Efforts to communicate the realities of farming to the public should be welcomed, but they can very easily become a bit cringeworthy for those who are already familiar with farm life.
I was slightly worried that Bella Bathurst’s latest book could suffer a similar fate.
But my concerns disappeared in the first chapter of Field Work when the author sat in with the driver of a knackery lorry for the day.
From collecting dead livestock, to euthanising sick animals, it’s all included in the book in a truthful, non-judgemental way.
It shows the reality of what happens on livestock farms, warts and all.
A large part is centred around her own experience of renting a cottage on Rise Farm, a 180-acre hill farm in Wales
In the book, Bathurst tries to find out “what land does to people and what people do to land” through a series of interviews with farmers and individuals who work within the broader industry.
A large part is centred around her own experience of renting a cottage on Rise Farm, a 180-acre hill farm in Wales. The property is owned and farmed by an elderly couple, Bert and Alison, and their story is told throughout the book.
Bert comes across as a stubborn man, but he has spent his entire life farming and still has the drive to keep working, even as his health fails. Retirement is out of the question, which presents its own challenges for the family and the farm.
Although none of the people interviewed hails from NI, most aspects of the book are relatable to local farmers. The author discusses everything from tight profit margins to bovine TB, as well as topics like succession planning, marriage, and even death.
Even though the book is light on fact and figures, it has clearly been thoroughly researched through her many conversations with farmers and others
Bathurst’s writing is extremely well-informed and thoughtful. Even though the book is light on fact and figures, it has clearly been thoroughly researched through her many conversations with farmers and others.
Her use of descriptive language almost reads like poetry at various points in the book. I found that random sentences, sometimes buried in the middle of a page, would stick in my head for the rest of the day like a catchy song.
“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.”
Small and medium-sized farms, such as Rise Farm with its 300 ewes, are subtly compared to much larger holdings.
For example, Bathurst visits a huge 1,800-acre arable farm that also has half a million poultry. This farm makes money most years, but it has £8m worth of loans.
Rise Farm is barely profitable, although it is debt free.
Bathurst wonders what will happen small and medium sized holdings in the future if scale and efficiency remain essential requirements for a farm to stay feasible.
Most of the students are not expecting to inherit a farm, so their desire for more land to be freed up is understandable
She also interviews a group of agricultural students who want farm support payments to be cut after Brexit so that poorer performers are forced to leave the industry.
Most of the students are not expecting to inherit a farm, so their desire for more land to be freed up is understandable.
But when asked what their dream is, most of the students state that it is to own a small, family sized holding. It is somewhat surprising that they do not want to run large-scale, corporate farms.
It shows the reader that the family farm is still the dream for many. And for those readers who are lucky enough to already have one, it makes them appreciate it that bit more.