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Female Farmers in Rural Britain by Joanne Coates

1 May 2021

During 2021 I received a residency in partnership with Berwick Visual Arts, Newcastle University's Institute for Creative Arts Practice and the Centre for Rural Economy. I worked with Professor Sally Shortall, Duke of Northumberland Chair of Rural Economy, at CRE, exploring contemporary issues around diversity in agriculture.

Women’s contribution to the farming industry is significant but often overlooked. There are underlying barriers such as access to land, class, motherhood, and lack of clear leadership roles. When tasked with imagining a farmer who comes to mind? Women make up 28 percent 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. This project examines the unique challenges women in agriculture face, focusing on rural issues from a socially-engaged standpoint, which places communities at the heart of my practice. Although still a work-in-progress, the series has seen me travel across Northumberland to document forty women at work.

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; to have the farmers speak for themselves. Issues of gender in farming are rooted in societal and economic issues. A systemic problem I came across was access to land; only 14.9 per cent of registered farm holders in the UK are female, despite 64 per cent of graduates from agricultural studies being women in 2018/2019. The start-up capital required to purchase land is substantial, meaning access and agency within food and farming has remained a privilege. The vast majority of those farming are only able to do so due to inheritance, which traditionally has left women at a distinct disadvantage, and which it continues to do. I’m based in the Northern Dales, was raised in rural areas and wanted to show a subject close to home.

This image shows Paula, of Mill Pond Flower Farm. Paula is a female farmer, she also holds a Phd and was previously a nurse. Throughout 2021 I visited Mill Pond Flower Farm when it was safe to do so, while the project came to several stand stills as the pandemic hit. The project will continue throughout 2022 as I explore gender, agriculture and how the pandemic has affected female farmers.

Joanne Coates is an award winning working class documentary storyteller who uses the medium of photography. Based in the North of England, she is interested in rurality, working life and class inequality. Coates has shown work internationally and across the UK. She is currently Artist in Residence at Berwick Visual Arts and Newcastle University. Her practice is as much about process, participation and working with communities as it is about image-making. She is a member of Women Photograph, and a co-founder of The Other and Form Collective. Her approach can be seen in commissions for BBC, Vice, The Guardian, The FT, The Telegraph, and more.

This project is currently a work in progress and has received a project grant to be continued. It will be shown in a solo exhibition at The Gymnasium gallery in Berwick upon Tweed with an accompanying publication in Spring 2022.

See more work by Joanne Coates

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