Last year two artists, Ruth and Anne Marie, approached me with a request to host an art project to grow a field of wheat.
I really didn’t know what I was getting into – initially I had visions of painting the field pink or carving interesting shapes into the crop with a combine – but as it’s turned out the Field of Wheat project is a lot more than that. And a lot more relevant to farming than that.
This social art project is for a group of individuals from very different backgrounds, with differing values and expectations about food and farming, coming together to form a collective and share in the financial risk of growing a field of wheat. And for these individuals to work together to come to a common decision on aspects of growing and marketing of the wheat. This international collective is made up of a diverse mix of people from local residents, urban families, food systems specialists, agricultural financiers, agronomists, artists, Quakers, researchers and academics representing a broad cross section of interests in food production.
Every member of the collective has ‘invested’ their own money to buy a share in the field of wheat which they may or may not see back when the wheat is sold depending on the yield of the field of wheat and also the price of wheat on the international market place.
In this way every member of the collective is taking the same risk as any other wheat grower and is experiencing the same feelings – from optimism to despair and back again – felt by every grower through the wheat growing cycle.
Of particular value in my mind is that this crop of wheat is a mainstream feed wheat variety that will be grown conventionally (ie using agrochemicals) and is part of, and destined for, the global marketplace for feed grains. In this way it’s fascinating to compare and link the influences (climate and pests/diseases) on a field of wheat growing on a 22 acre field on Branston Fen, Lincolnshire with the wider global market place and the influences (political and financial) on that global market place.
Into the decision making mix comes a number of contentious issues: climate change, land ownership, soil erosion, pesticides, artificial fertilizers, food safety, water quality, employment, environment, the rural economy, and many more.
As the field of wheat project is developing I’m coming to understand its significance and the importance of art – especially social art – in making discussion between those of polarised opinions possible without the discussion degenerating into a slanging match.
The field of wheat art project has adapted from the Quaker religion a methodology of considered discussion. As in the Quaker religion, where an individual waits until they are inspired to speak and others listen patiently before taking time to consider a response, the field of wheat collective has adopted a similar format where everybody gets the chance to make a considered contribution and everybody takes time to consider that opinion before making their response – which may or may not be directly related to previously expressed opinions.
I think this is an exciting and unique format that has the potential to allow informed discussion across the polarized opinions help by everybody with an interest in farming, food and the countryside – be they farmers, consumers or environmentalists.
And that can only be a good thing.