Forty Farms: A Life Through A Lens

The launch of a crucial photography book about agriculture in Cumbria should herald change for all of us
Colin Petch
September 15, 2022

British Life Photographer of the Year Amy Bateman is an artist, physio, farmer, writer, wife and mum and she launches her Forty Farms book and exhibition on Thursday 15th September at Rheged, Penrith.

The exhibition is a festival of talks, debates, films and creative classes, which will run from September to December at the North Lakes visitor attraction.

The visually spectacular – and culturally important work contains almost 500 photographs of Cumbrian farming families, taken since March 2021, at a moment when the rural landscape is changing forever.

Mag North sat down recently with Amy to hear about the personal and professional journey to date that has clearly been one of the drivers behind the creation of this vital collection of words and pictures.

Reading Forty Farms, you assume that the book is the latest of a series of successful releases from Bateman, but it’s her first book.

“I’ve only being photographing for six years” she explains at the outset.

Prior to that Amy had a successful Physiotherapy business in Kendal: “When the children came along we worked out that a change was needed – so I gave it all up.”

So you started taking photographs?

“Well I needed to do something. I was at home with the children – but I’ve got a busy brain – I need to be doing. Okay I was helping on the farm, but I wasn’t making any decisions on the farm (because my husband Colin’s very good at that).

“Children are great subjects – and one of the joys of being a photographer and being able to use a camera – is being able to capture their childhood. They’ve got one hell of a family album to be trawling through after my day!

“We live and work here – and farming is all about compromise – so we don’t go on holiday. I can’t go off and photograph sunrises and sunsets because I’ve got young children, so travel photography’s out. Landscape’s a bit of a no-go. We’re not in an urban environment, so I can’t do street photography, so I just used the camera around the farm – and that’s where I developed an eye for it – and my own little niche which seems to be paying off.”

Your creative practice is entirely your own? You must have been on some courses – had some training? You can’t produce images like that…

“I did. My husband bought me 'Intermediate Digital Photography' – an evening class for 6 weeks at the local art centre. I absolutely loved it and then I continued and did the Advanced one. Then I went on a ‘Sunrise’ weekend in the Lakes with a couple of professional photographers. One of them now works for me – and he thinks its hilarious that he works for me.”

You’ve got a number of awards?

“Just a couple! I’ve stopped entering them now – to give other people a chance.”

Were you pushed to enter them initially?

[Shakes head]. “I’m really, really competitive in everything. I don’t do anything unless I can do it. That’s everything: being a mum. A physio. I must do the best I can.

“Living rurally, I found I didn’t have anyone to share my photography with, so I got on social media – Twitter in particular has a fantastic community of photographers – and was sharing photographs and that’s where quite a few of these competitions are based. The images entered can only have been taken from the last 7 days, which is brilliant – because it stops all these pro’s dipping into their bags and it gives amateurs a chance.

“After having a bit of early success (and you get buoyed by early success don’t you?) You think: I can do this.

“Within six months of doing the course and picking up a camera – I was working in the sheep pens with my husband – and my phone went – ‘ding ding ding’, so I pulled it out of my pocket.

“He said: "It’s like working with a teenager!"

[Bateman read the email] “Oh I’ve won the London Photo Festival!”

Colin, her husband: “You’ve only been photographing for a few months! What have you won?”

“So I scrolled down the email – I’ve won 250 quid!” Our early career photographer was rightly chuffed.

“He said: [husband] where’s your camera – have you got it with you? Yeah? Well keep taking the photos.”

“So when it works…it’s positive feedback: so I kept entering competitions – and winning.”

“I don’t know if my photographs are different? Loads of people can take landscape photographs, but there’s something else…the agricultural angle. Capturing the people: it just seems to work – so I’m running with it!”

At what point did you think: ‘I’m going to do a book and it’s going to be a social history’, or did you think: ‘I’m capturing this moment now because we’ve got seismic change in our world'?

