Young, Queer Farmers Are Here to Change U.S. Agriculture
“If my existence is rebellious, then my work should be too,” says Tegan, a 30-year-old nonbinary farmer in Tennessee.
Tegan grew up in Chicago and hadn’t thought about much farming until college. In college, they studied women’s health and the environment, and through this work were exposed to their university farm. Since then they have worked on seven farms in various capacities. They currently manage a farm in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Mariam, a 23-year-old pansexual woman who grew up farming in Iowa, says her love of farming started before she realized and accepted her queerness but that her queerness has influenced her desire to farm for her career.
“[Being queer] has pushed me to try and ignore the societal pressures (and what capitalism says we should be doing) and look at what I really want to do and push myself to step outside of the box.”
I became interested in the connection between queerness and farming while doing an AmeriCorps service year in Minnesota. I was in a small cohort of young folks who had also recently graduated from college. Since the program was environmentally focused, it was no surprise that everyone in my cohort was interested in environmental sustainability. What surprised me was how many of these folks were also queer.
It was my queer peers who had the most radical ideas about living sustainably. Rather than simply hoping to find a job in an environmental field, all of these folks were actively engaged with grassroots environmental movements—volunteering with nonprofits, supporting water protectors rights in the fight against the Line 3 pipeline. They were also learning how to live as detached from capitalism as possible—growing their own food, mending clothes, foraging in parks. Several of them even talk about starting their own farms, buying a plot of land and creating a communal living space.
I see the same trend reflected on social media in lesbian “cottage core” TikToks and Instagram accounts for urban foraging tips. But I wondered: how many young people are actually serious about living out their values like this? Specifically, how many are serious about getting into farming?
Then a friend added me to the Queer Farmer Listserv, a Google group that functions like an email chain for queer folks interested in sustainable farming. It was created by a group of queer farmers who founded the Queer Farmer Network.
As it turns out, a lot of queer folks are serious about farming.
“Gender euphoria is driving a tractor“
In recent years, queer—and particularly queer, BIPOC, farmers—have gotten more and more mainstream attention. Articles in Modern Farmer, Civil Eats, and Bon Appetit have given visibility to the current wave of queer farmers.
Taken together with the wave of interest in farming on social media, it might seem like we’re seeing a unique movement of queer people going “back to the land”. But this isn’t the first time this has happened. As recently as the 1970s, lesbians left urban areas en masse to escape the patriarchy by creating all-women farming communes. These communities had their own issues (most were run by wealthy, white, cis women), but they illustrate the longstanding connection that many queer folks feel with nature.
What, then, makes queer folks so drawn to farming? To find out, I surveyed folks on the Queer Farmer Listserv between the ages of 21 and 35
Like Tegan and Julia, many other people think of queerness and farming as different forms of rebellion against the system. At the same time, queer folks find particular comforts in the actual labor of farming. Performing physical labor and wearing “work clothes” gives many folks a unique opportunity to connect with their bodies in new ways. For Goose, 23-year-old genderqueer farm worker in Wisconsin, “farming allows me to feel masculine and aligned in my gender. Gender euphoria is driving a tractor!”
“Farming makes me feel strong in a body that I have sometimes hated in my life,” says Caroline, a 26-year-old farm worker in Wisconsin, “it helps me feel connected to the seasons and to the Earth.”
Nature can also provide a refuge for folks who feel disconnected from or judged by society: “Growing up knowing I was gay made me feel very isolated,” says Sam, a 21-year-old farm worker in North Carolina, “I found a lot of comfort in nature during those times.”
For Archer, a queer farm owner in Massachusetts, it’s about freedom: “I get to cultivate relationships with the animals and the land who don’t have thoughts or statements about my gender and presentation,” they say.
Because of the hardships many queer folks have endured in their lives, some are also drawn to farming because it is a way to cultivate caring communities. Akina, an aspiring farmer in Brooklyn who hopes to start a cooperative farm says, “we want to create sustainable communities that are self-determined and are empowering to us because they provide a space for healing, connection, and growth.”
Queer farmers, sustainable futures?
