Research on rural and agricultural communities has largely overlooked the role of sexuality. Sustainable agriculture promotes social equity, yet conceptualizations of sustainable agriculture have largely neglected sexuality—a critical area of equity. The family farm has long been a guiding vision of desirable agricultural production. Within sustainable agriculture, maintaining the family farm—synonymous with heterosexual relationships—has remained a critical discourse and goal. The deeply entrenched assumption of heteronormativity in farming has excluded queer farmers from full inclusion and benefits from agriculture, even within sustainable agriculture. This is the case despite the theoretical foundation of social equality within sustainable agriculture. Through semi-structured in-depth qualitative interviews and focus groups with queer farmers in the northeast, this research will examine the woefully understudied role of sexuality in the ability of queer farmers to maintain a successful sustainable farm. The limited research on queer farmers in sustainable agriculture suggests that these farmers have not been evenly accepted by others in the sustainable farming community. More research is needed to understand the role of sexuality in agriculture to recruit and maintain diverse future farmers effectively and to help them succeed in sustainable farming. Currently, primary data collection on this project is underway in the form of interviews. In the coming months, focus groups will be conducted and analysis of the data will begin. By identifying barriers experienced by queer farmers and providing evidence-based recommendations, sustainable farming organizations and extension agents can better understand and target resources to queer farmers by recognizing their unique needs.
1. Analyze economic, production-related, and informational barriers queer farmers experience in maintain a productive, sustainable farming operation for queer farmer populations.
2. Evaluate and asses the ability of queer sustainable farmers to meet quality of life goals in terms of social isolation, farming support, farm security, and social acceptance.
3. Gather relevant background information on queer farmers in rural America to understand their visibility and inclusion within sustainable agriculture.
4. Develop evidence-based recommendations for sustainable agriculture organizations to help promote successful farming production and to improve quality of life for queer farmers in sustainable agriculture.
Sustainable agriculture at its foundation challenges the dominant agricultural paradigm of monolithic and monoculture production practices. At a theoretical level, sustainable agriculture promotes differences and diversity, at least in agrobiodiversity terms. This research expands sustainable agriculture’s construction of agrobiodiversity to include diversity in human identities, specifically sexuality and gender identity.
The USDA Census of Agriculture collects no information on same-sex couples, sexual orientation, or gender non-binary identities. Therefore, field research is essential to further understand the prevalence and characteristics of queer populations specifically in agriculture. The LGBTQ movement has primarily worked in urban spaces, excluding queer farmers who reside in rural areas. The lack of information from the census of agriculture, the urban-centric focus of the LGBTQ movement, and the dominant heteronormativity of rural areas make rural queer farmers largely invisible to farming organizations, researchers, and the public. Barriers to inclusion may prevent queer farmers from gaining the necessary resources for sustainable agriculture. Thus, understanding these barriers and recognizing the unique challenges queer farmers face in owning and operating sustainable farming operations will be vital to promoting diverse farmers.
By engaging with queer farmers, this research creates a platform for a marginalized group of farmers to voice their concerns and experiences in a confidential, safe space to then be shared with wider audiences. This research is positioned to shape future workshops, training, and extension events to be more inclusive of queer farmers. Queer farmers likely face specific barriers related to economic and farm viability. By identifying these challenges, solutions and strategies can be created to help queer farmers succeed in sustainable agriculture spaces which may have heterosexist values. Additionally, non-queer farmers exposed to these research findings through conferences may increase their acceptance of queer farmers generating a more inclusive space within sustainable agriculture.
This project uses qualitative semi-structured interviews and focus groups with queer sustainable farmers in the northeastern United States. To recruit participants, a brief letter about the project was sent via online listserv through the Pennsylvania Women’s Agriculture Network (PA WAgN) in the fall of 2018. The letter was also posted on the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s (PASA) community board. The original sample frame for the sample of farmers was Pennsylvania, but this has been expanded to include other states within the Northeast. To date, farmers from Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts have been interviewed. The graduate student researcher attended the Out Here Summit for small town and rural LGBTQ folks in Brattleboro, Vermont. At this summit, there was a section for queer farmers where the graduate student researcher recruited additional farmers. A snowball sample was also used, meaning participants referred other people who met the criteria for this project. The graduate student researcher then followed-up with these participants individually.
Confidential interviews were conducted in-person or by phone. The interviews lasted approximately forty-five minutes to two hours. With the participants’ consent, interviews were audio recorded. Interviews were then transcribed verbatim. The interview included multiple themes including: (1) Personal experience with farming (2) Barriers and support systems the farmers have encountered in agriculture due to sexuality or gender identity; and (3) How the farmers’ quality of life is influenced by their sexuality.
