Sexuality and Sustainable Agriculture: Examining Queer Farmers' Quality of Life in Pennsylvania

Final report for GNE18-174

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2018: $14,997.00
Projected End Date: 07/31/2019
Grant Recipient: The Pennsylvania State University
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Kathleen Sexsmith
Penn State University
Expand All

Project Information


Aspects of identity, such as gender and race, actively shape involvement in farming, yet research on sexuality as a part of identity has, thus far, been limited. Heteronormativity is entrenched in U.S. farming through the construction of “the farmer” and the “family farm.” Proponents of sustainable agriculture echo the heteronormativity of mainstream agriculture through promoting the family farm and neglecting the needs of queer farmers. Despite a supposed foundation of social equity, sustainable agriculture has yet to fully consider LGBTQ issues as a critical point of equity. Queer people have been displaced from rural and farming communities as acceptance, visibility, and resources have been historically associated with urban geographies. However, the predominately rural nature of farming raises questions about how queer farmers cultivate livelihoods that appear oppositional to both queer and farming identities. The combination of urban bias in LGBT spaces, coupled with heteronormativity in agriculture has left queer farmers to create their own strategies and support networks to enter and remain in farming.

This research aimed to understand the barriers and opportunities that queer farmers encounter in maintaining a viable farm. Through an examination of on and off-farm relationships, this study documented the approaches that queer farmers employ to farm. Data was collected through semi-structured interviews and participant observations with twenty queer farmers in the northeastern US. Findings show that the lack of consideration of queer sexualities and non-cisgender identities in agriculture burdens queer farmers with developing relationships to gain acceptance and access to farming resources. Farmers utilized specific strategies that allowed them to build networks of non-queer and queer customers, neighbors, and mentors. As queer farmers perceived or in some cases experienced heterosexism, this compromised opportunities for continued participation in agriculture. Moreover, findings suggest that transgender, non-binary, and women farmers faced additional hurdles because of the visibility of gender as compared to sexuality. Overall, queer farmers developed formal and informal support networks that had powerful benefits; however, these efforts have primarily arisen in reaction to a lack of support for rural and farming LGBTQ livelihoods. Research indicates that queer farmers’ identity has significant implications for deciding where, how, and with whom to farm. Findings suggest that the sustainable agriculture movement should develop an increased awareness of how sexuality influences participation in agriculture, and actively engage in supporting diverse sexual and gender minorities in farming.

Project Objectives:

This project had four main objectives outlined below. Data collection and analysis are complete. Outreach and dissemination of information are ongoing.

