smallholding. Vets are held in high esteem by Bathurst and the farmers she meets and she has some interesting trips and discussions with them, some just testing for TB day in, day out, others working on fertility in its various forms, from castration to pregnancy confirming. 

The farm stays the same yet always changes

Everything got used and reused; buildings rose and fell, recycled indefinitely from the same stone and slate, patched in, hand-set, chipped, dressed and redressed, everything staying exactly the same but changing all the time. Every few decades the farm would expand or inhale according to the particular winds of change: a war, a recession, a shift in political direction.

and with it the farmers, too. Woven in around these big topic chapters are moving descriptions of Bert’s decline due to his failing health, beautifully put. 

His body was storing things it didn’t need – given up on recycling, couldn’t face the spring clean. It was beginning to tell him what the land already knew: he was no longer in charge. If he went outside now, he could see the farm getting away from him. Scrap metal overflowed from the bins, feed boxes peeped from the brook, plastic sacks billowed in barbed wire.

There are no easy solutions to the plight faced by farmers in the face of consumers demanding cheap food and Brexit removing subsidies (some are for and some against this). What we do have at the end is a section about the Covid crisis which mentions the parts of social behaviour which interacted with the farming industry – demand for products, small farms pivoting to provide food locally they would have sent to restaurants, etc. It was interesting seeing that from the other side, so to speak. It’s clear that the author’s intention is to explain what goes on on farms, and she does that, and to help people learn and understand, and perhaps regard farmers with more respect. I hope she achieves that aim, too. 

No notes, bibliography or index in this one, but it’s made clear that Bathurst draws her information from discussions with farmers and other experts around the industry. As some people are anonymised, providing illustrations would be difficult. I don’t think this book suffers from these two slight lacks. 

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Liz Dexter grew up in the countryside and always closes gates. She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Bella Bathurst, Field Work: What Land Does to People and What People Do to Land (Profile Books, 2021). 978-1788162135, 224 pp., hardback.

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