Cultivating Equality

Who do you imagine when you think of a farmer? Many would picture a man and this is a perception that stems from a long history of overlooking women’s contributions to agriculture. Nevertheless, over half of the UK’s family farm workers are women. Commissioned by The Gaia Foundation for We Feed The UK, photographer Sophie Gerrard (b. 1978) is working to correct misconceptions when it comes to land labour by spotlighting women-led initiatives across Scotland. She highlights two key examples: Grampian Graziers and Lauriston Farm. With the utmost care and sensitivity, Gerrard took photographs of the incredible people who are working the land and changing cultivation practices for the better. The exhibition Cultivating Equality: Women Working with Land in Scotland is now on display at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow. We interviewed the artist to learn more about how the commission came about, honouring the people in front of the camera and the ways even children’s books often misrepresent the farming world.

A: There’s a widespread perception that farming is dominated by men but that is very far from the truth. Where do you think this perception comes from? What would you say are the consequences of this? 
Sons inherit Scottish farms 85% of the time, yet over half of the UK’s family farm workers are women. The Scottish government’s own Women in Agriculture Taskforce concluded that their contribution can be “undervalued, downplayed or simply unseen.” There are reasons women don’t take up forward facing roles, such as unconscious bias, lack of childcare, lack of confidence and cultural challenges. These barriers also stop them acting as role models for others. 

The perception that farming is male dominated is quite a complex. Change can be slow in any traditional industry and we have a great gap between the urban and the rural in the UK, so perhaps there is a disconnect there. Historically, much of the narrative around landscape is male dominated. In her book Shifting Horizons (2001), Professor Liz Wells writes: “The history of landscape, and specifically landscape photography as a genre has been dominated by male perspectives. Not only do we not have women’s stories being told, very few women are telling them.” She continues: “Historically women have not taken a prominent place within the landscape tradition. Women look differently, refusing the more categorical strictures and disciples of the genre, perhaps offering a more affective response to the environment as perceived and experienced.”

A: Could you tell us more about this historic exclusion in landscape art?
Throughout history, the Scottish landscape has been largely represented from a male viewpoint. The Romantic painters of the late 18th and early 19th Century, such as Jacob More and John Knox, and the writings of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns’ all significantly contributed to the enduring romanticized representation of Scotland as a wild, beautiful and mythical setting. During the 19th century, Queen Victoria’s visits to and descriptions of Scotland also popularized the notion of the country as a romantic escape. This reputation has endured and has had a lasting effect on Scottish national identity.

A: In what ways has this romanticised image of the countryside – one presided over by male farmers – changed over time?
SG: Today, the media perpetuates a very traditional view of agriculture. For example, when politicians refer to the sector, their representation is often that of a male dominated industry. However there are many mainstream programs working to address that and doing it well. For instance, This Farming Life has much better representation. Over the years, I have certainly gotten to know and work with so many amazing, dynamic women working with the land. They are celebrated within their communities and work hard to do their best for their families and the landscape. Women have always played a strong part, even in the role of the Farmers’ Wife, which can sound like a secondary role. I also notice when I’m reading to my toddler that so many Children’s story books often perpetuate this idea of the traditional farmer role being that of a man, with the wife at home baking cakes. In reality, everyone’s roles are more diverse than that. There are many women working in agriculture and Cultivating Equality focuses on them first and foremost to change that incorrect view and celebrate the important work that women are doing.

A: How did this project come about? 
Cultivating Equality was made in collaboration with Street Level Photoworks and The Gaia Foundation for We Feed The UK, which celebrates women-led initiatives in regenerative farming across Scotland. We Feed The UK is a national storytelling campaign pairing award-winning photographers and poets with the UK’s most inspiring food producers. These radical collaborations are raising awareness of the food system’s potential to make lasting improvements to our lives and our futures. The Gaia Foundation is a charity that has been working at the nexus of climate resilience, seed diversity and indigenous knowledge for over three decades, both in the UK and overseas. This collaborative project highlights inspiring examples of local, urban and rural responses to global issues of climate change, food security and biodiversity loss. I was commissioned by the Gaia foundation to be the Scottish photographer in a project involving 10 photographers across the UK. Each of us are working with various environmental and agricultural organisation’s and individuals that are making strides to change our landscape for the better.