  1. Analyze economic, production-related, and informational barriers queer farmers experience in maintaining a productive, sustainable farming operation.
  • Results indicate that barriers to land access, social support, and employment created additional hardships that queer farmers had to overcome to enter and remain in farming. Queer farmers described the financial challenges of purchasing land, coupled with concerns for their safety in identifying potentially suitable farmland. Among farmers who owned their own farm, they relied heavily on pooling resources with a partner to afford land. Because marriage allows for the passing of property to a spouse without taxation, before the legalization of same-sex marriage, land tenure among this population was more tenuous compared to heterosexual households. Furthermore, the heteronormativity associated with marriage may still result in queer farmers rejecting this approach to accessing long-term land tenure. In terms of accessing economic markets, queer farmers traveled to nearby towns and cities to sell their products, in part, based on concerns of encountering discrimination in more localized markets. Queer farm employees, such as interns and apprentices, expressed how their long-term involvement in farming was influenced by their ability to find farms that were accepting of their queer identity. Despite these challenges, queer farmers, by and large, did not report experiences of discrimination when engaging with extension agents, farming conferences, or customers. This was in part based on some farmers’ ability to conceal or gradually reveal their identities after building strong relationships in various farming networks.
  1. Evaluate and assess the ability of queer sustainable farmers to meet quality of life goals in terms of social isolation, farming support, farm security, and social acceptance.
  • “Quality of life” is often utilized to explain the social goals of sustainable farming (Madden 2007). However, the findings from this study demonstrate that social acceptance and inclusion based on identity are also critical to the social dynamics of sustainability. Queer farmers often associated uncertainty, fear, and isolation with living rurally, simultaneously, emphasizing an attachment to rural landscapes, nature, and farmland. In response to perceptions of being unwelcome in rural and farming communities, numerous queer farmers sought to build their own alternative farming units with other queer people and allies. The graduate student researcher termed this the ‘chosen family farm model.’ This approach entailed small-scale intentional or community-based living and farming units. The chosen family farm allowed for a certain level of protection and queer community while also enabling respondents to practice small scale and environmentally sustainable farming in a rural area. These units mirrored the queer literature on the ‘chosen family’ wherein queer people seek to build support networks outside of blood relations (Weston 1991). Queer farmers also supported other queer people in farming. Mentorships between farm owners and farm employees offered important benefits that expanded beyond farming techniques. These mentoring relationships expand the traditional family farm model in which the pipeline of information sharing is typically within families, but this social and farming support extended to queer employees.
  1. Gather relevant background information on queer farmers in rural America to understand their visibility and inclusion within sustainable agriculture.
  • By performing a systematic review of farm data collection, results indicate that the involvement of LGBTQ people in farming has largely been invisible due to limited data collection and dominant ideas about the identities of farmers. Because no quantitative data on LGBTQ farmers exists, it is impossible to know exactly how many queer farmers are currently are in the U.S. It is unclear how the USDA Census of Agriculture engages with data from LGBTQ populations, in particular, farm organization and the “family farm” category. An operation is considered a “family farm” if the principal operator and persons related to the operator own more than 50 percent of the total assets (USDA 2017). These relationships are based on blood, marriage, or adoption (Ibid.). Under this farm typology, married same-sex couples may be considered “family farms.” However, in the case that respondents in same-sex relationships mark this on the census, it is unclear if these responses are coded as “errors,” meaning the USDA assumes same-sex couples are not valid responses. This is likely the USDA’s approach for married same-sex farming couples, at least prior to the legalization of federal same-sex marriage in 2015. In this case, there is data on married same-sex couples in farming, but because this data is being coded as a respondent error, there is no way to apply this data. If same-sex couples are not being coded as a respondent “error,” then data exists on at least a segment of queer farmers, and this data should be made easily usable in the form of a highlights report.
  • This research revealed that sexuality discussions are present in broader agricultural discourse; however, these discussions, when happening, are frequently anti-LGBTQ. For example, the American Farm Bureau organizations’ 2019 policy book under “Family and Moral Responsibility” defines marriage as “between male and female” and opposes “[g]ranting special privileges to those that participate in alternative lifestyles” (AFBF 2019: 14). In 2018, several statewide 4-H organizations announced a statement welcoming LGBT members participation in the youth agricultural organization. Shortly after the release of this policy, the 4-H organizations were pressured to retract the LGBT inclusion policy (Crowder and Clayworth 2018). These examples of mainstream agriculture circles illustrate how sustainable agriculture as an alternative may offer support to queer farmers, who are marginalized in conventional agriculture.
  1. 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.
  • Through interviews with queer farmers, this research offers evidence-based recommendations for supporting this marginalized group. This research aligned with numerous policy recommendations from Leslie et al. (2019). The recommendations in this document expand on these author's points to focus on recommendations that align more directly with participants in this sample. Additional recommendations from Leslie et al. (2019) include increased support for historically underserved farmer programs and increased efforts for immigrant farmworkers' equity. These are important areas of attention and should be used as guides for additional research and policy as barriers based on sexuality are often moderated by race, ethnicity, class, and immigration status (Leslie 2017; National LGBT Health Education Center and Farmworker Justice 2015).
    • Expanding Data Collection for LGBTQ Populations in Agriculture
      1. The USDA Census of Agriculture should include questions about sexual orientation and expand gender identity categories (Leslie et al. 2019). These changes would gather nationally representative data in terms of the number of LGBTQ farms, as well as how queer-owned farms compare to other farms. This study demonstrates that sexuality is a critical lens of analysis to understanding farmers’ ability to participate in agriculture, thus including sexual orientation in data collection would be critical to gain further insights. Additionally, the only sex categories included in the Census of Agriculture are male and female. As this information is published, sex is conflated with gender meaning respondents who mark “female” are reported as women farmers and vice versa. This hides how non-cisgender farmers are participating in agriculture, and as this study demonstrates these populations experienced the most overt forms of heterosexism—illustrating the need for greater awareness and support for these farmers.
      2. The USDA Census of Agriculture should clarify its practices for same-sex households, in particular, the “family farm” category. A farm is considered family operated if the principal operator and persons related to the operator own more than 50 percent of the total assets (USDA 2017). These relationships are based on blood, marriage, or adoption (Ibid.). Under this farm typology, same-sex couples may be considered “family farms.” However, if respondents in same-sex relationships mark this on the census, it is unclear if these responses are coded as “errors” meaning the USDA assumes same-sex couples are not valid responses. This is likely the USDA’s approach for same-sex couples, at least prior to the legalization of federal same-sex marriage in 2015. In this case, there may be data on married same-sex couples, but because this data is being coded as a respondent error, there is no way to apply this data. If married same-sex households are being counted, then a report on these farms would offer vital information on at least one segment of queer farmers, acknowledging that there is a larger population of queer people not farming in married or two-person relationships. Furthermore, the USDA should consider other ways to categorize farms rather than relationship ties, which have historically privileged heterosexual relations and erased queer farmers.
      3. Farming organizations should also utilize more expansive sexual orientation and gender identity options on survey and evaluation forms to understand participation within their own organizations and make possible changes in programming for LGBTQ inclusivity.
    • Expand Support for Minority and Women Farming Programs
      1. LGBTQ farmers should be added to the list of the USDA’s Minority and Women Farmers and Ranchers program in order to receive additional support (Leslie et al. 2019). LGBTQ farmers in this study described additional considerations of safety and exclusion, in addition to barriers, such as weather, economics, etc. However, if other areas of their identity do not align with existing categories, queer farmers cannot access supports for minority and women farmers. For example, Diane, a white transgender woman, experienced harassment and threats based on her identity and ultimately left farming due to safety concerns. When she was farming, Diane was only able to access NRCS funding for a high tunnel because her business partner was a cis-gender woman; however, Diane had not yet been able to change her driver’s license to reflect her gender identity. In this way, legal and structural barriers for LGBTQ populations manifest in farming. As such, considering LGBTQ farmers as a minority in agriculture would bolster this populations’ ability to farm.
      2. There should be continued support for women farmer organizations (Leslie et al. 2019). These organizations actively confront hegemonic masculinity and sexism in agriculture, which are linked to heterosexism. The queer women in this study expressed how the visibility of their gender rather than sexuality, resulted in being ignored, disrespected, and excluded from agriculture resources. For farmers of other genders, such as transgender and non-binary, they were met with hostility for not conforming to gender expectations. This research demonstrates that the visibility of gender continues to make this a critical barrier for engaging in farming, thus demonstrating the importance of resources for gender minorities. Women’s organizations should also expand attention to all gender minorities (i.e., transgender men, transgender women, and non-binary populations) in agriculture, for example, implementing gender-inclusive mission statements.
    • Rural LGBTQ Support
      1. USDA should increase efforts to support rural LGBTQ populations (Leslie et al. 2019). The USDA Rural Pride program initiated during the Obama administration had promised to expand support to rural LGBTQ populations (NCLR 2014), but this program has not followed through with tangible funding. Although rural places are diverse, general public opinion in rural areas is less supportive of LGBT rights (MAP 2019). Predominately rural states are less likely to have non-discrimination protections, allowing, for example, religious freedom laws, which give small business owners the ability to refuse service to LGBT populations based on religious exemptions (Ibid.). Rural LGBT individuals have fewer legal protections in instances of harassment, discrimination, and hate crimes (Ibid). There are generally fewer support structures in rural areas for LGBT populations to find assistance and community (Ibid.). In addition to structural barriers, the queer farmers in this study expressed uncertainty, fear, and isolation associated with rural areas, which discouraged queer farmers from entering farming. Thus, federal policy increasing visibility and supporting queer populations would promote greater options for queer livelihoods. Because farmland and farming predominately occur in rural areas (Leslie 2019), rural queer farmers require additional support to prevent being displaced from farming.
    • Attention to Farm Training Programs
      1. Agricultural apprentice programs should include “LGBT” or “LGBTQ friendly” to allow applicants to identify these farms (Leslie et al. 2019). Farming employment such as internships and apprenticeships were critical pathways for queer farm employees in agriculture in this study. Queer farm employees may face unsafe employment situations if hired on a heterosexist farm, which has potential implications for long-term farming engagement. Thus, increased options for queer employment in farming would support safety and participation from gender and sexual minorities in agriculture.
    • Increase Visibility & Inclusion
      1. Farming organizations should utilize pronouns and gender-neutral bathrooms at farming events to support attendance from queer farmers. These findings demonstrate that queer-centered events, which adopted these strategies, foster safe and welcoming environments for queer farmers. Farmers in this study expressed the assumption that sustainable agriculture spaces, although allowing for more gender diversity, still contained heterosexist sentiment. These organizational shifts help demonstrate active inclusion and attention to LGBTQ participation.
      2. Farming organizations should include LGBTQ formal and informal gatherings at conferences and events to increase visibility and support networks for farmers in these organizations. Training should also extend to discuss and develop allies to support queer populations in rural and farming areas. This research demonstrates that queerness does influence participation, and farming organizations should consider sexuality and gender identity as opportunities to support diverse participation among farmers.
    • Increased Policy Access
      1. States should adopt legislation to engage socially disadvantaged farmers, including LGBTQ farmers in policymaking (Leslie et al. 2019). Legislation, similar to California’s 2017 Farmer Equity bill, which aimed to connect socially disadvantage farmers into policymaking (Collins 2017), should expand and include LGBTQ farmers (Leslie et al. 2019). Additionally, the National Young Farmer Coalition has begun implementing affinity groups based on identity to pay specific attention to the needs of minority farmers, including LGBTQ farmers, when engaging in policy. Including LGBTQ farmers in policymaking will offer pathways to reduce structural barriers that these populations may encounter.