The primary fieldwork for this project is ongoing thus no conclusive findings can be reported at this time. However, initial findings suggest different levels of inclusion in agriculture based on identity. For example, transgender and gender non-conforming farmers interviewed thus far, have experienced additional challenges compared to cis-gendered farmers regarding acceptance in local communities and as farm apprentices or workers. Additionally, many farmers have expressed the perception of heterosexist values in agriculture spaces, but few have experienced overt discrimination.
The graduate student researcher aims to interview approximately ten more farmers in the next two months. After the interviews are completed, thematic coding will be used to identify key themes from the interviews. Using NVivo software, the graduate student researcher will code interviews to analyze economic, production-related, and other barriers queer farmers experience in maintaining a productive, sustainable farming operation. Thematic coding will also be used to evaluate and asses the ability of queer sustainable farmers to meet quality of life goals regarding social isolation, farming support, farm security, and social acceptance. Through focus groups with queer farmers, the graduate student researcher will build upon these key themes in a group setting and discuss recommendations for sustainable agriculture stakeholders.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
After the interviews and analysis are complete, the findings will be disseminated through a variety of outlets to reach a diverse audience. First, results from focus groups and interviews with queer farmers will be used to develop evidence-based recommendations for sustainable agriculture organizations to promote successful farming production and improve quality of life and for queer farmers in sustainable agriculture. Results and recommendations will be compiled into an accessible and usable report for agricultural organizations to utilize as a guide within their own organization and to share through their network. The Pennsylvania Women’s Agriculture Network (PA WAgN) is the primary partner organization on this project. PA WAgN has agreed to share findings with their collaborators in other sustainable farming networks. By utilizing recommendations from findings when planning education or networking events, sustainable agriculture stakeholders will be better informed on the needs of queer farmers. The research report will also be distributed directly to research participants.
The graduate student researcher will be leading a session on queer farmers at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s Farming for the Future Conference in February 2019. This session entitled “Queering the Food System: How Farming and Sexuality Intertwine” will include initial findings from this project, as well as, host a panel of queer farmers involved in PASA. This research will also be presented at the annual PA WAgN Symposium in the winter of 2019. Northeastern farmers and extension agents attend both conferences.
To directly reach farmers outside of the Northeast, a nationwide webinar reviewing the project’s findings will be presented. With the assistance of PA WAgN, this webinar will be offered through the eXtension network. The eXtension Network is supported by USDA-NIFA to scale up the local and national impact of extension. This webinar will be done in collaboration with two other graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. These graduate students have researched queer farmers in the Midwest and New England offering a greater understanding of variation across the U.S.
Additionally, findings will be submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals (Rural Sociology, Agriculture, Food and Human Values). Finally, results will be presented at the Rural Sociological Society’s annual meeting in Richmond Virginia from August 7-10, 2019.
By sharing the experiences of queer farmers, this project helps to identify how queer farmers may be included or ostracized from sustainable agriculture spaces. Preliminary data also suggest tangible solutions to more effectively meet the needs of queer farmers by creating more inclusive sustainable agriculture spaces. Forthcoming, outreach publication will present these key findings and recommendations developed by queer farmers themselves to be shared with the broader sustainable agriculture community.
For the farmers directly involved the interviews, the findings will be shared back with them. Many of these farmers have expressed a desire to learn more about how other queer farmers navigate agricultural spaces. Thus, by sharing the findings with these and other queer farmers, they will have a better understanding of the experiences and strategies used by other queer farmers to overcome challenges. Sharing this project at sustainable agriculture conferences like PASA fosters more visible and inclusive sustainable agriculture spaces to disassemble heterosexism and heteronormativity.
I am collaborating with two graduate student researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to create a webinar about the experiences of queer farmers. These researchers have conducted their own fieldwork on queer farmers in the Midwest and New England. This collaboration makes queer farmers more visible as they have often been made invisible through the lack of discussion and documentation of their presence in agriculture.
As the graduate student researcher, I have gained qualitative interview and thematic coding skills. By interviewing diverse queer identities including women, transgender men and women, and gender non-binary farmers, I have gained new awareness about how different identities navigate sustainable agriculture spaces. Building on my previous experience studying gender, I am able to gain additional understanding of how gender and sexuality are intertwined in farming. Having the opportunity to conduct this fieldwork has lead me to apply for the Ph.D. program in Rural Sociology at Penn State. In my future career, I hope to continue to work in promoting the success of environmentally and socially sustainable farming practices.