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Custodians of the Soil: Beautiful images of nature-friendly farmers

Artist Profile - Jo Coates Image Credit: Jack Moyse

An exhibition celebrating the people who produce food while also looking after nature is being held at venues across Swaledale

Stunning images of nature-friendly farmers taken by a farm worker who is also a photographer and artist are going on display to the public in North Yorkshire.  Dozens of beautiful images, taken by talented lenswoman Jo Coates, will be shown at three locations as part of the Swaledale Farming Film and Photography Festival.

It’s a joint project between the Tees-Swale: Naturally Connected Programme and the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), for whom Jo is a Farming Champion publicly advocating for an approach to agriculture which produces food while also helping nature and biodiversity to thrive.

Jo travelled the length and breadth of the UK to photograph her fellow Farming Champions for the project, capturing with her camera everything from a remote upland livestock farm in Wales to microdairies in southern England to a landscape-scale agriculture operation in the Scottish Borders.

Jo, who works on her partner’s family farm in Coverdale in the Yorkshire Dales, said: “Telling the stories of nature-friendly approaches to farming is vital. As both a photographer and a farm worker, I don’t often see farming and the issues within it documented in depth or from the perspective of people’s lived experiences.

“It is so important for our future that we have the chance to document and tell these stories. We need to build understanding and share knowledge of what nature-friendly farmers are doing, and photography has a unique ability to do just that.”

The exhibition, which is titled Custodians of the Soil, begins with 20 boards of photographs going on show in Keld from 25 May to 8 June. A smaller selection of a dozen boards can be seen in Reeth between 15 June and 29 June, while the entire collection of photographs goes on display at The Station in Richmond from 22 June to 4 July.

Joanne Coates, Yorkshire Dales National Park. Promoting land access, social justice through arts and farming. Coverdale in Winter

Jo’s pictures capture the variety and diversity of nature-friendly farming across the UK. The exhibition covers everything from an upland Lake District farm which has areas of wood pasture and horticulture to a large arable farm in Lincolnshire growing crops without pesticides and other chemical inputs to farmers working closely with conservation organisations to use grazing animals to keep landscapes ideal for rare species while also producing high-quality meat.

The exhibition shows the range of landscapes that nature-friendly farmers work in and the produce, including meat, milk, cheeses and arable crops, which are the results of their labours. Jo’s photographs also show a new generation of farmers with a deep interest in protecting nature and a determination to make farms resilient against the huge impact of climate change. The images show family farms passing on knowledge and skills to the next generation and new entrants who are taking up careers in food production.

Sam Beaumont, an upland farmer from Cumbria who is one of the NFFN Farming Champions featured in the exhibition, said: “Jo’s photos are absolutely beautiful and this exhibition is a lovely opportunity to show people that there are many, many farmers doing really great things for nature alongside producing amazing food. It’s not all doom and gloom and bad practices in farming, even though it can sometimes seem that way.

“Jo’s photos also capture the beautiful landscapes where nature-friendly farms are located, which should help us recognise how lucky we are to be living and farming in such an amazing country.”

Mark Holmes, Tees-Swale community engagement officer for Swaledale, said: “This is the third year of the Swaledale Farming Film and Photography Festival and we’re delighted to be working in partnership with the Nature Friendly Farming Network and Jo Coates to deliver an exhibition showcasing the brilliant work of farmers through the lens of Jo’s amazing photography.

“There is lots of fantastic, ground-breaking work going on in the world of agriculture at the moment, with nature-friendly and regenerative agriculture continuing to grow and develop.

“We’re hoping this exhibition, alongside the film screenings which includes ‘Six Inches of Soil’, really helps farmers and the wider public alike engage and better understand the challenges and opportunities farms are encountering.”

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