This is by no means a complete list, but rather a starting place for policymakers and practitioners.


Research on rural and agricultural communities has largely overlooked the role of sexuality among these populations (Keller and Bell 2014; Leslie 2017, 2019; Leslie, Wypler, and Bell 2019; Wypler 2019). The dominant narrative surrounding rurality and sexuality maintains that rural queer populations must relocate to urban areas to gain social acceptance (Halberstam 2005). Although the presence of queer farmers has not been well documented, queer farmers do exist and often thrive, contrary to assumptions of heterosexual identities in farming (Wypler 2019). Therefore, the often-rural nature of farming raises questions about how and why these farmers reject displacement from rural communities to maintain their farmer identity and lifestyle.

One way in which queer farmers may gain entry into farming is through sustainable agriculture, which is perceived to be more welcoming of diverse genders and sexual identities (Leslie 2019; Sachs et al. 2016). Sustainable agriculture emerged around the 1970s with a foundation of both environmental and social goals. This alternative type of agricultural production opened new pathways for production practices and social equality in the agrifood system (Alkon and Agyeman 2011). However, research in sustainable agriculture has primarily focused on environmental and technical solutions to unsustainable agriculture practices with less attention to social equity issues (Allen 2004, 2008). Social equity has begun to be examined in sustainable agriculture in terms of racism, classism, and sexism (Alkon and Agyeman 2011; Leslie and White 2018; Trauger 2004). Yet, heterosexism as the oppression and prejudice against LGBTQ populations has thus far not widely been studied in sustainable agriculture.

The lack of attention to sexuality within the sustainable agriculture movement suggests a viewpoint that heterosexuality is the “normal” sexuality, thereby reifying heterosexism. In a groundbreaking study on queer farmers, Leslie (2017) found queer farmers in New England experienced heterosexism specific to sustainable agriculture spaces wherein queer farmers felt “targeted,” uncomfortable, and “claustrophobic” (759). Because close relationships are crucial for gaining access to economic markets, agriculture products, and land, queer farmers felt unable to confront heterosexism in fear of losing ties to vital resources (Ibid.). While these farmers, by and large, did not face outright discrimination, the presence of heterosexism impacted their ability to farm successfully (Ibid.). Through this comparison of heterosexual and queer farmers, Leslie (2017) paved the way for future scholarship explicitly interrogating queerness. This research builds on Leslie (2017) to further examine how identity shapes access to farming resources, including agriculture spaces, on-farm relations, and community ties.

