LGBTQ farmers often go unnoticed. But their perspective may help reshape agriculture
Growing up on her family’s farm in Coggon, Iowa, Shae Pesek couldn’t envision being able to have the life she wanted here. She didn’t know any queer people in agriculture.
"I really didn't feel like that was an option for me," Pesek said. "So, I thought for me, to be out and have a wife and have this out relationship, or like, to even find and date someone, that I needed to move to a city. So that's what I did. I left, and I moved away for eight years."
But agriculture called her back to eastern Iowa from San Diego. A while after returning, she met Anna Hankins, who had moved from the East Coast to work on a farm. Together, they started Over the Moon Farm and Flowers in 2019. It's a direct-to-consumer farm with livestock and flowers.
Hankins said now she and Pesek are the examples, especially for people who can’t or don’t want to leave, that you can live in rural Iowa, farm and be queer.
"I do know for some people, we are for sure probably the first queer couple they have ever interacted with," Hankins said. "I hope that it kind of maybe expands some people's worldview.”
There's no way of knowing how many LGBTQ farmers there are in the U.S. The USDA doesn't include sexual orientation or gender identity in its Census of Agriculture when it gathers other demographic information, like race.
But Katherine Dentzman, an assistant professor of rural sociology and public policy at Iowa State University, has been trying to make a dent in that. Dentzman and the research team analyzed the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture.
"We looked at men married to men and found about 8,300 farms that were run by men married to men, and that accounts for about almost 1% of all two-producer farms," Dentzman said. "Then for women married to women, it was a lot lower, we found about 3,500, which is about .4%."
That's a significant undercount, Dentzman said. Her research was limited to finding two-producer farms, where both principal farmers noted they were married to the other principal farmer. That narrow field leaves a lot of LGBTQ people out.
Dentzman said these baseline numbers are important, though, because knowing more about who is farming in the U.S. means they can get more direct resources and support.
"Invisibility is just kind of another form of violence in some ways, because if you don't know that people exist, then you don't know what their struggles are, then you can't help them," Dentzman said.
Back in 2018 Hannah Breckbill, one of the owners of Humble Hands Harvest, was struggling to feel connected. She wasn't finding a lot of queer people around the community of Decorah in northeast Iowa. At the same time, a lot of her queer friends in cities couldn’t quite relate to farming. So a friend encouraged her to build her own community.
She started an annual event on the farm called the Queer Farmer Convergence. It brings in farmers from across the Midwest. There’s local food, workshops, a fun dance party and more ways to share skills and bond.
"The point of it is to see my people, and to be seen and understood as a whole person by the people who share a lot of experiences with me," she said, "and then also to be challenged by my people."
Now, Breckbill has a community of farmers who work at Humble Hands, as well as other queer farmers in the area.
Breckbill said she wants to use her position as a landowner for justice. Humble Hands is a worker-owned cooperative farm with pigs, lamb and vegetables. Breckbill and the farmers at Humble Hands Harvest say they are working to reduce barriers for getting started farming.
"Queer people have had to buck systems that don't work for us. But because of that experience of bucking those systems, we are good at bucking other systems," Breckbill said.
‘A queer approach’
That experience bucking the system is something researchers have noticed about queer farmers. Michaela Hoffelmeyer, a Ph.D. candidate in rural sociology at Penn State University, said queer farmers can take on, what they called, a queer approach to farming.
"To embrace a queer farm approach is very much to question things like the family farm model, to question things like, ‘How are we feeding the community? Who is the community that we're engaging with? How am I bringing myself into the community?’” they said.
Hoffelmeyer said not all farmers in the LGBTQ community take on a queer approach to farming, but those who do are often coming up with solutions for how to deal with issues within the food system using fewer resources.
"There are people who want to farm. They may be queer, Black, Indigenous people who you’re not used to seeing in power or in farming, but they most certainly want to farm."Michaela Hoffelmeyer
However, anticipated and systemic discrimination can keep queer people out of agriculture altogether. Hoffelmeyer said the result is that agriculture misses out on the solutions those farmers could provide and loses future farmers at a time when many in the ag industry question where the next generation will come from.
"There are people who want to farm. They may be queer, Black, Indigenous people who you’re not used to seeing in power or in farming, but they most certainly want to farm," Hoffelmeyer said.
To change that, Hoffelmeyer said it will mean addressing systemic barriers and discrimination in agriculture that’s been hurdled at a broad range of farmers from varying racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
But despite these barriers, Hoffelmeyer said queer farmers like Over the Moon and Humble Hands are still changing the system in their communities and on their own farms.
Back in Coggon, Hankins and Pesek say they’ve worked hard to connect with rural residents. Both farmers say representing the queer community is a big value for their business, and they see the impact it's having in their small town.
"We've had a lot of support, honestly, especially from our very local community. There's a lot of people that will tell us, like, 'Oh, I showed my queer relative your page, and they were really excited to know that you existed,'" Pesek said.
This story first appeared on Iowa Public Radio. This version was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.