Queering the Farm

by | Jan 8, 2016 | 0 comments

“Stand up if you’ve been farming for less than five years,” called out the lunchtime speaker to a room of nearly 400 gathered in Iowa at a national conference for women in sustainable agriculture. Chairs scratched as women began to stand up from round tables dotting the room, enthusiastic applause greeting them. The farmer on my right, Helen, was on her feet. In her early sixties with cropped hair and a button-down shirt tucked into blue jeans, she recently purchased land and began raising goats. “Stand up if you’re over 45 and left another career to farm,” the speaker called, and again vibrant clapping chorused around the room. On my left, Margo now stood up, another short-haired farmer with a tucked-in t-shirt. In her fifties, Margo was new to farming and just venturing into the endeavor full-time that season. The speaker then repeated her mantra for educators and activists; a feeling of solidarity spread among the geographically diverse audience members, united by their contributions to sustainable agriculture. (Both Margo and Helen are pseudonyms for real women who opted not to have their legal names used in this article.)

I stood when the rallying call turned to students, a first-year in University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Sociology Department. After undergrad, I had worked on small vegetable farms, in school gardens, and with a women’s farming cooperative in Peru. Now in graduate school, I planned to study women sustainable farmers in the Midwest. Though the number of women farmers is the US has been on the rise, they only compromise 14% of overall farmers and often struggle to be recognized within the male-dominated field. I started research by working with Mary Celley, the Bee Charmer, behind her stand at the Dane County Farmer’s Market. What captured my interest, however, were Mary’s experiences as a lesbian farmer.

After college, I had worked on a small farm in rural Wisconsin. Coworkers perceived me to be straight, privileging me to their casual homophobic remarks, like believing that gays and lesbians were mentally ill or that they feared for society with same-sex marriages and same-sex couples raising children on the rise. I had committed to the farm and worked for the entire season, but I felt tense and isolated by being in the closet. I desperately wanted to find other lesbian farmers—were there others out there? This question was still on my mind years later at the conference in Iowa. It led me to choose a seat at lunchtime between Helen and Margo, two short-haired, butch-looking farmers. As we went around the table introducing ourselves, I mentioned my project on lesbian farmers. Later, Margo invited me to visit her farm and meet her wife, and Helen pulled me aside as we were leaving the auditorium. Helen had a similar question.

“How many lesbians do you think are in there?” she asked. “I wanted to shout ‘and stand up if you’re a lesbian!’” We laughed and pondered the possible number. We were present—though visually identifying lesbians in a sea of hardy female farmers can be challenging—but rarely recognized in the farming community as lesbians.

 Family on the Land

Lesbians have a legacy on the land, at least since the landdyke movement of the 1980s, which paralleled the back-to-the-land ethos with a feminist impulse. Landdykes established communal lands and formed intentional communities where they lived, hosted workshops, and learned new skills. According to Helen, lesbians and landdykes were the forgotten grandmothers to the current movement of women in sustainable agriculture. At this conference, she felt invisible, like a ghost.

Indeed, editorials and memoirs tend to depict straight white women as the face of the sustainable agriculture movement, omitting lesbians or erasing their queerness. An example of journalists erasing queerness occurred in an April 2014 Yes! magazine article on women farmers. The article featured three farmers, including Lindsey Morris Carpenter of Grassroots Farm, LLC located in Monroe, Wisconsin. The journalist referenced the other farmers’ husbands and then described Lindsey as “unmarried.” Lindsey had described herself as queer multiple times in their interview, and same-sex marriage was currently illegal in the state. Lindsey joked, “If it wasn’t, I’d be divorced three times by now.”

Since meeting Helen and Margo in the fall of 2013, I have visited each of their farms and spent time with 12 other lesbian farmers across the Midwest. The farmers are artists, veterans, mothers, scientists, musicians, daughters, vegetarians, wives, and librarians. They range from 22 to 62 years old, some new to farming while others have 35 seasons of experience. They are all white and predominately live in rural areas. As an ethnographer, I collect data by spending time with farmers; my advisor refers to the method as “the science of hanging out.” We attempt to place ourselves in the shoes of the people we’re researching and to see the world through their lens.

I visit farms for an afternoon or sometimes several days, where I pull weeds, hoe beds, and trellis tomatoes. I herd goats, chase escape-artist calves, load hogs, and butcher chickens. I accompany farmers to markets to deliver CSA shares and to run errands in town, all the while typing field notes into my phone. These women have opened their homes and lives to me: they share meals, introduce me to family and friends, and tell personal stories. For their warmth and kindness as I do a job that I love, I am so thankful.

