Farmer Stories

Joanne Coates - Using art to bridge the gap between people, food and farming

Case Study
new entrant

Initial profile image: Jack Moyse
All other imagery: Joanne Coates © Nature Friendly Farming Network

Many people might think there's an art to farming, but this is literally the case for Joanne Coates. When she's not helping to run her partner’s family farm in the Yorkshire Dales, she's exploring issues around agriculture, rural life, and communities as an acclaimed visual artist and photographer.

Joanne was raised in North Yorkshire and was always interested in farming, doing agricultural work as a teenager. However, the world of arts and culture called, so she went to study in London. Curiously, though, in the big city, Joanne realised that all her artistic work was drawing upon her experiences in the countryside and the lives of the people who work the land.

When she met her husband Dan, who comes from a farming family, it wasn’t long before the couple were spending a lot of time doing agricultural work together. Now, as well as helping to run the upland livestock operation at Moorhen Farm, Joanne has a supporting job milking cows. She describes the farm’s location as a typical Yorkshire Dales valley with mist-wreathed moorland at the top of the site, dry stone walls and the farmland stretching down the hillside to the river.

People are increasingly disconnected from farming through no fault of their own, through living in urban places. I don’t think people know enough about nature-friendly farming, and I think it’s really important to open up your farm if you’re doing nature-friendly things so people can come and ask questions. We have a project where we have a meal and do quizzes and games, which creates a better environment for people to ask difficult questions about things they don’t understand in farming. It’s important for farming not to be an inward-looking sector.

Joanne Coates

Joanne and Dan are hoping to take over the running of Moorhen in the next few years, and the farm’s nature-friendly journey is already well underway. She says Dan’s family have traditionally run it in a sustainable way, focusing on an approach that works for the specific land they farm. They switched cattle breeds to raise native Shorthorns for beef on the 150-acre site and have been working together on planting some 2,000 trees across the farm. Joanne says their efforts have definitely paid off in terms of increased biodiversity over the first six years at Moorhen.

Joanne and Dan have joined Pasture for Life and are being mentored as they consider moving towards a system where the farm’s 60 cattle are entirely grass-fed. Currently, the animals are rotationally grazed across 20 fields but do receive some cake and silage from the farm. They are also kept indoors from around November until mid-March when there is often snow in the Dales.

Joanne and Dan have plans to create more hedgerows at Moorhen and they're considering keeping pigs in the patches of woodland that dot the farm. Dan, meanwhile, has developed an increasing interest in soil health, which it is hoped will build up the farm’s resilience as the threat posed by climate change becomes ever clearer. “I had never seen weather like we had in 2021 when we had flooding, but that’s not a one-off,” she says. “These weather events are happening every few months now. People further down the valley than us lost sheep and were underwater. It’s a real sign that change is needed and can’t be ignored any more.”

Joanne says the move towards Pasture for Life has been gradual. “We were thinking about how climate change affects the land and how we could change that,” she says. “Traditional, family-run farms are already working in quite a nature-friendly way. They’ve already got mob grazing. They’ve historically had hedges even if they’ve been taken out. They’re planting trees, they’re looking at what the soil is doing, they’re making sure they care for the landscape and work with nature. I think it’s our responsibility to add to the knowledge that has been passed down generationally.”

In addition to farming herself, Joanne digs deep into issues around gender, class, and rural life in her work as an artist. One of her highest-profile projects to date has been Daughters of the Soil, which focused on women in agriculture and was acknowledged by Scottish politicians and the media. She is now continuing the project in the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District and is a proud champion of women in agriculture.

“The roles of women in agriculture need to be talked about and visible,” she says. “The main issue is female succession, because the statistics on that are dire. I also want to highlight the roles and responsibilities women have on farms. Nearly every woman I spoke to said they ‘just’ did the paperwork, and I was thinking that’s actually a vital role for keeping the business viable. They’re usually keeping the whole family going and often doing work that runs the farm, too.”

We sometimes bring people from the arts world for a walk around the farm. People think of huge industrial farms, and it really challenges their perceptions when they see a small farm with happy livestock, cows with their calves, a landscape and people like Dan’s parents who are connected to it.

Joanne Coates

Joanne says she would like to eventually bring the two strands of her career together by creating an arts venue on the farm to host events or residencies for people in cultural industries with little experience of agriculture or rural life. However, while Joanne says diversification is currently vital for smaller farms to stay afloat, she has mixed feelings about how much work people in farming are having to put in. Her milking shifts can involve very early mornings and late nights at each end of the day, as well as farming at Moorhen and her art, while Dan juggles his own family’s farm with contract work at an arable farm around 40 minutes away.

“Farming will always be a tough job with unconventional hours, but it shouldn’t be to the detriment of people’s physical or mental health,” she says. “In the 1940s or ‘50s, farmers worked very differently than today. It's now almost seen as a given that farmers will have other jobs, but they need to take care of themselves to make sure they are the best custodians of their land and animals.”

Joanne is keen to celebrate new entrants in farming and help lower the barriers people face to a career in agriculture. She says she has found people willing to help her learn and teach her but has also heard of women finding places like the auction ring a difficult environment. She says more training and apprenticeships for future farmers would help, but it is not just agricultural skills that are required. “You need a lot of knowledge to do nature-friendly farming and run a viable business,” she says. “I think it can be quite daunting for people looking to start up.”