“I can’t take credit for the concept of the book. That’s Dave Felton. He’s my publisher and editor – and a fantastic wordsmith. He wrote the book with me. It was his idea. I got this email in the depths of the initial lockdown: My name's Dave Felton – I’m a publisher. I’ve got an idea for a book and you’re my first choice”.

“And your ego gets a massive rub when someone wants to do a book with you. So we met up in a draughty garage on the farm – wearing masks– I had a heater going under the table. It was November – and we thrashed out what the book was about (he’d already said it was about 40 farms).”

“We realised very quickly the concept was at such a crucial time of change: politically, financially, environmentally. Such massive shifts happening in an industry that normally shifts very, very slowly and a crucial point with the withdrawal of subsides and everything.

“Because I know farming and I know people – and being a physio, I found it very easy to get to the bottom of those stories, because I’m used to getting people very, very quickly to tell me their problem and to ‘open up’ to me. I’m a people person – and I can make a connection very quickly.

And that helped me get the details out of the stories and of course being a farmer – they opened up to me anyway.”

And you didn’t just go in and take pictures – I get you can communicate – but the images are accompanied by real substantial pieces of writing.

“I got all the conversations. I sat down and got people to tell me their stories. I built what I felt was the main part and passed it to Dave – who waved his magic wand. The beautiful turns of phrase – the majority are his. I can write – but it's Dave’s influence that makes the words stand out. But it did make me realise I can write. He needs to be valued for that!

“At the heart of it – we just worked brilliantly together. I’m going to miss working with him. To pull these stories together – and get them bang-on has been an absolute joy.”

Forty…why Forty Farms?

“Originally Dave wanted 60 – but in my mind – as a commercial photographer – I wasn’t sure if it was feasible. The book was originally going to be out Easter ’22, so we had a year.

“Forty farms has got a really lovely ring to it and is probably more achievable without duplicating. The book represents such a wide representation of different types of farm and different types of farming and farmers: the diversification, the products – we tried to capture everything Cumbria produces, but also wanted to capture the ratio. Obviously there’s a lot more sheep farms – but we had to make sure we had new farmers, older farmers, new entrants, female farmers, issues of succession, issues about the future.

“We wanted every type of farming as well as every type of farmer in the book. Not just because it makes it more interesting reading – but so it had a lot of relevance.

“We knew it would reach a lot of farmers but we wanted the public to understand how our food is produced. How the different landscapes are managed. Cumbria is such a diverse county – possibly the most diverse regarding landscape. We’ve got the mountains, but we’ve also got the saltmarshes where lamb can be produced. We’ve got the fertile Eden Valley – the struggling uplands and so as far as landscapes are concerned – there’s lots to cover – but we didn’t want to be duplicitous in any of the farms so Forty Farms fits very well. And it sound good!”

How many of the subjects did you know? Did you draw up a list and say we need to go out and find them?

“Colin is Sector Chair for the AHDB [Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board]. He’s Sector Chair of the Beef and Lamb Council – and has lots of contacts. Dave also runs the ‘Countrystride Podcast’ and knows a lot of people and contacts through that, so we brought a list together – maybe thirty initially – and then got various people involved for recommendation. We used Caz Graham, [Radio 4 Farming Today] Julia Aglionby, [University of Cumbria], and Mark Richards, [outdoor writer]. We settled on really progressive people, because we wanted to show Cumbria off to the best – and I think we’ve got that.”

There is a ‘hope’ that comes out the book…about the future for farming, but what was the honest take – once you’d put your camera down and turned your recorder off? About the short to medium term future for the industry?

“Farming’s got a very challenging future – but because of the type of subjects we chose – everyone’s of the same view that these are ‘challenges’ – and challenges aren’t always negative. The majority of them are using the issues we’re facing now and that are coming down the line – as opportunities to grow and adapt their businesses. Using science and data to massively enhance their businesses and be world-leading.

