Growing up in a small Warwickshire village, it was impossible to ignore the day to day activities of farming. My memories of childhood are dominated by the freedom of a rural existence and the realities of living in an agricultural com¬munity: walking in meadows that had never been ploughed; watching the gangs of women with their prams, Wellington boots, headscarves and buckets waiting to go potato picking, then experiencing for myself the inevitable backache of the job; learning to drive a tractor; watching and trying hand-milking on a friend’s smallholding; helping to churn the cream to butter by hand, and enjoying the reward of fresh watercress sandwiches.
All of this was seasoned with the advice and country wisdom of my father. He started life as a farm worker in Lincolnshire; a steam traction engine was the first vehicle he ever drove. ‘Never walk across a ploughed field,’ he would say, ‘even if the footpath goes straight across the middle. . . always be wary of male animals, especially pigs! ‘Never go in a field if a cow has just calved; they can be worse than bulls.’ My father left farm work because of low pay and the demands of a growing family. I never knew him when he was a farm worker, but his country wisdom remained and was a constant source of knowledge during my childhood.
During the 1950s it was not unusual for villagers to keep a ‘cottage pig’ and a few hens. My father was no exception and I well remember riding on the back of a huge Middle White called Sally. We watched her farrow and saw the piglets feed and grow; then they were gone. The day that Sally went, father was very upset; I remember the pots of home made brawn and cuts of meat in my grandmother’s kitchen. He never had another pig.
I enjoyed the regular trips to our field and always marvelled at my father’s skill. I remember watching as he carefully loaded eggs into an incubator and filled and lit the paraffin heater. I recall him explaining patiently that they needed warmth to hatch, and that the heat had to be carefully maintained.
With sadness we learned of plans to build a new village school on land adjacent to the field which was to be taken for the school drive. I always hated my time at that school! My father had lost his last real links with farming and by this time he was employed in a local car components factory. But even a rural secondary school has its compensations, I remember the fascination of watching a ewe give birth in a field next to the playground, and so conveniently at morning break.
Like most village kids, I worked on farms in the school holidays but never considered farming as a career. It would have been impossible to have grown up in such an environment and to have remained unaware of agriculture, but I can honestly say that it never seemed an attractive way of earning a living. Perhaps I knew too much.
It is easy to recount these experiences and produce an idyllic view of what ‘real’ farming was like, unlike today’s so-called agrochemical plunder of the land. But such memories rarely have space for the harshness of country life. As village kids we knew that animals were bred for meat, we knew that the all-pervading stink of the knacker’s lorry was part of life and we knew that working on farms was no holiday. Yet, when eventually I went to work in Coventry, I found that our country knowledge was not universal. ‘Where are you from then?’ asked one of my new colleagues. I named my village to which he replied, ‘So you’re a clod, why aren’t you working on a farm instead of coming here and taking our jobs?’
I quickly learned that there was a difference between ‘townies’ and ‘clods’, and that many people saw the countryside in a very different way. That there was a gulf between our life styles could not be denied, but I resented the implications of the label ‘clod’. I felt indignation at the suggestion that farm work was easy and fit only for the village idiot. I knew that people from my school had gone to agricultural college and that the received wisdom of my father was not that of a fool.
Later, as an undergraduate, I became concerned by the way that images of the countryside were used in the press and by advertisers. ‘Down on the farm’ is often a term of mild abuse or amusement, to be called a farm labourer a much used put-down. Such terms only serve to reinforce the growing gulf between farm and city.
I started the Farmwork project because I wanted to document the everyday life and work of farm workers. By using photography I wanted to make the work of farming more visible and, I hoped, challenge some of the romantic myths. I also wanted the photography to be as neutral as possible. I did not want to adopt a partisan stance, neither wishing to criticise nor promote farming. I felt that my limited exposure to the industry was helpful, but I knew little about modern agriculture, so the photography was preceded by a period of research and familiarisation with the arguments surrounding the industry.
Documentary photography implies some sort of neutrality and impartiality, but there are always choices to be made. I do not claim to have seen, or photographed, every aspect of British agriculture and I have obviously chosen what to photograph and what to leave out. I was not refused access to anything and was able to photograph anywhere I pleased. My approach was the well-known ‘fly on the wall’ technique. I wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible and never asked for particular scenes to be set up or staged for the camera. I feel that it is very important for photographers to explain what they are doing and why. All the people in the photographs knew why I was there. To have used any other approach would have seemed dishonest; even so I did experience some mis¬understanding. During one of my first trips I was threatened with physical violence by a group of potato pickers. This job has traditionally been the preserve of women, but the changing employment situation has led to many men joining the gangs. When I appeared on the field with a camera there was a considerable amount of disquiet. I learned some days after that local DHSS officials had been photographing gangs of casual workers and using the photo¬graphs as evidence in prosecutions.
During one of my first attempts to photograph harvest in action, a farmer came roaring across his field in a Range Rover, stopped close to me, jumped out and said, ‘You’re not from Friends of the Earth, are you?’ To which I replied ‘No’, and mentioned that I had phoned the previous evening to arrange the visit. He jumped back into the vehicle and sped away.