Further research is needed to understand queer farmers’ experiences in varying situational and geographic contexts. The limited research on queer livelihoods in sustainable agriculture demonstrates the existence of heterosexist values in some agricultural spaces (Leslie 2017, 2019; Wypler 2019); however, these trends may vary spatially and temporally. Rural America is not homogenous in views and characteristics (Falk and Lobao 2003). According to feminist scholars, situational knowledge provides meaningful understandings of place-based values potentially divergent from dominant views (Sachs 2014). Thus, additional studies on queer farmers in new geographies and communities may vary substantially.

The lack of information from the census of agriculture, the urban-centric focus of the LGBTQ movement, and the dominant heteronormativity of rural areas (Gray 2009; Sachs 2014) makes rural queer farmers largely invisible to farm organizations, researchers, and the public. Empirical data collection within agricultural contexts largely fails to capture queer identities. The USDA Census of Agriculture does not gather any information on same-sex couples, sexual orientation, or non-binary gender identities. As Leslie et al. (2019) argue, the heteronormative gender and sexualized relationships that are crucial within agriculture are considered “natural” ways for social organizing and thus are taken for granted. Leslie et al. (2019) “emphasize that gender and sexuality are not a sideshow but should be understood as central to the organization of food and agriculture with implications for sustainability” (854). Additionally, the LGBTQ movement has primarily worked in urban spaces, excluding queer farmers who reside in rural areas (Leslie 2017).  As LGBTQ identities continue to be erased by their absence from quantitative data collection (O’Hara 2017), future quantitative research should be developed to establish an understanding of the prevalence and characteristics of queer farmers. However, qualitative field research is essential to develop an understanding of queer farmers’ lived experiences.

Sexuality—in particular, queer sexualities—has been thought of as a private matter restricted to the bedroom (Dilley 1999). In an examination of coming out and family among lesbians and gays in San Francisco, Weston (1991) describes the “typical heterosexual objection” as “Why do you have to talk about it? It’s your own business. Why flaunt it?” (67). Heteronormativity allows for the dominant sexuality to be acceptable in public and private spaces, while a discussion of non-normative sexuality breaks culturally constructed boundaries. Heterosexuality, as the dominant form of sexuality, is institutionalized and embedded in all aspects of life (Jackson 2006). In contrast, queer sexualities are viewed as only appropriate in the private sphere. The obfuscation of queerness in public life is deeply rooted in power asymmetries, which perpetuates the marginalization of queer people. Thus, engaging in research on queer identities begins to break down the socially constructed barriers, which restrict the discussion of queer identities to the private sphere.

Today, in the U.S., queerness is “commonly understood as an identity that infuses the entire self (as opposed to an activity in which any self can participate)” (Weston 1991: 79). Identity in this way approaches sexuality as not only about the gender(s) one is attracted to, but rather is a more comprehensive self-determination and understanding of one’s position in the world. Therefore, sexuality has implications in public life and requires additional attention.

At a surface level, the topic of sexuality might seem far removed from conversations on farm labor and land tenure. Despite dominant notions that sexuality should be contained in the private sphere, common questions such as “Tell me about your farm.” or “Why did you choose this location for a farm?” necessitates sharing relationship ties with family, friends, partners, children, and others. Thus, sharing even the most basic information about farming requires consideration of revealing or concealing identity. Weston (1991) posits, “Because sexuality brings people into relationships, its implications can never be contained within the parameters of identity or some ideally privatized sphere” (68). Leslie et al. (2019) demonstrate agriculture is and has always been relational based on personal and professional connections. Yet these ties are so deeply entrenched in heterosexuality and patriarchy that these relationships are only more recently being unveiled. The process of viewing farming as relational requires a queer and feminist standpoint to uncover social constructions of what is “natural” (Ibid). In examining the experiences of queer farmers, this research seeks to enhance understandings about the connection between sexuality and gender.

Existing literature suggests that, like women farmers, queer farmers are often small scale sustainable farmers in part because of the hegemonic masculinity and patriarchy associated with large-scale farming which creates barriers to land and capital (Leslie et al. 2019; Wypler 2019). As a result, queer sustainable farmers are an important starting point for examining sexuality and farming.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Patty Neiner (Educator)


Materials and methods:

The graduate student researcher conducted participant observation and semi-structured in-depth interviews with farmers involved in sustainable agriculture in the northeastern U.S. Interviews were conducted from September 2018 through March 2019. In total, 18 interviews with 20 farmers, representing 17 farms were conducted. Interviews included multiple themes: personal experience with farming, barriers, and support systems that have been encountered in agriculture, definitions/motivations for engaging in sustainable agriculture, and relationships with the broader community. The semi-structured interviews included a predetermined set of open-ended questions to guide the interview. However, participants were encouraged to raise any points they found important. Because several farmers had numerous agricultural experiences on different farms and at different times in their life, participants were instructed to pull from any of these experiences, regardless of time or place, that they felt were most pertinent to this discussion. This was an effort to not limit discussion to only their current state in agriculture, but rather provide more holistic insights into the long-term implications of queerness and farming

Interviews lasted between forty-five minutes to nearly three hours and were conducted in-person (13) and by phone (5). With participants’ consent, the interviews were recorded; all participants agreed to record the interview. If in-person, the graduate student researcher requested a farm tour to accompany the interview; however, due to the interviews taking place in late fall and winter, these tours were fairly limited in observing the operation but did offer additional time to talk with the participant.

