Gender, Sexuality, and Social Sustainability: Exploring Queer Farmers' Relationships, Ethics, and Practices in the Midwest

Progress report for GNC22-349

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,972.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2024
Grant Recipient: University of Notre Dame
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Elizabeth McClintock
University of Notre Dame
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Project Information


Gender, Sexuality, and Social Sustainability: Exploring Queer Farmers' Relationships, Ethics, and Practices in the Midwest

This project's outcomes focus on improving knowledge about queer farmers. First, this project will examine core challenges that that queer farmers face in establishing economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable farms. Second, this project will analyze how dual identities of being queer and being farmers inform one another in these farmers' experiences, taking into consideration quality of life, resilience strategies, and ethics and values. I use the term "queer" here to refer to people who are not heterosexual or cisgender (people whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth), including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary identities. 

Social identities like race, class, gender, and sexuality shape the ways that farmers are able to engage in agricultural networks, resources, and communities. The "family farm," for example, is organized around a heterosexual marriage, where romantic partners become business partners. However, marginalized gender identities and sexualities are often rendered invisible in sustainable agriculture, making it difficult to properly and formally allocate resources and support for these farmers. 

Currently, there is very little research on how queer farmers experience and engage with agricultural systems, but what research does exist has shown that queer farmers adopt particular ecological values, farming practices, and strategies for resistance and coping with homophobia and transphobia (Leslie 2017; Wypler 2019; Hoffelmeyer 2021). To create an environment within sustainable agriculture that is welcoming of a diverse group of people, we must make social structures such as gender and sexuality more visible and demonstrate their merits through research. 

Through forty-five semi-structured qualitative interviews with queer farmers in Michigan and Indiana conducted between September 2022 and August 2024, this project will illustrate the unique experiences of these farmers in sustainable agriculture. Based on key themes and ideas that emerge from these interviews, I will create typologies of alternative resource networks and resiliency strategies of queer farmers, and I will develop specific recommendations for organizations and other farmers to support queer farmers and their work.

I will evaluate progress toward expected outcomes by assessing opportunities to present data and findings and to build and maintain sustained relationships with farmers and partner organizations. Outcomes of this project will be relevant to queer farmers by providing knowledge about economic and production practices; resources for support, security, and acceptance; and common resilience strategies that other queer farmers access and employ.

Project Objectives:

This project will provide outcomes in two primary areas. First, this project will provide knowledge on the barriers that queer farmers face in establishing economically viable farms, including barriers related to income and profit, production, and resource networks. By sharing findings from this study with participants through workshops and presentations, I will inform queer farmers about how other queer farmers access resources that support economically viable farms. By increasing awareness of alternative, successful economic and production strategies, these findings will equip queer farmers to access resources and deploy these strategies. Additionally, through written materials and presentations, I will share findings with organizations providing financial, production, and network resources. These organizations will learn what barriers queer farmers face in accessing resources and will tailor their activities to support queer farmers in accessing resources.

Second, this project will provide knowledge about how queer farmers negotiate identities as both queer people and farmers, taking into consideration quality of life, resilience strategies, and ethics and values. By sharing project outcomes and findings, I will provide queer farmers with examples of how others access support, employ resilience strategies, and construct ethics and values in their agricultural work. Additionally, through written materials and presentations produced for this project, organizations and agricultural professionals will learn what opportunities queer farmers need to improve their quality of life through support, security, and acceptance. With specific feedback on what opportunities would best support queer farmers, these entities can collaborate to provide programs, training, and practices that promote inclusion and support.


Materials and methods:

For this project, I have been conducting semi-structured qualitative interviews and farm tours with seventy queer farmers in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, starting in summer 2022. Using qualitative interview questions about farming backgrounds and practices, the connection between queerness and agriculture, relationships, and resources, I gathered narratives and experiences from these farmers that have allowed me to identify broad patterns of shared experiences across this sample. This method, frequently employed for this type of sociological work, allows for development of specific objectives and topics within the interview protocol while also allowing flexibility to explore ideas that participants bring up spontaneously. A semi-structured approach also provides a safer interviewing experience because participants can skip questions that might be sensitive or uncomfortable and allows them to bring up specific concerns or ideas that may not be reflected in the standard protocol. 