A: Grampian Graziers and Lauriston Farm are the two women-led initiatives you spotlight. Could you tell us a bit about them and why you selected them as the inspiration for this commission? 
SG: When I was first approached, Ally Nelson and I spent a lot of time decided where I might focus my attention. The more we researched, the more amazing examples of women led initiatives we learned about in the regenerative farming sector. You find one and that inevitably led to another and so on. Time and budget constraints really were the factors which limited us, and so Nikki in Aberdeenshire was chosen as the first project to work with. Nikki Yoxall is a regenerative farmer living in North East Scotland in the foothills of the Grampian Mountains, between the hills and the sea. She runs her farm business, Grampian Graziers (#theweemob), using native cattle to restore the species and carbon rich pasture, which is in such decline across Scotland. Despite their inherent value to wildlife, the UK has lost 97% of its species-rich grasslands. According to the Natural Scot Report of August 2023, Scottish species of rich grasslands now only occupy 2% of agricultural space. Nikki counters this at Grampian Graziers by implementing silvopasture, a land practise where trees are combined with animals, and holistic planned grazing to restore soils, wildlife and plants with her herd. She works for Pasture for Life and is also undertaking a PhD to explore the role of nature connectedness in farmer decision making. Nikki is a power house of energy, working everyday with her cattle. It was a real education for me to see her with the animals, observing and appreciating the whole ecosystem within which she works, and loving what she does. She’s inspiring. 

We also felt there was a need to highlight the dynamism and energy happening in more urban locations, and Lauriston Farm was the obvious choice. It’s a 100-acre site near north Edinburgh, overlooking the Firth of Forth and run by a majority-women workers cooperative as a local response to the lack of affordable, healthy food. The community farm is focused on food growing, biodiversity, and community. When it started in 2021 it was the largest urban farm in Scotland. Lisa Houston is one of the founding members and a power house of the place. She says: “We are wedged between one of the poorest areas of Scotland and one of the wealthiest areas of Scotland. Groups of at least 3 neighbourhood households, or organisations working in the local area with local people can apply for a community allotment. We’ve got a Ukrainian group, a Polish group, a group from Hong Kong and a group from South Africa. Then we’ve got neighbours from mixed backgrounds. We’ve got people from Ecuador, people from France and it’s a really nice mixture which means you’ve got very diverse and international crops. It’s cool seeing the exchange between people when they ask what they’re growing.” Learning more about Lisa and her team of volunteers, growers and co-workers was really such a positive experience. 

A: How did you approach shooting this series?
My approach to both places was different, but they compliment each other in the sense of the care taken to work holistically with the landscape and food production. As an image maker, I am drawn to people. These locations both celebrate people and their landscapes. With Nikki, I spent quite an intense time with her. I lived with her for a few days at a time and became immersed in her world. It was an opportunity to see what she did with the livestock, walk the landscape and really get to know her and where she worked. There were fewer trips, but these were longer and more involved. However, with Lauriston Farm, it worked well to visit little and often. I came and went daily some weeks, and then return a few weeks later.

My portrait-taking approach always involves getting to know people and telling their stories. Here, I wanted to hear why the place is important to them and how they feel connected to their surroudings. On quieter days, I’d really focus on the landscape and the details. Then, I’d return to the people again. It’s often about building connections, spending time and getting to know people. Sometimes I’d be there for a few days just observing and not making images. At Lauriston there is also the added layer of community engagement. There are several organisations working at the allotments who are embedded in the community working with refugee organisations, homeless groups, young people outside of the school system and many more. People come to work with the land for many reasons, such as: wellbeing, mental health, food production and exercise. Here, it was important to consider representation and be sensitive to each individual’s needs.