The resulting interview recordings were then transcribed and coded thematically using NVivo software. Pseudonyms were selected for participants. Pseudonyms were chosen to align with gender identity—taking specific care to utilize gender-neutral names for non-binary participants.

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. These organizations were selected as two leading sustainable agriculture organization in the state. Both PA WAgN and PASA work directly with farmers in organizing field days and conferences. The recruitment letter called for LGBTQ sustainable farmers to participate in a study to help better understand the challenges and opportunities these farmers may encounter in agriculture. The use of “LGBTQ” was used as opposed to “queer,” despite the recent reclamation of the word, so to not discourage older farmers from participating. The recruitment letter also stated that name and identity would not be released in any resulting publication or reports about this material to encourage the participation of those who may not be publicly out.  

The geographic location of farmers included in this study was restricted to the northeastern U.S. The locations of farms included: Pennsylvania (8), Massachusetts (3), Vermont (2), New Hampshire (2), New Jersey (1), and New York (1).

The original sample frame for the sample was only Pennsylvania, but this has been expanded to include other states within the Northeast. Additional participants were recruited through two in-person events designed for queer people in rural or farming areas. The first event was the Out Here Summit in Vermont hosted by the non-profit Out Here, formally named Green Mountain Crossroads. Approximately 100 people attended this event, with the majority of them from the northeast region. Although this event was for rural queer people more broadly, the summit had a farming and food justice track. The second event, the 1st Annual Northeast Queer Farmer Alliance Meeting, was hosted by two queer-owned farms in rural New York state in January 2018. This single-day event included a one-hour pot-luck networking session, large-group introductions, drag performance from a New York City drag queen, and smaller breakout sessions. Approximately 80 people who were involved in farming or the food system were present. Both events were promoted via public online listservs and social media. There was little overlap in attendance between each event, and both events were organized separately from one another. The graduate student researcher attended and distributed the recruitment letter to those in attendance at each event. Additionally, 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 potential participants individually.

Respondents' ages ranged from 25 to 70 years old, with a median age of 38 years old. The racial characteristics were fairly homogenous, as the majority of respondents identified as white (19). The other identity included Latinx (1). Thus, this study is not representative of racial diversity in the northeastern U.S. and cannot speak adequately to the experiences of queer farmers of color.

The sample includes the following gender identities: cis-gender women (12), cis-gender men (2), non-binary/non-conforming people (3), transgender, non-binary people (1), transgender men, (1), and transgender women (1). Although most respondents explicitly identified with these terms, some respondents were more ambiguous with their gender identity or had spent less time trying to identify themselves. In terms of sexual identity, the sample was comprised of queer (7), lesbian (6), bisexual/pansexual (4), and gay (3) identities. Several respondents used more than one term to define themselves, but the first term they used is listed here.

Mirroring the broad meaning of sustainable agriculture, the farmers within this study used a wide range of sustainable practices. Rather than a predetermined set of sustainability indicators, participants were allowed to self-identify as sustainable farmers to participate in this study. All participants owned or worked on farms that follow Jarosz's (2008) framework of alternative farms. This framework includes: (1) Small farms in size (under fifty acres) and scale with holistic—may or may not be organic—methods (2) Include labor from apprentices, interns, and/or households (3) Reliance on nearby metropolitan markets and/or engage in barter or self-provision (4)  Limited capital and mechanization (5) Sell through community supported agriculture (CSA), cooperatives, and farmers markets (6) Maintain social and environmental values about food production and consumption. All farms aligned with these characteristics presumably because of sampling through sustainable agriculture networks and specifically calling for self-identified sustainable farmers. 

Farmer identity is steeped in heteropatriarchal assumptions of the gender of the operator as well as farm size, scale, and production unit (Wypler 2019). Restricting the “farmer” identity to land and capital owners has gendered and racial implications (Brasier et al. 2014; Leslie et al. 2019). By allowing participants to self-identify, the sample included what might be considered as non-traditional farmers, including those who relied heavily on off-farm jobs, worked for non-profit organizations, or had formally been farming. Thus, there was a distinction between farm owners (9) and employees (8). The owner’s category includes farmers that operated their own operation either on purchased or leased/rented land. Farm employees, in contrast, included a diverse range of positions, including apprentices, program coordinators, and farm managers who worked for non-profit or educational farms. These varied greatly as some of these farm employees were managers of their non-profit farm operations while others were in more farm laborer roles performing daily tasks on the farm. Regardless of the position, all farm employees were active to some degree in farm work, including field/garden management, harvesting, planting, etc.

The farms produced mixed vegetables (6), vegetables, livestock, eggs (8), and vegetables and flowers (1), flowers/herbs (2). Among farm owners, respondent’s income based on the farm activity varied. Farmer owners earned the majority of income from the farm (3), combined farm income with off-farm income from self and/or partner (4), or majority off-farm income supplemented by homesteading (2). All farms engaged in some form of marketing products; this ranged from small and infrequent farm stands to regularly attending farmers markets and weekly CSA shares. Of farm owners, three employed apprentices or interns currently or at some point while farming. Others (5) relied solely on the labor of self and/or romantic partners. Some farms emphasized a more homestead approach in producing for household consumption first—these were also farms with less emphasis on marketing products. All farm employees worked full-time on-farm, thus earning the majority of their income from this source.