To recruit participants, I first sent brief informative fliers to the email listservs of the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition and the Queer Farmer Network (QFN), a nation-wide network of queer farmers and those committed to centering queerness and agriculture. After I recruited an initial group of participants in fall of 2022, I asked interviewees to pass along information about the interview to other queer farmers they knew who might be interested in participating. I also reached out individually to queer Midwest farmers in my existing personal networks to request interviews. I continued this recruitment method in successive waves over the course of the project, reaching out to QFN a total of three times, SARE's network one time, and HYFC's network two times. At this point in the project, I am doing more targeted recruitment to ensure I have enough narratives and representation of queer farmers of color, older queer farmers, and queer farmers from Indiana. 

As I completed interviews, I sent audio recordings to an external transcription service. As transcriptions are finished, I have been adding them to a qualitative analysis software (e.g., ATLAS.ti) for me to read through and systematically code in order to illuminate patterns and key themes in the data. To develop and analyze these codes, I will rely on the principles of an abductive approach to analysis and theory construction (Timmermans and Tavory 2012). Abductive analysis is an iterative process between empirical data and broad, social scientific literature. I have begun my analytic coding with large, theoretically informed categories based on the existing literature of sustainable agriculture, queer farmers, resource networks, and identity. During this process, I have engaged queer farmer collaborators as their availability allows to present and refine the developing list of codes and preliminary findings. At the end of analysis, I will have a set of themes that will allow me to define processes of identity negotiations and identify key recommendations based on barriers and opportunities that emerge in the data.

Research results and discussion:

While data analysis is still underway, the seventy interviews I've conducted so far speak to some broad, key themes, including:

  • Best practices for helping queer farmworkers (especially transgender and nonbinary farmworkers) feel safe, respected, and welcome in operations owned and run by other (non-queer) farmers.
  • A need for more queer-centric, queer-created educational, community-building, and network-building resources.
  • Shared values around social, economic, and physical sustainability of farming
  • Practices that center on questioning existing agricultural systems and imagining new strategies for food and farming systems
  • A desire to make queer narratives and experiences in agriculture more visible and normalized in the public

Eventually, once all my interviews have been coded, I will have a frequency table for specific themes, indicating how many times queer farmers mentioned a particular theme during their interview. 

Participation Summary
70 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

To date, I have written two public-facing pieces based on this project's work. One is published on the Contexts Blog, an online venue hosted by the public sociology magazine Contexts, and focuses on findings related to embodiment and identity. Another piece is submitted but forthcoming in the Northeast Organic Farming Association's publication The Natural Farmer and focuses on specific experiences and practices around inclusion of transgender and nonbinary farmers in agriculture. 

I have also presented preliminary findings of this work at a workshop hosted through the University of Notre Dame's Sociology department. 

I am currently scheduled for two additional presentations this spring at the Queer Food Conference in Boston, MA, and at the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society's annual meeting in Syracuse, NY.

I am also currently working on producing a collaborative, public-facing zine in partnership with an editorial team composed of queer farmer-artists based in the Midwest. The goal of the zine is to present some specific findings from the project in an accessible and engaging way, while also highlighting artistic work from queer farmer-artists that also engage these themes. I have received an immense amount of interest in this project, with more than ninety queer farmer-artists applying for four editorial positions, and dozens of messages from queer farmers across the country expressing support and gratitude for this project. 

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
5 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The farmers who provided interviews for this project highlighted several creative and innovative examples of expanding notions of sustainability. These narratives illustrate strategies that can or currently do cultivate environments of safety, respect, and belonging for queer farmers, allowing these farmers to engage in agricultural work without having to hide their identity and suffer from poor social/emotional outcomes. Queer farmers in this study also highlighted strategies to make entry into farming more accessible for people who might otherwise be marginalized in agricultural spaces,  including building alternative resource networks, creating robust community networks, and centering practices that celebrate queer joy and other shared emotions. 

Knowledge Gained:

This project in particular has been pivotal in helping expand understandings of sustainable agriculture extending beyond simply environmental notions of sustainability. Many of the barriers and obstacles that queer farmers identified centered on their physical and emotional wellbeing; finding safe, secure, and adequately paying employment; and accessing land to grow on. These experiences have encouraged me to focus primarily on the social sustainability aspects of agriculture, emphasizing the importance of building robust relational networks to help shift practices and cultures within sustainable agriculture. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.