Farmer or Queer? Researching the Herstory, Challenges & Triumphs Surrounding Lesbian & Queer Farmers

Guest post by Jacyln Wypler, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States

Jaclyn Wypler is a Ph.D. student in the departments of Sociology and Community & Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In this guest blog post, Jaclyn chronicles her passion for uniting farming and sociology, and sharing her research on lesbian and queer sustainable farmers across the mid-western United States. She is currently based in Melbourne and expanding her project to LGBT+ farmers across Australia and New Zealand. 

 Jaclyn on a farm with a donkey named Zorro, Wisconsin, 2016, image supplied.

Jaclyn on a farm with a donkey named Zorro, Wisconsin, 2016, image supplied.

Though I grew up in the “Garden State” of New Jersey, USA, I lacked a connection to farms in my densely populated New York City suburb. This all changed in my early 20s when I was studying sociology at Dartmouth College and visited my college’s organic farm—a vegetable plot nestled along a river in New England. I was enthralled by rows of sun gold tomatoes bursting with sweetness and lettuce growing in tilapia fish tanks. The manager described his journey into farming through the back-to-the-land movement, igniting my passion to meld farming and sociology in order to learn about the lives of those who grow and raise food.

 Dartmouth Organic Farm manager instructing Jaclyn on harvesting cucumbers in a retrofitted greenhouse, image supplied.

Dartmouth Organic Farm manager instructing Jaclyn on harvesting cucumbers in a retrofitted greenhouse, image supplied.

I gained insight into farmers’ experiences by working on small farms in the United States and with women farmers in Peru. As a queer woman, I was supported and out on one farm, hoeing weeds alongside another queer employee who shared thoughts on gender identity and expression. On another farm, I remained closeted, feeling apprehensive and alone as a result of a coworker’s homophobic remarks. I wondered: Did other LGBT+ farmers find acceptance or isolation? How did they fare among fellow farmers and within their communities? Entering a sociology Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison allowed me to research this question, focusing on lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer sustainable farmers in the Midwestern United States.

Friends initially reacted with surprise to this research focus, doubting that I would find such farmers. American conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh expressed similar—though deeply political—remarks in 2016: “I never knew that lesbians wanted to get behind the horse and the plow and start burrowing. I never knew it.” Despite such incredulity, lesbians have a deep legacy on farmland, notably within the landyke movement. Beginning in the 1970s, the movement drew on back-to-the-land and radical feminism to establish communal lands and intentional communities. On these lands, women grew food, practiced rural skills, and hosted events in order to serve as socially- and environmentally-just land stewards.

By attending women farmer events and sustainable farming conferences, I have met and interviewed 42 farmers for my project. Ranging from 20 to 70 years old, the farmers were predominately white, lived in rural communities, and also identified as artists, veterans, mothers, scientists, musicians, mechanics, librarians, and engineers. While some were new to farming, others had decades of experience, like Nett who has been raising organic vegetables in rural Minnesota for 35 years. She coined the term ‘landyke’ and co-founded Lesbian Natural Resources—a non-profit organization that supports lesbians living and working on the land.

 Jacyln with Nett on her Minnestota Farm, image supplied.

Jacyln with Nett on her Minnestota Farm, image supplied.

Trained in ethnography—“the science of hanging out”—I collected data by visiting farmers and attempting to gain insight into how they see and move through the world by doing what they were doing. On farms, I helped pull weeds, herd goats, hoe beds, butcher chickens, and trellis tomatoes. I accompanied farmers to markets, on deliveries, and to run errands, all the while recording our conversations or typing field notes into my phone.

 Longtime participants of Jaclyn's research, Lori and Leann, with goats on their Wisconsin farm where they run  Lucky Dog Farm Stay.  They also own a local food restaurant in their town,  Cow and Quince,  a means to support other farmers and a safe space for members of the LGBT+ community, image supplied.

Longtime participants of Jaclyn's research, Lori and Leann, with goats on their Wisconsin farm where they run Lucky Dog Farm Stay. They also own a local food restaurant in their town, Cow and Quince, a means to support other farmers and a safe space for members of the LGBT+ community, image supplied.

Four years into the research, I am learning that while the farmers did not center their sexuality, identifying first and foremost as women or as farmers, they encountered unique hurdles and opportunities tied to their queerness. Networks between farmers provide an example of this duality.