To analyze the data, interviews, participant observation, and field notes were compiled electronically. Interviews were transcribed and analyzed through Nvivo. Coding included a two-step process of Initial or Open Coding and Focus Coding (Saldaña 2016). First, the Open Coding process included reading each interview line by line to allow for a large number of possible outcomes from the data, which can then be grouped with more specificity later in the process (Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw 1995). The Open Coding process offers new and potentially previously unknown approaches and perspectives on agricultural production, which is particularly important for queer farmers, who are under-researched. By coding directly from data rather than only using predetermined codes in the first stage, this research aligns with the inductive approach of qualitative research, while also acknowledging that qualitative research is not purely inductive as findings are mediated in part by theory and assumptions (Ormston et al. 2014) as many of the codes from Open Coding aligned with the interview questions.

Next, the second cycle of coding included Focus Coding. This was utilized to code data based on similar themes and concepts. The numerous codes generated in the first step were reorganized and grouped based on the most salient or common analytical themes. The purpose of focus coding is to “compare, reorganize, or “focus” the codes into categories, prioritize them to develop “axis” categories around which others revolve, and synthesize them to formulate a central or core category” (Saldaña 2016: 55). These codes were then further coded based variegation within the code. For example, “location" arose through open coding, then was focused to the axis category of “rural perceptions” and finally was analyzed based on different properties such as attachment, fear, isolation, and connection. These descriptive properties were most often words used by participants to describe categories.  Where appropriate, the coding process aligned core categories broadly based on research questions of barriers and strategies in farming, acceptance, and involvement in sustainable agriculture, and relationships with the community. Emergent coding categories such as “whiteness” were also examined in relation to research questions. Coding was then compared across categorizations and to the literature ultimately to understand the experiences, perspectives, and social and material circumstances of queer farmers involved in sustainable agriculture.

Research results and discussion:

Interviews and observations conducted with 20 queer farmers in the Northeast U.S. revealed that sexuality and gender identity have significant implications for participating in sustainable agriculture. This research demonstrates that social equity for LGBTQ farmers further informs the sustainable agriculture movement, and particularly the social dimension of sustainability. In seeking to identify queer farmers’ motivations for engaging in sustainable agriculture, the primary reason was an interest in the environmental benefits of sustainable farming. In addition to their environmental motivations, farmers were drawn to sustainable agriculture production in part due to assumptions of greater inclusion of women and, by extension, queer farmers. This suggests that queer people may disproportionately be involved in sustainable agriculture production compared to conventional agriculture, illustrating the importance of increased attention to building support for queer people in these circles.

Second, many queer farmers felt their identity, if visible, would be met with hostility, thus having negative implications for themselves and their farms. In response, queer farmers developed strategies to navigate perceived heterosexism specific to sustainable agriculture spaces (i.e., conferences, markets, farm positions) as well as among other actors in the agriculture system (i.e., supply stores, neighbors, other farmers). Because queer farmers, expected and in some cases experienced pushback and harassment, many farmers embodied the ‘rural politics of recognition.’ This entailed forefronting their sameness as ‘just another farmer’ to build relationships and rapport with fellow farmers, customers, and community members. This approach contrasts the “out and proud” rhetoric of the broader, urban, LGBTQ movement. The “out and proud” method seeks to gain acceptance by making visible queerness, thereby normalizing it in broader society (Grey 2009). However, the out and proud approach may not align with queer farmers, further making them invisible to urban-centric LGBTQ resources. However, when farmers were visible as queer-owned either through marketing or selectively outing themselves, this resulted in overwhelmingly positive experiences with other queer people in the agrifood system, including other farmers and customers. Other queer farmers selectively outed themselves to find positive work environments or develop connections with other queer people. Yet, other farmers choose not to share their queer identity because certain relationships and interactions were not long-term nor critical to farm viability.  Overall, as queer farmers anticipated heterosexism in agriculture, this placed an additional burden upon their ability to participate in farming. These farmers cautiously maneuvered social interactions to avoid hampering their work in sustainable agriculture. 

The implication of perceived and experienced heterosexism in agriculture is deeply related to land and the location of the farms themselves. The narrative surrounding social and geographical relations shows that queer people are displaced from rural areas as urban places are considered safe, inclusive, and accepting (Weston 1995). The rural or farming construction of location associates the rural as synonymous with heterosexuality and traditional gender performance (Keller and Bell 2014), thereby alienating and contradicting a rural queer existence. In this study, queer farmers often associated uncertainty, fear, and isolation with living rurally, simultaneously, emphasizing an attachment to rural landscapes, nature, and farmland. To cope with contrasting constructions of socio-spatial relations, queer farmers sought to develop the ‘chosen family farm model,’ which entailed small-scale intentional or community-based living and farming units. The chosen family farm allowed for a certain level of protection and queer community while also enabling the ability to practice small scale and environmentally sustainable farming in rural areas. These units mirrored the queer literature on the ‘chosen family’ wherein queer people seek to build support networks outside of blood relations (Weston 1991). Given the expectation of heterosexism, queer farmers expressed appreciation when encountering other queer people in agriculture such as customers and farmers. Related, queer farm owners were equipped to support queer farm employees through mentorship about both farming and queerness, thereby expanding the traditional family farm model to encompass non-blood ties in terms of sharing knowledge and resources. As a sort of social buffer, the chosen family farm model allowed queer farmers to bolster their ability to remain in farming.