A: We see people’s hands a lot, whether holding seeds, fruits or freshly plucked vegetables. Could you tell us about the significance of these kinds of close ups?
Spending time and talking to those I photographed was and is huge part of the project. Some of the volunteers and community allotment holders at Lauriston were unsure about being featured in the project at first. Photographing their hands was a good way to show what they were telling me about and visually indicate their presence in the shot. Lauriston Agroecology Farm is situated on the outskirts of Edinburgh, between one of the wealthiest areas of Scotland and one of the most deprived. The average wait for an allotment in far more affluent areas of the city is 12 years. There is simply no access to land for a huge section of the population – and this is the case across the UK. Those not otherwise given the opportunity to tend to the land can do so at Lauriston. With that comes issues of confidence, equality, inclusion, permission, representation and validation. It can be a place full of potentially complex conversations but most people are there to connect – to each other and the landscape. So it was paramount that I approached this project with sensitivity if I was to be trusted, invited back and ultimately welcomed to take photographs there. Hands were often the first photograph many growers and volunteers offered me and they often led to other portraits. These initial shots are are symbolic, welcoming and hopeful. 

A: What would you like audiences to take away after seeing this exhibition?
Primarily, I hope they learn about these projects and then look to see what comparable schemes might be taking place near them. This is a way for them to decide if they are interested and then go along to their local community garden, allotments or market gardens. There is so much scope for positivity in these places and they are everywhere, with new ones constantly opening. There is a sea change; there is a movement. It’s growing in momentum and it’s a wonderful one to be part of. Our Calls to Action includes more information. Climate change conversations are often, understandably, negative. There is a default to doom and gloom and when we read statistics and projections we often feel demoralised and hopeless. Being part of something positive is a tangible change and one which anyone can be part of. 

A: Women’s farmwork is a subject you’ve been exploring across many projects, such as Drawn to the Land (2012-present)What draws you to this subject matter?  
I’ve been visualising our landscape through the eyes of those who are often under represented for a long time. It’s the overarching theme of my practise. I am a Scot and, when I lived overseas in my 20s and 30s, the memories and things I most missed about Scotland were the rural landscapes. I was constantly asked about where I was from and what Scotland was like. When I cast my mind to my “homeland,” I’d think of hills and skies and horizons which are not mine. I’m from a city and have lived in urban settings all my life. But it was rural Scotland I identified with, which I missed somehow.

I wanted to understand this longing. I really think our landscape is part of our identity in Scotland. Yet, that’s a story predominantly told by men. Where are the women’s stories? Where are their viewpoints? What’s my story? That’s what started my curiosity and I’ve followed it in one way or another ever since. I go back to Liz Well’s comment: “Women look differently, refusing the more categorical strictures and disciples of the genre, perhaps offering a more affective response to the environment as perceived and experienced.” I wanted to explore that more internal view, one that is holistic and personal. 

A: Can you share with us any projects or upcoming exhibitions you are working on at the moment?
I’ve been developing some images as a result of this project, called Seedscapes. These explore the multilayered topic of seed saving and seed sovereignty. We’ve lost 75% of the plant genetic diversity since 1900. What that actually means is that we used to have a huge diversity of food crops and we might now have a significantly less amount – 75%  less in fact. Seed diversity is vital if we are to attempt to mitigate the effects of climate change, and seed saving is an important part of that recovery. Those images are part of the project and now available to buy on The Photographers Gallery website.

I’m also continuing my long term project exploring the amazing expanse of the peatlands in Scotlands far north. The Flows is a ongoing body of work I began in 2019 that has been acquired by collections and exhibited. I’m actually there now. I look forward to the flat low level landscape, exploring climate change science, carbon and peatland carbon protection and peatland restoration and conservation. Peatlands are a globally rare habitat that are nevertheless vital in combatting climate change. Although they cover only a tiny amount (3%) of the planet’s land surface, peatlands hold almost 30% of all terrestrial carbon – twice as much as all the world’s forests. Scotland holds a vast amount (13%) of this vital global resource. The Flow Country is widely considered to be the largest expanse of blanket peat bog in the world. It is the principal single terrestrial carbon store in the UK and is of such high conservation value that it is currently under consideration for World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. It’s Scotland’s equivalent of the rainforests and vital for our climate future. 

Street Level Photoworks, Sophie Gerrard: Cultivating Equality | Until 30 June

Ffotogallery, The World Without Us | Until 10 August

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh & Sophie Gerrard

Image Credits:

  1. All images © Sophie Gerrard 2023 – 2024