Though many farmers in the project drew on women farmer groups for support and resources, one farmer ceased attending a regional conference for women farmers due to participants internalized patriarchal values. Women at the conference fed cattle, cleaned stalls, and milked, yet defined their role on the farm in relation to their husbands, calling themselves ‘farmer’s wives’ and not ‘farmers.’ This mentality was “too heterosexual and too dairy” for the lesbian farmer, so she no longer participated and potentially missed out on fruitful resources. Another farmer felt at odds among other sustainable farmers; she was the sole queer vendor at the farmers market and the straight farmers did not acknowledge her queerness. At the same time, her queer friends—non-farmers—did not understand why she had to leave watching queer television shows early to milk her goat. “My queer community is not my farming community and my farming community is not my queer community,” she told me. She felt as if she had to pick one of her main identities: farmer or queer.

In contrast, farming and queerness united during the 2017 season on a Missouri farm. The farm owner Liz, a lesbian, ended up with three lesbian workers for the season. She did not actively seek lesbian workers, nor did the employees search for a lesbian-run farm, but the arrangement provided pathways for young lesbians to have support and solidarity in agriculture, catalyzing their long-term visions for a career in sustainable farming.

 Liz on her Missouri farm, image supplied.

Liz on her Missouri farm, image supplied.

Miserable in the insurance industry, Amanda quit her job and began working on Liz’s farm. “I can’t remember if it was the first day or soon after I got here, but she [Liz] asked me, ‘Are you a lesbian?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and she was like, ‘DYKES, YEAH!’ and was screaming in the field, so excited about it,” Amanda recounted. “It was pretty welcoming.” Amanda had been closeted to her Catholic family for ten years before coming out and still struggled to feel positive about her sexuality: “I’m not super comfortable being out and being gay, and it’s not something I’ve been particularly vocal or proud about.” Being on the farm around Liz, however, provided her with a role model to imagine embracing her queerness. According to Amanda, Liz created a “safe space”:

It just feels really like this is a place where I can be myself and I feel comfortable talking about me and my partner. At the gym that I work at, I do not feel safe there. It’s just not a place where there are a lot of other lesbians. And I just haven’t known a lot of lesbians in my life or gay people in general, so it’s just been really awesome to have other lesbians around me that I can lez out with. And Liz is just so like, ‘F*ck it.’ She’s so proud and she is who she is and she’s a role model for me, where I can be like, ‘Oh, it is fine to be this person. Look how successful she is and she doesn’t give a f*ck and you should not give a f*ck too.’ Sorry for cursing.
 Lauren, Amanda and Kerry on Liz's farm.

Lauren, Amanda and Kerry on Liz's farm.

Amanda planned to work on Liz’s farm for as long as she could, but was aware that she would move when her partner completed graduate school. Amanda wanted to pursue another farm job at that point and described criteria for a boss:

Definitely a woman farmer, if possible. I feel like we have to support each other and I just feel more comfortable around women, especially since the assault. I just kind of struggle with males in general and so I think in all future endeavors that’s going to be a big factor. And I think that I wouldn’t want to work for a place that would be uncomfortable with me being gay and so I think it would absolutely be a factor in deciding where I go. Big time.

In light of her experiences on Liz’s farm—where her sexuality was celebrated by a proud lesbian role model—and a recent assault by an unknown man that left her hospitalized with multiple skull fractures, Amanda desired a career in sustainable agriculture, yet working for women-owned and gay-friendly farms.

Despite issues in women farming and sustainable farming networks tied to sexuality, some farmers in my project found the unique opportunity to work on lesbian-owned farms, blooming in their queerness and blossoming dreams of a farming career. They did not have to pick: queer community and farming community could be one in the same.

 Jaclyn working on a tractor, Minnesota, 2017, image supplied.

Jaclyn working on a tractor, Minnesota, 2017, image supplied.

I am excited to now extend my project to LGBT+ farmers in Australia and New Zealand! I am looking to interview farmers in person or over the phone from mid-February to mid-May. Participants' names and identifying information remains confidential unless the person requests otherwise. I aim to publish the findings in academic journals and eventually a book. If you are interested in learning more about the project or would like to share your story, I would love to hear from you! I can best be contacted at wypler@wisc.edu, or via the below form. Thank you! 

 

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** Excerpts taken from an article written by Jaclyn in 2015, full text here: http://ourlivesmadison.com/article/queering-the-farm/