Additionally, gender and sexuality were intricately related, as numerous farmers faced sexism in addition to heterosexism. Findings align with numerous other studies documenting how women struggle to be taken seriously as farmers and face additional burdens of gaining access to farming (Keller 2014; Pilgeram 2007; Sachs et al. 2016; Trauger 2004); however, as queer farmers demonstrate, sexism is not limited only to women, but rather those who are read as women. Some queer women, transgender, and non-binary farmers, in particular, felt the visibility of gender made this aspect of their identity a much more significant barrier. However, all genders of farmers had to position themselves to the hegemonic masculinity expected to be embodied by those performing farm work. For farmers that were read or identified as women, they experienced sexism influencing their standing in agriculture. Non-binary and transgender farmers may be misgendered or met with hostility if people are unable to read their presentation. For farmers who were cis-gender men or read as men, they experienced masculinity in a slightly different way in terms of feeling the need to prove themselves as “good” despite their sexuality or gendered assumptions about their views. This illustrates that continued efforts to dismantle hegemonic masculinity in agriculture empower not only cis-gender heterosexual women but potentially queer women as well as non-binary and transgender populations. 

Finally, as 95 percent of the sample identified as white, some queer farmers explained how white privilege allowed them to enter in farming spaces despite being queer. In this way, queer white farmers were able to mitigate some of the potential implications of their identity based on racial privilege. This suggests that queer farmers of color may face additional barriers to farming resources. Initial findings suggest that engaging in sustainable agriculture has brought farmers into contact with anti-racism work within the Food Justice Movement and farmers of color, and as such, white queer sustainable farmers have reexamined race in their own farming practices. Beyond acknowledging racial injustice, some queer farmers in this sample expressed a desire to actively confront racism in the food system. As queer white farmers experience heterosexism, this may expose them to considering how other forms of oppression such as racism function. This may make queer farmers ideally positioned to serve as allies to other marginalized farmers, thereby opening new pathways for food justice.

Overall, this research has contributed to the sustainable agriculture movement’s approach to the social dimension of sustainability. Sustainable agriculture, in part due to critiques from the Food Justice Movement, has begun to confront many areas of equity, including race, gender, and class at consumer and producer levels (DeLind and Ferguson 1999; Leslie and White 2018; Smith 2019). This research expands this core area of sustainability to include sexuality. As is evident from these findings, queer farmers require additional support from sustainable agriculture to enter and remain in farming. Thus, efforts within alternative agriculture, without considering queer sexualities, replicate social injustice in the food system, preventing the transition to a sustainable food system. Although sustainable agriculture has been critical to women’s involvement in agriculture (Sachs et al. 2016), greater attention to sexuality is needed. Only recently are scholars and activists beginning to uncover the taken-for-granted nature of heterosexuality through critiques of the family farm and land access (Keller 2014b; Leslie 2019; Leslie et al. 2019; Rosenberg 2016). Gender in agriculture research has expanded from cis-gender women to cis-gender men (Barlett and Conger 2004; Fink 1992; Peter et al. 2000; Sachs 1983). Now, queer farmers, in particular, transgender and non-binary farmers, illustrate another important approach to supporting gender minorities in farming. Finally, both queer culture and the sustainable agriculture movement largely disregard queer people as farmers (Leslie 2019). By centering the lives of predominantly non-urban queer populations, this research demonstrating that not all queer people desire an urban existence, and that rural queer people actively cultivate vibrant rural queer livelihoods as well.

To summarize, this research demonstrates that inattention to queerness in agriculture burdens queer farmers to develop their own relationships and visibility to gain acceptance and inclusion. The implicit and sometimes explicit heterosexism within agriculture has ramifications for how and where queer people decide to farm. In some cases, this may lead queer farmers to participate in sustainable agriculture based on assumptions of inclusion. In other ways, this leads farmers to carefully decide where they farm and how they share their identity. While formal networks (i.e., the northeast queer farmer alliance meeting) and informal networks (i.e., the chosen family farm, queer customers) offer powerful benefits for farmers, these efforts have primarily arisen in reaction to the lack of support from urban LGBT movements and agriculture networks. The combination of urban-bias in LGBT spaces, coupled with heteronormativity in agriculture, has primarily left queer farmers to develop their own strategies and support networks to enter and remain in farming.

Research conclusions:

Overall, the heteronormativity and heterosexism in farming make queer people involved in agriculture largely invisible to farm organizations, researchers, and the public. Both public policy and research must improve to more effectively meet the needs of queer farmers who have historically been excluded. Scholars and practitioners must begin taking seriously the implications of sexuality in the public sphere, specifically within the context of farming. Through an examination of social sustainability, this research demonstrates that sustainability initiatives within agriculture must also confront heterosexism to realize a truly sustainable food system. Furthermore, promoting vibrant farm communities and future engagement in farming rests, in part, in supporting diverse populations in agriculture, included queer farmers. The alternative standpoint of queer people offers new visions and approaches for farming, bolstering efforts for ecological food production.


Participation Summary
20 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Consultations
4 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

35 Farmers participated
25 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

This research has been presented at two conferences so far. First, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s (PASA) Farming for the Future Conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (February 5-7, 2019). The graduate student researcher led a session on the topic queer farmers, including a brief overview of this project and a panel of four queer farmers from the Northeast. Queer farmers on the panel shared their experiences with community, gender and sexuality, and thoughts on how to develop allies in farming (see PASA Panel Outline for a description of the event). Based on the overwhelmingly positive response from the 2019 PASA panel, the 2020 PASA conference plans to include an "LGBTQ Farmer and Ally mixer" to foster support for these farmers. The graduate student researcher was consulted to develop the title and language for promoting this event for the next conference.