In my research, lesbian farmers can have fruitful lives in the country alongside other lesbian farmers and restaurants. Contrary to my experiences of isolation, I found established lesbian farmer networks in which lesbian farmers create a safe space for other queer people to learn how to farm. Last season, several queer people interested in farming sought out Lindsey of Grassroots Farm and became employees, volunteers, and CSA worker shares. Lindsey describes her farm as “a safe space for womyn, men, kids of all ages, trans-people, parents, retirees, locals, city-dwellers, and queers.”

While these individuals sought Lindsey, Nett Hart of Webster Farm Organic in Minnesota is seeking out interested farmers. She posted a purple flier advertising her land as a place for someone to “learn & earn” while farming 20 hours a week: “Lesbians especially encouraged to apply,” the flier read. Nett coined the word “landdyke” and founded Lesbian Natural Resources, a nonprofit to provide lesbians lands with legal and financial resources. As landdykes, both Nett and Helen wanted their lands to be havens for lesbians to visit, to learn skills, and to live for generations.

The farmers in the Madison area have strong business relationships with other queer farmers and businesses. I met Jennifer DeBolt and Tami Lax of the Old Fashioned and Harvest while working behind The Bee Charmer stand at the Dane County Farmers Market with Mary. Jennifer came to the stand weekly to fill bags with several dozen ears of Mary’s sweet corn. After I introduced Mary, the Bee Charmer, to Lindsey of Grassroots Farm, Lindsey bought Mary’s corn and squash to include in her summer vegetable share. Finally, Lori and Leann of the Cow & Quince local food eatery and grocer in New Glarus source meat and vegetables from Lindsey of Grassroots Farms. The three also talk shop—tractors, hog feed, and chicken breeds—over meals at the couple’s bed and breakfast, Lucky Dog Farmstay, topped with their own goat-milk caramel for dessert.

Building the Rural Connection

But some farmers in my research lack a nearby network of lesbian farmers and express a desire to meet other queers in the field. A farmer outside of the Twin Cities captured this sentiment well: she has a strong group of local farming friends who are all straight. When she visits queer friends in the city, they don’t understand why she has to leave early to do livestock chores. Lesbian and farmer are two important aspects of her identity, and she would like to know people who understand both. With farmers in my research, we have been trying to bring visibility to queer farmers and facilitate connections among them at farming conferences.

At the Women in Sustainable Agriculture Conference the year after I met Helen, she ran a discussion on the legacy of women and lesbian lands. She spoke about her own landdyke experiences, and Nett shared information about resources available through the nonprofit, Lesbian Natural Resources, to the audience of 40 farmers, activists, and educators. We set aside two tables at lunch to continue the conversation. Conference attendees provided positive feedback on the session, describing it as “awesome,” “touching and raised awareness and positions of acceptance,” and “a bonus for those who are seeking a voice.”

In February, we organized a queer farmer networking session at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education (MOSES) conference, the first in MOSES’s 26 year history. Thirty attendees joined the session, ranging from college undergraduates to nonprofit organizers, landdykes to large scale organic farmers. We introduced ourselves and then shared how this group could be of use: people were looking for land, workers, or local farming friends. Some struggled with rural queer isolation and how to be out in their communities. Attendees were glad to have the session, and we played with the idea of queer farmer field days and exchanged emails. “MOSES will never be the same,” one wrote to the group.

 Work Yet to be Done

Despite the success of this networking session, there remains confusion among the farming community about its queer members. One of my professors also attended the MOSES conference and congratulated me on the success of the queer session. He reported, however, that other people had “less than progressive” responses. They didn’t understand the need for the session, joked that “anything could happen at MOSES,” and made sure to set themselves apart from the queer farmers. The professor told me to keep at it: work needs to be done within the farming community so that queer farmers are seen, heard, and recognized.

I remembered Helen at the Women in Sustainable Agriculture Conference, wishing that lesbians had been recognizing during the lunchtime rallying calls. The next morning at the conference, the executive director invited Helen on to the stage. She stood behind the podium and told the audience about the landdyke movement and the legacy of lesbians on the land. “We’re all over the world,” she informed us. “We’re on the land and we’re doing our part.”

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