Pulling Life from the Earth: a review of Fieldwork: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land by Bella Bathurst

Natasha Coleman (Swansea University) and Hannah Budge (Newcastle University).

“Farming is the land, it’s the history, identity, the business [itself], the present, the past, the hopes and dreams, the work…everything bleeds into everything else” (Bathurst Online Interview, 10th June 2021).

Fieldwork, by Bella Bathurst. (NC, 2022).

On Tuesday 28th June we had our final book club meeting before a well-deserved summer break, to discuss Bella Bathurst’s Fieldwork. It was a well-received book and a lively discussion followed. The following blog post reports the discussions we had surrounding this most recent session.

Fieldwork provides a gritty interpretation of the reality to an industry almost all of us rely on but few have experienced firsthand. Bathurst’s ethnographic encounters with farming today spans from one small farm in Wales to multiple lines of enquiry pursued across the country. The book weaves individual tales of what one attendee, Dr Bethany Robertson, calls a ‘constellation of actors and events’, framed in relation to large-scale structural changes into which farming must redefine its place in our rural landscape. Bathurst moves from small family farms to giant Agri-businesses merged into the fringes of urban industrial units and everything in between. She meets vets, knacker people, farm succession experts, rural dating app entrepreneurs and young farmers, who display much awareness of all the challenges their futures face yet are largely undeterred and full of ambitious plans to redefine what it means to work and manage the land.

It was clear during the discussion that all attendees had appreciated the book, with positive reviews and a resounding agreement that we would recommend it to others. This was to the extent that it has now been added to the reading list of Dr Keith Halfacree’s rural geography module, highlighting both its accessibility as a text and the challenge it brings to the idyllic portrayal of the British countryside, evident in many media outlets. Interestingly, reactions from the group did nonetheless include observations that the author had perhaps taken divergence from the idyll a step too far, as the text could be seen as painting a bleak picture of farming in the UK. However, it was highlighted that the book did end with positive reflection in the epilogue and that the issues addressed throughout Fieldwork would not have suited a generally uplifting tone.

This next section now returns to the key points the group discussed. Although there were many themes and issues highlighted, we have selected those which we believe captured the essence of the overall discussion.

The public perception of farming was addressed in initial chapters and continued throughout, highlighting the importance and changing nature of this topic. A key quote which a number of participants raised was the comparison between the police and farmers: “In the public mind, farm[ers] have become like the police” (p.10). While farmers were once seen as providers for the nation, Bathurst demonstrates that a proportion of the general public now view them as an enemy, despite being unable to “pinpoint exactly what [they] had done that was so bad” (ibid). Whilst topics surrounding what the police have done wrong is now a very live political issue, this is an interesting comparison and very much reflected some of the points raised in the discussants’ own research and had viewed on social media.

A further theme discussed was the changing nature of the farmer’s identity. Within the book, recognising the diversity in the agriculture industry is seen as a challenge which still needs to be overcome. The question of who is a farmer and what that means in modern day Britain is a very live issue. The range of farm sizes, focuses and diversification projects all mentioned in Fieldwork highlight the breadth of enterprises which now make up British farming, making defining what is a farm or farmer a challenge. However, contrary to this, one discussant pointed to one of the penultimate chapters, which focused on Bathurst interviewing a number of students at the famed Harper Adams University agricultural college. After much discussion regarding the future of farming and where these students saw their place in it, all agreed their ideal situation matched with an old dream: a patch of green land with a few cows and sheep. This highlighted to the group that a version of the rural idyll is still at play, even with the reality of the countryside being much removed from traditional portrayals, the old dream remained very much alive.

But where, though, is this ‘old dream’ today? Bathurst goes on to observe that in recent decades agriculture has “moved so far, so fast” being both ‘insular’ and ‘global’ with the marks it makes upon the land visible from space (pp.16-17).

Of course, as rural studies researchers we do not need to read Fieldwork to know the stakes in the rural and especially in land are ever growing and that farming is changing as a result. However, Bathurst sheds more light on how these public demands are impacting over 70% of the UK’s land used for agriculture and on the dwindling number who sustain it. Two key themes we drew from the book surround: (1) Farm diversification and (2) Increased formalities for farmers.

1.) Bathurst highlights the diverse shifts farms have undergone to ultimately remain profitable and allow continuity. She speaks of farms where ‘diversification has overwhelmed’ what were originally production based businesses – the green fields commonly associated with farming – to the extent that in some cases even “diversification has diversified” (p.157). Examples of new avenues that have emerged since the 1970s include: B&Bs and holiday lets, green energy, game shoots, direct sales and more obscure enterprises from paper mills to motorway services, microbreweries to alpacas. Diversity is everywhere!

2.) The other side of this burgeoning diversity, however, is an increase in the bureaucratic hurdles farmers and land managers are expected to jump through, especially in light of the devastating consequences of Foot and Mouth, an epidemic which led to the slaughter of 6 million animals (Convery, et al, 2004; McKie, 2021). In recognition of this we spent some time discussing Chapter 1 (Fallen Stock):

“In the past, a dead animal had a use, and thus a financial value. There are still older farmers who remember the days when the knackers paid them, not the other way round. Bone was fertiliser, meat was food, fat was candles, fleece was wool and hide was leather. Now, most of those uses have gone” (p.40).

Instead of utilising the fallen animal, for Bathurst the end of a life is becoming “as antiseptic as modern biosecurity regulations can make it” (p.23). As we as a society of course now navigate our way through a Global Health Pandemic, we as a group questioned whether such measures are now a necessary reflection of our increasingly detached and expanding global food supply chain. Again, books such as Fieldwork importantly remind us of what it takes to bring food, and increasingly other resources, to our tables and (re)connect us to those who bring it to our plates.

This brief post has hopefully shed some light on Bathurst’s fascinating book and also demonstrated how the RGRG Book Club promotes vital conversations and communications between and beyond scholars. The Club is set to return in the Autumn once the committee is back from (hopefully) enjoying some sunshine after another busy academic year. The Book Club is open to everyone and runs around once every three months via zoom. The only prerequisite is to have read at least some of the book and to be happy to share your thoughts and reactions! Our next discussion focuses on Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections by Corinne Fowler. We will announce a date via @RGRG_Rural Twitter soon.

Finally, we hope you have enjoyed this short post and will be encouraged to join our reading group or set up your own! Now, to enjoy a little bit of summer away from the screen…

Natasha and Hannah.


Bathurst, B., 2021. Fieldwork Book Club – Discussion with Bella Bathurst. [online] Youtube.com. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWzHST_R2S8&t=125s [Accessed 18 July 2022].

Bathurst, B., 2021. Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land. 1st ed. London: Profile Books.

Convery, I., Bailey, C., Mort, M., & Baxter, J. (2005). Death in the wrong place? Emotional geographies of the UK 2001 foot and mouth disease epidemic. Journal of Rural studies, 21(1), 99-109.

McKie, R., 2021. Foot and mouth 20 years on: what an animal virus epidemic taught UK science. The Guardian, [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/feb/21/foot-and-mouth-20-years-on-what-an-animal-virus-epidemic-taught-uk-science [Accessed 18 July 2022].