Queer farmers & allies gathered for a picture after the first discussion of LGBTQ identities in PASA's nearly 30-year conference history.

This research has also been shared at the Rural Sociological Society Annual Meeting in Richmond, Virginia (August 7-9, 2019). A proposal for presenting was submitted to the Women In Sustainable Agriculture Conference (WISA) in Minneapolis, Minnesota (October 17-19, 2019), but was not selected.

The graduate student researcher shared this research during her thesis defense (September 23, 2019), which was open to the public with faculty members and farmers in attendance. The graduate student research was also invited to Iowa State University as a guest lecturer on October 31st, 2019 to share this research with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and the public.

Outreach is ongoing. Additional, speaking engagements are actively being sought out by the graduate student researcher. Future planned presentations include the Pennsylvania Women’s Agriculture Network Annual Symposium in Philadelphia (December 18, 2019). To directly reach farmers outside of the Northeast, a nationwide webinar presenting aspects of the project’s findings is planned. The webinar will be presented on November 13, 2019, through the Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming based in Ithaca, New York.

The publication of a recommendations sheet is also in progress to be distributed to PA WAgN, PASA, and other interested farming organizations. Lastly, findings will be submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals (Rural Sociology, Agriculture, Food and Human Values).

Rural Sociological Society Annual Meeting Presentation

Thesis Defense Presentation

ISU Guest Lecture Flyer

Project Outcomes

$14,997.00 Dollar amount of grants received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

By sharing the experiences of queer farmers, this project helps to identify potential barriers and opportunities for queer farmers to engage in agriculture. For the farmers directly involved in 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 and PA WAgN fosters more visible and inclusive sustainable agriculture spaces to support current and future involvement of queer people in farming. Farmers in the audience during these presentations likely experience changes in knowledge, awareness, and attitudes potentially building collaboration and support for queer farmers within their own farming communities. 

Through this project, I have developed an ongoing collaboration with Isaac Leslie and Jaclyn Wypler, who have interviewed queer farmers in New England, the Midwest, and Australia. We are collaborating to prepare a webinar based on findings from our interviews which, in total, include over 100 queer farmers. I have also been invited write a book chapter entitled "Queer Farmers: Sexuality on the Farm" in the forthcoming Routledge Handbook for Gender and Agriculture, edited by Carolyn Sachs, Kathy Sexsmith, and Leif Jensen. The handbook aims to offer critical insights for practitioners and scholars in the field of agriculture.

Knowledge Gained:

As a graduate student researcher, I have gained research skills, including interviewing, qualitative coding, and data analysis. This project served as my master’s thesis, which has been successfully defended. The opportunity to engage in their fieldwork has resulted in being accepted to 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.




Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

The findings in this research suggest several areas for future research. First, as regional qualitative data shows, queer farmers face additional barriers in terms of land access, farm location, and support systems (Leslie 2017, 2019; Wypler 2019). Thus, a quantitative study on queer farmers would be crucial in expanding knowledge on the needs of these farmers across the U.S.

Second, Given the vital role, farm laborers play in the global food system, the intersection of migration and sexuality may provide new connections between queerness and agriculture. The Sexualidades Campesinas digital storytelling project based in California collects stories of sexually diverse farmworkers to combat discrimination and increase support services (Lizarazo et al. 2017). By centering queer farmworkers, other areas of marginalization can be examined, including class, legal status, and gender. The large number of farm laborers both in the U.S. and globally suggests this is a substantial area for further investigation. Similarly, the nature of sustainable agriculture, relying heavily on interns and apprentices (Ekers et al. 2016), raises questions about how employment and training opportunities for beginning farmers are influenced by heterosexism. Greater attention to farm laborers and farm employees in terms of queerness could further illuminate how participation in agriculture is shaped by identity.

Third, queer farmer research has predominately engaged rural queer farmers exploring connections between the geographic location of queer and farming communities. Given the linkage between urban LGBTQ resources and acceptance, how do urban queer farmers fare in comparison to rural ones? Additionally, how do urban farming organizations and communities consider queerness in relationship to farming practices? Urban agriculture, especially that which is grounded in black and brown community empowerment are already challenging dominant forms of food distribution and power inequity (White 2018), Are these urban agriculture organizations working to disassemble heterosexism as well as racism and classism?

Fourth, research on queer farmers has predominately studied those involved in sustainability (Durán Gurnsey, 2016; Leslie, 2017, 2019; Wypler, 2019). It is largely unknown how queer identities participate in conventional agriculture or agribusiness. For example, Cultivating Change is a non-profit organization started in 2016 with the purpose of acknowledging and raising awareness of the presence of LGBT people working in the agriculture industry, including at companies such as Tyson and Bayer ( n.d.) How these agriculturalists connect their queerness to agriculture may be vastly different compared to sustainable farmers.

Finally, understanding the multiple axes of oppression is critical to gaining a holistic understanding of multiple areas of identity (Crenshaw 1991). Sandilands (1994) asserts, "It is not enough simply to add ‘heterosexism' to the long list of dominations" (21). Likewise, studies only examining sexuality are incomplete without incorporating race, gender, and class in how these identities intersect with one another to influence participation in agriculture.

Work Cited

Information Products

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.