In recent years, there have been plenty of books and articles about farming, but as Bella Bathurst, author of Field Work, says, ‘often they were polemical: we should be eating less meat, we should be rewilding…’ In response, Bathurst moved into a cottage attached to the 180-acre Rise Farm, a hill farm in Wales, from where she was able to get up close to farming and view it from within. ‘The longer I spent at Rise, the more I looked for something that told me about the individuals, not the systems,’ she writes.
And so, at Rise Farm, and throughout rural Britain – in fields, abattoirs, barns, butchers, polytunnels, corporate farms and small family farms – Bella meets the folk who make up our farming landscape. That landscape is familiar and yet unknown to many of us. In Field Work Bathurst jumps over the wall and meets the people on the other side. ‘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. But places like these were struggling now.’ That struggle, and the struggle of Rise Farm’s fading owner, Bert, plays out movingly and honestly through the book.
Just as Bathurst ‘began to understand things differently once I got to Rise’, so too does the reader. This is in large part down to the relationship she builds with interviewees who seem to open up when she sits down with them. The one exception is the ‘larger holdings with big-name clients selling our standard kitchen essentials – eggs, chicken, chips, burgers’. Their large communication teams didn’t return requests for interviews.
What much of our increasingly urban world asks of farmers, and of nature, is unsustainable – give us cheap food, but stop destroying the natural world. Bathurst digs into the quandary by making the story of farming a personal and particular one. Field Work is a nuanced book – something that has been lacking in mainstream discussions on food and farming. It’s an insightful, compassionate and sometimes funny behind-the-scenes tour of a familiar but little understood world.