Photos courtesy Rock Steady Ranch, They Keep Bees, and Courtney Skeeba
Queer beekeepers, urban agriculturalists, and rural livestock workers are not only challenging conventional farming and food production practices, but the image of farming itself
When Lee Hennessy talks about farming, he talks about choosing happiness. For years he had been living in LA, working in media and Hollywood and advertising, hating it but figuring joy would come once he became successful enough. But one day, he just couldn’t anymore: “I was miserable. So, eventually, I was like, ‘What if I focused on happiness first, and then worried about success afterwards?’” He always loved animals, and the idea of farming. So he put all his money into learning about agriculture, worked on some farms, and then started his own: Moxie Ridge Farm in Washington County, New York.
One choice toward happiness usually begets another. When Hennessy, a trans man, started farming, he says “it was me, by myself, with my animals… and it took a year and a half or two years of that silence, and that work, and figuring out who I am for me to be in a place where I felt safe enough to even realize that I was trans.” Queerness and farming “are very much linked for me in terms of who I am and my experience.”
Despite Rush Limbaugh’s 2016 threats that lesbian farmers are coming for your towns, most straight people, and even some queer people, do not associate queerness with an agricultural life. This is not because queer people have not been part of rural life for generations, but because of a binary of images. On one hand you have a prevalent association of the American farmer as a white, cis, conservative, heterosexual man clad in denim and riding a tractor. On the other you have the narrative for queerness in America, as told by media and many people who’ve lived it, as one of coming out and moving to a city to find your community away from the judgment of conservative, rural life. But like most binaries, the binary between a life on the land and a queer one is false.
Across the country, queer people are farming. They are keeping bees and milking goats, collecting eggs and teaching others how to grow food in their own yards. For some, it is an exercise in queer activism, and for others, it is just one more way to live. But across the board, queer farmers are challenging not just conventional farming and food production practices, but the image of farming itself. Along the way, they’re finding that farming can also change their own perceptions about what it means to be queer.
Regardless of how you look, there is an assumption that one must grow up farming in order to be a farmer. Which is not true for many queer farmers. Ang Roell, beekeeper and founder of They Keep Bees, grew up in Queens, New York, their only experience with farming being a high school job at the Queens County Farm Museum. But an early love for nature led them to study environmental education in Boston and work on urban farming projects. That’s when they discovered bees. “I really connected to the work and the stewarding, it just was very different from some of the other works that I’ve been doing, which is mostly focused on plants and trees. So it’s sort of bridged for me, stewarding with animals and also working in a field, in an agricultural pursuit.” Now, They Keep Bees sells raw honey and beeswax, starter hives, and offers consults to those interested in beekeeping on their own.
Christina Bouza, co-founder and director of Finca Morada, an educational urban farm in North Miami, and Grow Roots Miami, a food justice collaboration that builds free food-producing gardens, came to farming through the restaurant world. They co-founded Cubana Social, a restaurant and venue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and said “it was deep inside this project that I learned firsthand about the injustices and failures of our food system.” Their interest in alternative ecosystems and sustainability grew, and in 2016, after the lease was up on the restaurant, they attended the Black & Latinx Farmer Immersion Program at Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York. It was “exactly the catalyst I needed to shift my focus and my offerings from the capitalist system to land-based ecosystems, make more of an impact in dismantling racism in our food system, and [help] queer and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] folks re-connect to nature, our birthright.”
Amara Ullauri also got their start on educational, non-profit farms in Brooklyn, but that work immediately connected them to their roots. They came to the U.S. with their parents when they were five, but most of their family harvests cacao and citrus on the southern coast of the Andes. “I remember sitting in this Latin American History class [in college], and it hit me that in order to address the history of colonization and also my own family’s intergenerational trauma that is tied to land work… I needed to continue that work.” Now, they are a program director at Rock Steady Farm, a queer-owned cooperative farm in New York’s Dutchess County. “I knew that it was important for my own learning and for my own survival and sustenance that I needed to do this work with other folks who were sharing similar identities and values and queerness.”
However, for other queer farmers, the pursuit of farming was about chasing a dream that didn’t necessarily have to do with queerness, but was influenced by it all the same. Shae Pesek and Anna Hankins own and operate Over the Moon farm in northeast Iowa, which produces everything from eggs to meat to a flower CSA, and which is attached to Pesek’s family’s more conventional farm. She had always had a love for agriculture, participating in 4H and FFA (Future Farmers of America), but went to college in San Diego because, she figured, that’s what you did if you were gay. “I came out [in San Diego] and I really didn’t realize that there was necessarily a place for queer adults in agriculture,” she said. “It was just not something that I had seen. Most people that were queer that I knew moved to cities and I thought that that would be the path for me as well.”
