Inspired by his background in farming, Manchester-based photographer Duncan Elliott visited 200-year-old Stocks Farm in the Midlands of England during hop season to capture the intricacies of cultivating hops over the course of a farming year. His prior experience with breweries made his focus on hop harvest a great fit for a shoot about natural progression. The vision for the self-assigned project was to capture the down-to-earth feel of working long days on the farm, through the unpredictability of mother nature, while highlighting the camaraderie and artistry of the work.
I wanted it to be natural and emotive and I didn’t want to sugar-coat how hard the work is – long hours in whatever the weather throws at you.
Prior to the shoot, Duncan was in close contact with the farming managers George and Felicity to stay on top of the planning. They had a rough idea of what could be documented and when each process would happen. It was just a matter of keeping an eye on the weather and managing the logistics around his other bookings and the availability of the rest of the crew. Over the course of four months (April-August), Duncan visited the farm six times and shot thousands of photos to document the technique and capture the subtleties that best tell the story of what it takes to harvest the crop.
The hop yards I’d seen during my research looked fantastic. As soon as I saw one I knew I wanted to do a project about them.
Situated near the Malvern Hills, Stocks Farm is a picturesque location not far from the Welsh border. The gorgeous setting and mild temperatures made shooting outdoors a welcomed treat for Duncan. Farmers are early risers and begin working before sunrise, which meant Duncan could shoot in the most beautifully lit parts of the day. The bright-colored skies of daybreak were the perfect backdrop to illuminate the setting and capture the charm and effort of the farmers’ craft.
One of the great things about photographing agriculture is you don’t often have to convince people to be up for golden hour – very often they’re up before sunrise.
As this was a self-assigned project and not a commercial shoot, Duncan had to be mindful of the farmers and work around their schedules. He couldn’t expect them to take extended periods out of their working days to suit his demands – especially during harvest time. As a result, Duncan and his crew made their way through the fields, enmeshed in the day-to-day life of the hop farmers as he highlighted both the arduous nature and beauty of the profession.
We were often grabbing footage and photos between coffee breaks and tractors breaking down.
Hops are the female flowers of a plant and are hardy perennials. With hundreds of varieties, each variety has a distinct flavor used primarily as a bittering, flavoring, and stability agent in beer. Ranging from 16 to 25 feet tall in full bloom, the tiny buds completely transform over the span of four months. German beermakers have been using wild hop to flavor their beer for hundreds of years and hop was first introduced to the United States from England in 1629.
I loved seeing the transformation of the hop vines from tiny buds to towering up 18ft high. It was remarkable seeing their transformation during each visit.
Besides learning the nuances of hop harvesting and soaking in the beauty of nature, Duncan also really enjoyed getting to know the people who work on the farm. He met full-timers and seasonal workers on temporary visas from countries such as Russia and Hungary. He even became good friends with Sam, a Uzbekistan native who worked in the country for a short time and Duncan now plans to travel to and photograph Uzbekistan.
That’s what I love about this job, you get to meet people from all over the world doing all sorts of things.
With a greater appreciation for the craft and hop harvesting knowledge under his belt, Duncan is taking his project one step farther and producing a promotional mailer and brewing a beer in collaboration with a local brewery, Cardinale. He’s going to use the hops from Stocks Farm so folks will be able to taste the beer that corresponds with the hops they’re looking at. There will be a limited run of 50 promos sent out with a beer to art buyers and designers. Duncan is actively looking for those with interest in this project and the promos will be distributed in February 2022.
I know a lot more about hop farming than I did before! It never ceases to amaze me how hard farmers work, sometimes the days just aren’t long enough to get it all done – nature is relentless.