Farmer Annie and her prize-winning sheep: Joanne Coates’ best photograph

<span>‘Her passion for what she does really came out’ … Annie Stones on the farm in Swaledale.</span><span>Photograph: Joanne Coates</span>
‘Her passion for what she does really came out’ … Annie Stones on the farm in Swaledale.Photograph: Joanne Coates

I moved back home to rural North Yorkshire in 2016, where I met my partner, a farmer. When you spend a lot of time on a farm, you end up helping out. I’m not from a farming background so I joined a Facebook group for women in farming to feel a bit more supported. You can ask about practical things – no question is a stupid one.

I was photographing working-class women in agriculture when I started a residency with the Maltings in Berwick for my series Daughters of the Soil. I put out a call in that Facebook group asking if any women there would be up for being involved. Only five responded but there was a snowball effect: each one directed me to someone else.

After the residency, I continued the series, and that’s when I got talking to Annie Stones. She was posting a lot in the group and always helping other women. She is the chairwoman of the Young Farmers Club in Reeth. I realised she lived about 15 minutes away from me – I’d actually played rugby with her sister.

It was July 2022 when I went to meet her at her family’s farm, Nun Cote Nook in Marrick, which sits in the Yorkshire Dales national park. I had a cup of tea with her and her mum and dad. Her boyfriend was there, he’s a farmer too. We were just gossiping, then I got talking to Annie one-on-one. Her passion for what she does really came out: she has a full-time job but she spends all her spare time on the farm. A lot of working-class women in agriculture have another job to pay the rent and bills.

A look of determination came over Annie’s face – that’s when I made the image

It’s a beef and sheep farm but the sheep are Annie’s main passion. She had recently won an award at the Great Yorkshire Show with the sheep in this photo: a north country cheviot. We were talking about the show and how excited Annie was to win that award, and I was taking photos as we were chatting using a Mamiya 7: a medium format camera that enables you to be quite responsive.

This photo happened right at the end of our day together. While I was photographing Annie, her dad and boyfriend were standing behind me, and it was clear how much pride they felt for her from the way they spoke. They see her as a vital part of both her family’s and her partner’s farms, and as an equal partner. As they were talking, that look of determination came out on Annie’s face – that’s when I made the image.

We were lucky with the weather: it was a bright but cold day in July. Those are the Swaledale Hills in the background. With that upland hill-farming landscape, you really have to work with the biodiversity of the land, so we were talking about that, and soil health, and how they do rotational grazing. The instrument Annie is holding is what she uses to dress the sheep at the shows – it helps to tidy them up. The stand is used to prepare for shows, too. It keeps the sheep in one place.

Collaborating with Annie also led me to my latest project, Middle of Somewhere, which explores rural gentrification. Buying or renting a home in the Yorkshire Dales is expensive, and since this photo was taken, Annie and her partner have had to move outside of the national park.

Annie is someone who demonstrates the importance of support networks for women in industries that are largely male-focused, and for me, she really stands out. This photo is reflective of my style of image-making in general: it’s gentle and quiet. My aim is to get people to ask questions, whether about gender in agriculture, rural life or working-class people. I hope this photo can change the stereotypes around who a farmer can be. This is a young woman who cares about the land, the place and the people.

• Joanne Coates’ Middle of Somewhere is at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, until 17 November

Joanne Coates’ CV

Born: North Yorkshire
Trained:
“A foundation year in fine art, then a BA at London College of Communication at the University of the Arts London”
Influences: “The film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky and the writers Benjamin Myers, Rebecca Smith, Nan Shepherd and John Clare
High point: “My current show at the Baltic. To have people believe in the work I care about is really special”
Low point: “A few years after university, I lost my bank account because of my student overdraft. At that point, I thought there was no future for me as an artist and photographer”
Top tip: “Be yourself and make what you’re passionate about. Also, maybe piss them off with perseverance”