But she missed her parents’ farm, so she moved back, which is where she met Hankins. Hankins studied agriculture in college and worked in food and agriculture activism networks, and she too did not see a future in city life. “I wanted to be somewhere rural and where I wanted to actually pursue growing for people and for the community,” she said. Over the Moon came out of that shared desire to lead a rural life and to bring a more holistic approach to farming, which in many ways, is a queer desire — the drive to pursue what fulfills you, even if it’s not considered the norm.
Queerness helps define how many of these farmers approach farming and food work. Queerness is “how I relate to others and to the lands in a way that is actively challenging normalized relationships that have been imposed through colonization and capitalism,” says Ullauri. For Bouza, that work is also the work of history. They note how, regardless of the pervasive image of the white farmer, much of the farming in this country historically has been done by enslaved people from Africa, on land that was previously managed by Native Americans. “In many other places and times, land managers have historically been women and two-spirited/nonbinary folks,” they said. “The ancestors of queer, nonbinary, women, Black, people of color were farmers, growers, plant nurturers; they were land shepherds, they were in reciprocal relationship with land and nature.” There is also a long history of queer people seeking self sufficiency on farms and rural living spaces, such as the Womyn’s Land lesbian separatists of the 1970s.
The drive toward self sufficiency is what pulled Courtney Skeeba and her wife to found Homestead Ranch in Kansas. After making an effort to produce most of what they consumed, they realized “we grew and produced more that we could eat, and rather than waste the excess, it seemed important to share.” They produce all manner of meat, cheese, and produce, as well as soaps and lotions made from goat milk. And while Skeeba sees queerness as something that can create a shared experience within a heteronormative culture, it’s enough to just be queer and run the farm. “I see farming as an equalizer,” she said. “We as humans must eat; producing that food isn’t any different from one person to the next. At the end of the day that food nourishes the body and brings people together.”
Still, queerness is an influence, even if the goal was not to create a Capital-Q queer farm. Hennessy recalls how, when he was learning to farm, all the land grant community classes were run by big agricultural corporations, selling a very specific, commercial way of producing meat and produce, which was never what he wanted to do. On Moxie Ridge’s website, Hennessy outlines the “behavior-based animal management style” he developed, which eschews mechanized land management techniques. “I could make a case that I’m more of a farmer than this dude that’s doing high confinement pig stuff and selling it wholesale or something at auction,” he said. But rethinking how farming can look, he said, maybe arises from his queerness. “I think what we see with queer people farming is that they’re already comfortable operating outside the norm,” he said. Essentially, if you’re already considered, at best, different from and, at worst, unacceptable to mainstream society, it’s easier to say “fuck it” and do your own thing. “That’s an experience that people that don’t have to go through being an outsider don’t come to as naturally,” said Hennessy. “It’s maybe not a natural realization, but they don’t arrive there.”
Of course, many queer people only become comfortable operating outside the norm because they are compelled to. Queerness in America, unfortunately, cannot yet be uncoupled from struggle. Queer people are discriminated against in seemingly endless ways, whether it’s recent legislative attempts to deny trans people access to necessary medical care, death and violence at the hands of police, dozens of types of discrimination that lead to queer people being more apprehensive about participating in public life, and queer youth being more at risk for self-harm. Figuring out how to live, work, and thrive when many of the norms of life are not available to you becomes a must.
For many queer people, an antidote to the onslaught of discrimination is to seek out queer community, which often coalesces in cities. The federal census and the USDA Census of Agriculture also don’t include questions about sexual orientation or gender identity, so we can’t track just how many queer farmers there are. That means, despite a long history of rural, food-producing queerness, it becomes easy to assume that queerness is incompatible with rural life. “Rural communities have always been home to LGBTQ+ people of color, but their lives and their needs are often unexamined or overlooked,” Logan Casey, senior policy researcher and advisor at the Movement Advancement Project, told Civil Eats earlier this year. The statistics that do exist also show much farming in the U.S. is incredibly heteronormative. There are about three times as many male farmers as there are female, with most women becoming farmers by marrying a male farmer, or by inheriting land from her father. This culture makes it even harder for queer people seeking to get involved in farming in agricultural work to know where to start, and for those already involved to seek community.
