Unique exhibition tells story of Yorkshire Dales farmers

Carol Moffat, with parents Brian and Anita Horner, Thwaite Head Farm, Garsdale.

A once-in-a-generation exhibition about farming in the Yorkshire Dales – featuring audio recordings and photographic portraits of farmers from across the national park – will open this Friday at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.

Kendal-based writer Harriet Fraser and photographer Rob Fraser have – with a team of three students from Leeds University, and 12 volunteers – spent the past year creating Voices From The Land, a unique record of Dales farmers’ practices, ideas and personalities.

A total of 27 farmers were interviewed, including Martin Coates in Widdale and Carol Moffat in Garsdale.

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They shared their views on everything from changes in the climate to the perfect Swaledale tup, and from the art of mole-trapping to the uncertainty caused by Brexit.

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to view monochrome portrait photographs of each farmer, accompanied by a description of the farmers’ land and stock holdings.

A further 19 colour photographs, taken at agricultural shows and on farms, will be on display.

Listening stations will be set up so that people can hear the audio recordings, while feature-length articles on each farmer – based on the interviews – will be available to read.

All the photographs, writing and audio recordings gathered during the course of the project will be archived at the Dales Countryside Museum, and will also be archived at Leeds University.

“Voices From The Land meets a vital need,” said Dales Countryside Museum manager, Fiona Rosher.

“Our collection provides a great insight into farming practices and personalities from around 1930 to the 1980s – but we had precious little to reflect the period since then.

“Voices From The Land will bring our collection up-to-date and provide a valuable and entertaining resource for people today, as well as for future generations.

“Harriet and Rob and the volunteers have spent many hundreds of hours visiting farmers and going to shows, and conducting and transcribing the interviews.   This is going to be a fascinating exhibition and I would urge everyone with an interest in the Yorkshire Dales to come to see the photographic portraits and hear the distinctive voices of the keepers of this land.”

Thomas Iveson of Low Blackburn Farm in Hawes was one of the interviewees.

A champion Swaledale tup breeder, his description of the best tup he ever saw – which went by the name Aygill Officer – gives a flavour of what visitors can expect:

“The hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I think about him,” he said.

“I went to see him at his home. He came down the hillside and blew me away. Just the depth of his black – the deepest black, with the brightest, hardest white – it just hit you from a distance.

“It was his bone, and the silver on his eyes. He wasn’t great on his legs, a little narrow behind as we say, but he was quality: the tup of my lifetime.”

Harriet Fraser said it had been a privilege to spend time with the farmers:  “All of the farmers interviewed were exceptionally welcoming and open about sharing what was important to them.  Each farm was unique but all the farmers shared a deep passion for caring for livestock in the best possible way in the landscape in which they found themselves.

“I found a strong commitment and desire to farm in a way that works with the landscape.  But there is some frustration with the way current schemes are designed and run; and together with this, an interest in taking part in shaping new schemes.  All would like to see support which avoids a general slide into ranch-type, large-scale farming or more intensive farming.”

Photographer Rob Fraser gave an insight into his technique:  “I used a cumbersome old-fashioned plate camera – and took only four or five photos at each shoot. The long process of setting up the camera helped the farmers to relax.

“I wanted them to look comfortable in their environment – it was their farm, their land.  All I asked was that the farmer looked directly into the lens to engage with the viewer.  It was a chance to capture their strength of character.”

Voices From The Land will open on Friday and will run until the Dales Countryside Museum closes for Christmas on December 22. It will remain in place for a few weeks once the museum re-opens in February.

The project is being run by the Farmer Network – a not for profit organisation solely developed to help, support and guide farmers – and is being supported by grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s Sustainable Development Fund.

The Voices From The Land website is  https://dalesfarmers.co.uk/