On the whole, the photography was very enjoyable and full of amusing incidents. I remember driving across to the west Wales coast to photograph the New Zealand ‘Golden Shears’ sheep shearing champion at work on a farm. It had rained during the night and the shearing was called off. On my way home I noticed a large flock of dry sheep in a roadside pen waiting to be sheared. I stopped and asked if I could photograph and the farmers agreed. Later, one of them asked if I was interested in photographing dipping; he explained that it would be after breakfast and that I was welcome to join them. We walked up the hill to the farm house. The men were shown into the kitchen and large pots of tea were produced. I was taken through to another room where there was a large table set with two places. The two farmers sat at either end and a sofa was drawn up for me. It must have been an amusing sight because I was seated considerably lower than the table which was at about chin height! It was a wonderful breakfast.
Most of these photographs were taken in 1985. By the end of that year I had travelled about 10,000 miles and produced nearly 12,000 negatives. Although West Midlands Arts had funded the photography and research, it became obvious that the project had grown much larger than originally envisaged, so I approached ICI Fertilizers for help with the production of two exhibitions and they agreed, seeing the project as low profile arts sponsorship. ICI Fertilizers and Farmwork won the award for best single project from the Association of Business Sponsorship of the Arts in 1986.
Two exhibitions were produced, the first a large scale, framed exhibition of 80 prints and text aimed at galleries and arts centres. The second exhibition was intended to be shown at more informal venues such as village halls. It is designed to travel with its own portable display system to allow for showing in virtually any location. Both exhibitions toured from 1986 to 1991 and went to around 80 venues.
It seems to me that there are two quite different views of modern farming. It is seen as a romantic occupation, a bucolic way of life beloved by many, or it is thought of as a world full of the frantic roar of machinery and the headlong rush for higher and higher profits. The first image feeds on ideas of tradition and regret for the loss of simple rustic existence. The second is a reaction against European politics and stresses the folly of intensive farming and over-production. Both obscure the work and people in farming, the first by not permitting people to spoil the rural idyll and the second by not allowing them to intrude into macro-economics.
There is a high degree of physical isolation inherent in modern farming. Mechanisation has reduced the numbers working on the land and now crops seem to grow themselves. A quick glance through the window of a passing car or train confirm that little work is done in the countryside. It is possible to run an arable farm of 1000 acres or more with only three or four full-time workers who see little of each other during their working day. When such a small number of people are spread over a large area it is not surprising that their work is not very visible.
We see the countryside as a place to escape to from the pressures of urban life, a place associated with leisure rather than work. We idealise it as part of a past golden age and hark back to a time when people worked hard and played hard, when villagers were united as one, when there was a place for everyone and everyone knew their place. We obscure history to build an image of how things should have been rather than how they were.
Patterns of a ploughed field, the colours and texture of growing crops and the rural scene have long been subjects for artists. They depict the landscape but often ignore the human labour that produced it. Where work is allowed to intrude it is idealised, technology is seen as being in opposition to the ideal of rural work. The overall effect is to obscure labour; there is little human involve¬ment apart from the old rustic, the ‘character’, who is only there for decoration.
Advertisers project an image of farming as it existed before the application of modern techniques. By using a picture of someone reaping corn by hand or of horses ploughing, manufacturers hope that their product will be distinguished from the mass-produced competition. That the label bears little resemblance to the way the food are produced is of no interest to them.
But farming is about producing food, the food we buy in supermarkets or from the corner shop. We are given few clues as to its source; plastic wrappings shield us from those who picked the potatoes, pulled the onions, collected the apples and harvested the grain.
Whichever way you look, agriculture seems to be in the midst of some deep crisis. Nobody knows how great the crisis will be and few appreciate the human toll. There are many people relying on agriculture for their living; when a job is lost in the country it is often much more difficult to replace than one in town. The population of villages is changing rapidly. Now it is unusual to find a single farm worker in some villages.
There is constant talk of overproduction and of the rape of the land. Some people argue that the whole system must change; others say that market forces will dictate the shape of the industry. Either way, agriculture will survive; it has to because we need food. As an industry, it has experienced most of the crises facing other industries at the moment, mechanisation, the introduction of new technologies and changing demand for its products. There is talk of a ‘new agriculture’, very different to the one that we know now, with fewer and fewer people employed on the land and economies of scale producing bigger and bigger machinery and more efficient processes. Perhaps then the rural myth will hark back to the days when people drove tractors, milked cows, tended sheep and grew crops. Rest assured, the myth will see this as a better time.
Work on modern farms will continue to be highly skilled, at times unpleasant, often backbreaking and always crucial to the needs of a modern society. It is safe to assume that agriculture will still rely on people; it is also safe to suggest that their work will be hidden from the majority of the population. I hope that Farmwork helps to challenge this obscurity and puts people back into the agricultural landscape.
© Colin Shaw 1988, updated January 2015.