There are struggles for anyone looking to open an independent farm. Nearly everyone I interviewed brought up the issue of access to land and capital, with bigger agricultural corporations, or just rich people, buying up all the land. Land ownership is overwhelmingly white; Black farmers lost 36 million acres of their land between 1920 and 1978 to racist policies, systemic discrimination, and violence, and still struggle to receive support in both public and private sectors. And capital tends to be even harder to come by if you’re queer; though there are differences within the community, the Williams Institute found that LGBT people collectively have a 21.6 percent poverty rate, while the rate for cisgender straight people is 15.7 percent. “Land access and the capital to actually build, to be able to stay on your land is absolutely crucial to having a more diversified and equitable farming community,” said Roell. And the supports for starting a farm tend to be geared toward people wanting to mass-produce food and feed on commercial farms, not people building smaller, sustainable farms. “I would like to see more opportunities for independent farms to have easier access to support that is currently geared toward large operations,” said Skeeba. “The value of small independent farms is overlooked.”
The farmers interviewed also detailed some more specific issues of balancing being outspoken about their queerness while also trying to remain relatable to white, conservative customers. Roell finds themself being overly friendly to their neighbors in rural areas, and is hyper aware that if “folks see you working land and working your butt off every day at a manual labor job, they have a lot of respect for you.” Hennessy recalls speaking to his farming community about countering Trump signs in the area by hanging up rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter signs, and worrying about being targeted if he did. “I have to do different work because of what I perceive as my safety,” he said.
But Hennessy also spoke of how farming helped him come to a deeper understanding of his identity. The same thing happened for Roell, who found new language through watching the relationships bees build in a hive. Growing up in a conservative family, they said they formed the idea that their identity was inherently a burden. But “to live around biological systems that are complex and nuanced, and not that easily understood, and also so layered in what their gender and sexuality and reproductive structure is [was] to find a level of acceptance of self that wasn’t accessible for me in a human-to-human connection,” they said. They saw, in nature, that other structures and relationships were possible. “There was this opportunity to see something more complex than myself and understand, oh yeah, we’re all actually these really multilayered beings.”
There is also community to be found, and built. Through organizations like the Queer Farmer Network, Out in the Open, and Not Our Farm, queer farmers have been connecting and sharing resources. They are working on creating more worker-owned farms that can be passed down through generations without debt. They are learning skills from each other. They are meeting and building relationships, even during the pandemic, when they could not meet in person. Which, for some, has made it even easier to connect. “It’s great to have those reminders that we’re not alone in this, or our experience isn’t totally singled out here,” said Hankins, who said that because they manage livestock year round, it is difficult to attend the Queer Farmer Network’s yearly convergences. “We can attend so many more different meetings or workshops, and just sit there online now. It’s something that has made me feel more included.”
The “found family” is a hallmark of the queer experience, to the point where referring to it can feel a little corny. For people who are more likely to be estranged or forcefully disconnected from their family of origin, found family means not just community and friendship, but a network that provides the care, resources, and support that the word “family” evokes. For Ullauri, working on a queer-centered farm means “expanding what a family farm is.” If most farms in the U.S. are inherited or obtained through marriage, queer farming means applying non-mainstream ideas of who counts as family to the project of farming. “We can have so many styles of families, and they can be organized in very different ways,” they said.
Regardless of how the farm looks, what or how much it produces, or if the farmer even owns the land, the goal for so many queer farmers is to let other queer people know that this life is out there, if you want it. And that it is one worth pursuing. “I really have a strong, deep desire to be that mentor that I feel like I needed when I was growing up here,” said Pesek. “It seems important to me to be out: out in the community, out in my business, out in all of the ways, just to be that visibility for other folks.”
It is all too easy to paint a narrative of strife when it comes to farming and living a rural life as a queer person. But that assumption is what so many queer farmers are trying to challenge, to not just build more queer community in farming, but to show queer people that it is possible to live and thrive on a farm right now. “I think a lot of queer people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so dangerous,’” said Hennessy. “And safety really is a thing, but it makes me sad that people feel like they are not entitled to a life outside of the historical queer experience. You’re entitled to this life, and you’re entitled to safety in this life, and you are entitled to see other people living it without constantly being bombarded with overcoming adversity stories.”
Marylu E. Herrera is a Chicago-based collage artist.