“The majority of the conversations were incredibly positive about the hopes for the future. We’re not [Colin and Amy] going to encourage our children into farming – because I feel it is too difficult. Although after writing the book, I feel it's more positive than I originally thought – having had these conversations.”

Colin and Amy are clearly ‘early adopters’ as farmers – and people:

“He’s got a science background – he didn’t go down the typical farming route. So he approaches the farm from an analytical and progressive perspective – using data – and using science and looking at what’s happening below the ground to influence what’s happening above the ground. Colin was my key sounding board…I’ve had someone really progressive on my shoulder all the time – to guide and direct.

“I can drive a tractor and a quadbike. I can calve a cow and do all the necessary things, but he makes the decisions – so his guidance has maybe helped shape the book by not putting stories in that weren’t progressive.

“The key word is integrity. Every story has to have integrity. And be valid. To be substantial and stand up on its own.

So there are more people like you – and the Rebanks [another progressive Lakes farming family]  – than the other kind?

“Lots of our neighbours are realising they need to change. Some later than others. Some haven’t quite realised yet – and there’ll be others who won’t hear about the book – won’t know about the book and the exhibition – and they’ll struggle, because they’re resistant to change – and they’re the people who’ll get left behind in the future.”

What has to happen? You’ve referenced there’s a rural/urban disconnect – that’s a fact. What are we going to do? How are we going to feed the nation? When the pressure is also on farmers to be custodians for the environment?

“There’s several things…first and foremost – we have to educate the public. That’s difficult and I hope the book and exhibition is going to do that massively.

“We need to tell them [the public] how food is made on their doorstep – and why it’s really, really important to use food that is grown locally, that’s not travelled far. Keep the carbon footprint small. High welfare, helping nature recover. Once we educate people – they’ll buy into it.

“The problem we’ve got as farmers – is we’re a minority group. There’s only 470k people employed within farming, forestry and fisheries in the UK, so take out fishing and forestry – it’s no wonder there isn’t a collective voice to speak up. They’re beavering away for bloody long hours – to be shot down when they do something wrong.

“To have a project like this to educate is so important. Food grown in this country is more sustainable, it’s more economically viable. It’s more environmentally viable: the more people we can touch with that – the better.

“Young farmers need to be educated to ‘stop doing it like me dad has always done’. Hopefully the book will end up in the agricultural colleges. Loads of kids are coming through – who have no idea what regenerative agriculture is about. Those principals should be adopted at the heart.

“The rural/urban divide is growing. The pressure on these cherished Lake District landscapes is immense. So many people want to have access to the outdoors – and feel it’s their ‘right’ – but have utter disrespect for the landscape – for the businesses. People have such high expectations of what they want from the landscape – and is their right – that it’s often in conflict with what’s happening on the ground – making everybody’s job difficult.

THE NFU [National Farmers Union] are sponsoring the Rheged exhibition and the project has secured an Arts Council grant which makes it free to access, hopefully widening participation.

“The more people who read my book – I think it will help. It’s under 30 quid, so we can hopefully have it in more people's homes. More people will understand farmers and understand we can farm alongside nature – and understand we don’t have to give up meat, just be more selective about where it comes from and to understand that livestock are really important in a regenerative farming system and wildlife relies on the livestock, so you can have your cake and eat it – if you eat the right cake.

“One of the biggest joys of this project was telling the stories of people I knew and really, really felt needed to be told – to have that opportunity to talk about something so close to our hearts. I want to tell as many people as possible – and we’d love to tour with it – we’re trying to get some funding and take it to the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester and the RGS [Royal Geographical Society] are going to film the lecture at Rheged – and hopefully work out how we can get the exhibition down to London.”

The launch on Thursday 15th September is much more than a book release. It’s a cultural moment and an opportunity for us all to learn how we might do things differently in future, to be match-fit for what we know is approaching.

The Forty Farms exhibition opens in the Gallery at Rheged, Penrith, on 16th September 2022 and will run until 4th January 2023.