The National Young Farmer Survey shows that 63.5% of young farmers in the U.S. identify as female, nonbinary, or a gender other than cis male. 24.2% identify as a sexuality other than heterosexual. This is a huge shift from the older farming community, most of whom are white, cis, men. Presumably most of these men are straight, although the USDA doesn’t collect that type of information in their farmer census.
To be fair, younger generations are more likely to be queer in general. One in five Gen Zers and one in ten Millennials identify as LGBT, compared to one in 25 Gen Xers and one in 50 Baby Boomers. We’ve also grown up with the climate crisis looming, seeing headlines about worsening wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts, and calls for action all over social media.
The current movement of queer farmers couldn’t come at a better time. As the average farmer age continues increasing—it’s currently 57.5, according to the USDA—and rural youth continue to migrate to cities, there’s a gap in the food system waiting to be filled. If young queer farmers can rise to the challenge, it could have radical implications for the U.S. food system.
Many queer farmers want to farm regeneratively and agroecologically, transitioning away from monocropping systems and Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). They want to focus on soil health, reducing pesticides, and increasing biodiversity in farming systems. They want to farm as a relationship with nature, rather than an extraction from it. They want to return land to Indigenous farmers and Black farmers. They want to create farms in urban and suburban areas, help people get access to fresh, nutritious food, and alleviate food insecurity.
While these folks have potential to create change within the system, they can only do so if they have the resources to get where they want to go.
Finding Community in Farm Country
Regardless of gender and sexuality, farming is hard work. The physical labor itself is tough on farmers’ bodies. The pay for agricultural jobs is low and they rarely provide insurance. The financial burden of just working on a farm is enough to turn anyone away from this path. For a young farmer trying to start their own operation, finding permanent, affordable land with good soil is a huge challenge, not to mention the start-up costs of infrastructure and machinery. For queer folks in particular, finding an open and accepting employer can be incredibly difficult. Plus, most farming jobs are in rural areas, making it challenging for folks to find a local queer community.
Jaclyn Wypler is the Farmer Mental Health Director at the National Young Farmers Coalition. They have a PhD in sociology, during which they studied why queer folks get into or leave farming. Wypler has found that other than struggling financially, lack of community is one of the big reasons why queer people leave farming.
As the number of queer farmers has increased over the years, people like Wypler have started to create spaces for them to find community. They helped create a queer meet up at the Marbleseed Organic Farming Conference, a large annual gathering for organic farmers around the Midwest. They also helped to create the Queer Farmer Network itself, along with a yearly in-person meet-up for its members.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people I heard from on the Queer Farmer Listserv find community through the internet. All are active members in the listserv itself. Many also follow other queer farmers on social media or are part of farmer or foraging Facebook groups. Some also find in-person communities through local or state-wide organizations that support farmers, like the Jewish Farmers Network, local chapters of the Young Farmers Coalition, or agricultural extension programs. Others find community at the farmers market or volunteering at farms.
Finding community does more for queer farmers than give them a space to be themselves. It gives them an opportunity to learn from other farmers like them—about which governmental programs to participate in, how to apply for grants to help with land access, where to find information about crop rotations that might work on their farm, how to find a good employer.
Young queer folks may have lots of big ideas about the future of farming, but unless they can find ways to stay in the field, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to make those dreams a reality.
While some people on the listserv have already started or hope to one day run their own farms, many people see themselves fitting in somewhere else in the food system.
Mariam, our farmer from Iowa, hopes to work with nonprofits that help create land and market access for former refugee farmers through community gardens and incubator farms. Grayson, a 22-year-old farm worker in Virginia, hopes to work in agricultural extension. Hannah, a 24-year-old farm worker in Wisconsin, wants to support farmers by writing grants, organizing, and helping with social media.
Each of these positions is a vital complement to the people working the land. Without people to connect them, each queer, radical farmer is an island in a sea of monocropped corn. There are many roles to play in the radical, agroecological, and just food system that this generation of queer folks is dreaming up. The first step to making it happen is connecting with each other.
Featured image: Rainbow above a red barn. Image courtesy Jarle Eknes.
Eliza Pessereau (she/they) is a Masters student in Agroecology and Entomology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Their research focuses on the potential benefits of flowering cover crops to provide food and shelter for pollinators.