By Jaclyn Wypler
Jaclyn Wypler (email@example.com) is a PhD student in the departments of Sociology and Community & Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (United States), where she is currently researching LGBT+ farmers. Earlier in 2018 Jaclyn wrote a guest blog post for the Invisible Farmer Project where she reflected on the lives and experiences of queer American women farmers. In this follow-up blog post, Jaclyn shares her experience of travelling to Australia and spending six months in New South Wales and Victoria, where she interviewed queer women farmers about their experiences of farming and community life. She uncovers the stories of Ann-Marie, Carla, Em and Dianne, and profiles how these women have fulfilled their dreams to farm and build strong support systems in the process.
Under the shelter of trees during a rainstorm, Bella told me about her recent decision to leave farming in rural New South Wales. Bella felt isolated and lonely as “one of the only queers in the village” where 47% of voters deemed her love unworthy of marriage. “My bloodline is seriously agriculture and farming,” Bella said, “and obviously it’s tricky because I don’t have an audience out there that’s like-minded.” Whereas she previously lived among like-minded people in Sydney—earning a degree in agricultural sciences and running an organic food company—her days on the farm consisted of working alongside her father and declining dates from men, childhood friends thoroughly aware of her sexuality. “My passion is in farming. I absolutely love it. If I could move that farm to the Blue Mountains and be close to Sydney, I would love that. I’d have the best of both worlds,” she told me. Unable to relocate the farm though, Bella made the challenging decision to leave farming and move to an urban area to live alongside more like-minded people.
As I spent six months interviewing farmers in New South Wales and Victoria and I wondered: is it possible for queer farmers to have the best of both worlds, to fulfil their farm dreams and have a like-minded community? If so, how do farmers establish strong social supports as farmers and as queer women?
In my research, I met several thriving farmers surrounded by supportive community. I visited Ann-Marie and Carla – goat farmers and cheese makers – who trained other women and earned the respect of farming families in their rural Victorian community. I spent a morning with Em at Joe’s Garden in Coburg, Victoria, who personally connected with neighbours and established a queer inclusive space on the farm. I spoke to Dianne – a cattle farmer in rural New South Wales – about transitioning in her 60s and creating a gender diverse support group. Though each farmer made it work, their efforts were intentional and involved some concessions. In a moment when it is vital to support those passionate about farming, I hope that the stories of Ann-Marie, Carla, Em, and Dianne provide blueprints for other LGBT+ people to enter and remain in agriculture.
Ann-Marie & Carla: Sutton Grange Organic Farm, makers of Holy Goat Cheese
As Ann-Marie and I drove to her farm near Castlemaine in Victoria, we compared Saturn Returns – an astrological period in your late 20s associated with pivotal life changes. Whereas I was in my Saturn Return, marked by living across the world for six months, Ann-Marie reported, “I became a lesbian.” She met Carla during this period, and the two began their journey as life and farm partners. Although they had been living in a tight-knit Western Australian lesbian community, they prioritised farming and moved to Victoria in 1999 to be near better soils. At the time, they perceived the area to be “hostile territory,” but were determined to make it work.
Ann-Marie and Carla created a place for themselves in the community in three ways. First, they demonstrated their commitment to their neighbours by joining the Country Fire Authority. Second, they brought pride to the area by producing quality cheeses. When Ann-Marie and Carla won their first cheese award, the three longest time farmers in the area called to say that the couple was an asset to the community. “We are surrounded by bloke farmers and they think we’re okay,” Ann-Marie told me. Though respected by their immediate neighbours, they differ in farming practices; Ann-Marie and Carla therefore tend to socialise more with farmers who live further away but share their organic methods. Finally, Ann-Marie and Carla surrounded themselves with other women dedicated to agriculture. When I visited, I worked alongside a woman employee in her 20s and met two former employees—women—who each went on to launch farming businesses. Ann-Maria declared, “We are a real women’s farm and I think it’s brilliant.”
Em: an urban farming community at Joe's Market Garden
Located in Coburg (Melbourne), 2kms north of CERES Community Environment Park along the Merri Creek bike path, Joe's Market Garden is a two acre plot that has been farmed continuously by Chinese and Italian gardeners for over 150 years. Em is the resident farmer at Joe's, and she regularly runs tours, workshops and information sessions on the farm. I joined Em on a tour of the farm, where she began by detailing the land’s agricultural roots from Wurundjeri cultivators and trappers, to Chinese market gardeners in the 1800s, to the Italian family who bought land in 1945. This family mentored Em, teaching her not only how to farm, but also the importance of community.
Em knows the farm’s urban neighbours by name and invites them to farm events, such as “weed dating.” At this event, Em began by asking people to share their pronouns, explaining to the largely straight neighbours that stating pronouns is a way to signal safety and inclusion to queer and trans* people. “It was a good space to have that conversation because they’re open to me in a different way,” Em explained, “[I’m] not just that weird gay girl.” In situations like weed dating, Em does discuss queerness on the farm, yet she intentionally does not centre it every day. Rather, she chooses to make environmental sustainability the farm’s main focus. Nevertheless, Em estimated that many of the roughly 23 lesbians who live within a three-kilometre radius of the farm attend the Saturday market. “They’ve been drawn here,” Em told me by her queerness and the several other queer people who contribute labour to the farm. Though “very closeted” when she started working at Joe’s Garden, Em now proclaimed, “This is the queer farm of my dreams!”
Dianne: farming 300 acres and supporting gender diversity
At the peak of her career, Dianne oversaw 3000 acres in rural New South Wales, earned all of her money from the farm, and mentored other farmers. Though worried about sounding conceited, Dianne eventually conceded, “I was a pretty darn good farmer.” Today, Dianne farms cattle, hay, and wheat on 300 acres. She lost much of her land to divorce; when she came out as a transwoman three years ago at 60, her then-wife left her.
Despite losing land and love, Dianne found acceptance in her local community. People at cattle sales greet her by name and when she attempted to resign from associations and boards—worried that others would quit because of her involvement—other members refused. “You can be you as long as you’re not in people’s faces,” she shared. In addition to ally support, Dianne created a gender diversity group that holds monthly dinners. Roughly 15 LGBT+ people travel upwards of 100 to 220km in order to attend. Though not optimistic about dating prospects in her community, Dianne is the happiest she’s ever been and remains committed to her land: “I’ll die on the place if I can.” Friends applauded her bravery, but she doesn’t think she’s brave; Dianne is finally just being herself.
Mostly the Best
Queer women farmers can achieve farming dreams and like-minded community, mostly, in their NSW and Victorian communities. Ann-Marie, Carla, Em, and Dianne all personally engaged and invested in their local communities, earning neighbors’ trust and respect. They also created safe spaces in their communities for like-minded people: women in agriculture, queer urban residents, and gender diverse people in the country. Though they have land and community, the farmers have made some concessions: living alongside neighbors with different environmental views, decentering queerness for the sake of a larger environmental mission, and foregoing dating prospects by remaining in a small community. Other LGBT+ may find guidance in these stories, pathways for them to farm and have supportive communities.
A final note: when I last spoke to Bella, she had returned to rural NSW to continue farming and to begin a business selling coffee from a renovated horse trailer. I wish Bella luck and hope she finds like-minded community through the coffee cart, achieving the best of both worlds.