This article uses the term “queer” to refer to a wide range of sexual and gender identities, including but not limited to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Non-binary, and Gender Non-conforming. We at Stray Dog Institute recognize that the word “queer” has a complex history as both a slur and a reclaimed liberatory term and has the potential to erase individual experiences by lumping them together. Additionally, the meaning of this term reflects the specific historical social context of the United States. While recognizing the limitations of our language, Stray Dog Institute believes in amplifying diverse underrepresented voices within the food system transformation movement.
Most simply defined, queerness is a lack of definition. Eve Sedgwick expands on this definition in her book “Tendencies,” describing queerness as “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.”
What does this open mesh of possibilities mean for farmers and the food system? Queering farming is a movement to amplify the visibility of queerness in food and agricultural spaces, recognize and value the contributions of queer farmers, and encourage a sense of belonging among queer people interested in becoming involved in farming.
Queer farmers in the US are anything but a monolith. Farmers who identify as queer also hold diverse overlapping racial, ethnic, economic, religious, familial, and cultural identities. For some, embodying their queer identity through a queer farming community or network is extremely important and central to their identity. For others, queerness may be a secondary identity that is not often explicitly expressed or addressed.
In recent years, the queering farming movement has grown rapidly, explicitly confronting systems of power and control in food and farming. The dominant US food system is built upon a set of racialized, gendered, and sexualized power relations. Within this system, those that typically hold more power and privileges are male, white, cisgender, and heterosexual. Farmers who exist outside those categories face more restricted access to resources.
As a movement, queering farming challenges this food system status quo that holds power unequally and prescribes strict notions of what a family farm should be. Queering farming draws from the openness of expansive sexual and gender identities to inform relationships with the land, each other, and the food we grow. Queer farmer and director of Rock Steady Farm, Amara Ullauri, described their queer identity as interwoven with their racial and cultural identities to Eater magazine, stating that queerness is “how I relate to others and to the lands in a way that is actively challenging normalized relationships that have been imposed through colonization and capitalism.”
The systemic barriers experienced by queer farmers vary widely based on expression of identity. Farmers that identify or pass as a man or woman may have an easier time accessing resources and dodging discrimination than a trans or non-passing farmer. Additional identities such as race, class, and citizenship also factor into the challenges queer farmers may face. Examining queerness in food and farming provides a useful framework to look more deeply at how identities shape the power structures in today’s food system and the opportunities for food system transformation.
Why focus on queer people in agriculture?
The food system transformation discussion often omits the perspective of queer farmers. A unified approach to transforming our food system for the “common good” requires developing a vision of transformation that includes all stakeholders’ interests.
European colonists arriving in the territory that would come to be known as the United States introduced a Western agricultural system based on traditional heterosexual family units, extractive commercial agriculture, private property rights, hierarchical power dynamics based on race and gender, and the violent dispossession of indigenous residents from their ancestral lands. This colonial legacy has since shaped centuries of who could farm, what they farmed, and how US agricultural methods developed.
Many discriminatory power dynamics established during the colonial period have persisted in food and farming to the present day. Land grant universities and agricultural extension programs furthered the productivity of conventional extractive agriculture within established social hierarchies, historically prioritizing the interests of white farmers and excluding BIPOC[i] farmers and alternative approaches to land stewardship. Through the mid-1800s, women were barred from representation in many agricultural governing bodies and lacked financial independence to access capital or loans. Since the early 20th century, US government programs like 4-H have focused disproportionately on agricultural training for white, male, cisgender, heterosexual participants. Youth farming loans extended by the US Farm Service Agency in conjunction with the 4-H program have long supported the notion that farming is a male vocation connected to traditional gender roles, despite recent legal challenges and 2019 farm census data revealing that 51% of US farms have at least one woman operator. Queer farmers have been featured explicitly in agricultural research or media coverage beginning only in the past decade. This history of overt discrimination and erasure of varied identities in food and farming underscores the need for an explicit eye toward the unequal distribution of social power in agriculture.
Farming in the US is also deeply culturally linked to “traditional” family structures aligned with a heteronormative gender binary. The “traditional” US family farm includes a family unit composed of a father, a mother, and their children. Being a queer farmer can often mean living differently from these traditional gender roles and family structures. Even for heterosexual farmers, sexuality and gender are important aspects of farming. Farmers in the current US agricultural system face considerable economic pressure to use cheap labor. Often this cheap, or even free labor, is obtained through farmers’ partners and children. Under this system, farmers’ personal lives, household power dynamics, and familial relationships are all connected to the ability to access farmland and capital.
Including queer farmers in discussions of food system reform challenges discrimination and increases queer visibility. Queer people have historically been associated with urban environments, as opposed to rural agricultural environments. However, an estimated 2.9-3.8 million queer people in the US live in rural areas. Naming the existence of queer people in rural and agricultural spaces challenges the dominant heteronormative narrative and uplifts the innovative practices and thinking that queer people continue to bring to agriculture. Looking to the future, including queer people in discussions of food system reform contributes to shaping a more inclusive vision of food system transformation.
The intersection of queerness with other identities that face discrimination
The term “intersectionality” was first described by its creator, Kimberlé Crenshaw, as “a lens through which you can see where power collides, interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” All people, queer farmers included, do not exist in a vacuum or have a single identity that entirely defines them. Crenshaw’s framing of intersectionality makes it possible to better conceptualize the struggles any person may face in the context of their interactive patchwork of identities.
The idea of intersectionality was a tool at the disposal of researcher Katherine Dentzman, who set out to use USDA 2017 agricultural census data to learn more about queer farmers and their intersecting identities. This task was challenging: the USDA Census of Agriculture does not include specific questions on sexual orientation or gender identity. In lieu of this direct information, Dentzman identified two-producer farms run by men married to men and women married to women. In her analysis, Dentzman found that “the majority of queer farm operators were white and lived in rural areas, but queer operators were more likely to be BIPOC compared to the general farming population.” While Dentzman’s approach cannot detect all US queer farming presence, it provides a valuable first picture of the queer farming community in census data and underscores the need for greater queer visibility in survey design.
Examining intersectionality in the lived experiences of queer farmers requires more robust data about queer individuals and their lives and openness to qualitative research methods, individual stories, and informal data sources. Queer people—among many other marginalized social groups—exist whether or not their existence is properly validated by formalized data collection and peer-reviewed publications. This challenge reflects the legacy of academic research used as a tool of gatekeeping and erasure by colonial institutions. Queer farmer networks often materialize informally and purposely maintain informality to protect members’ safety. Recognizing and uplifting the queer community in food and farming relies on creating spaces where traditionally marginalized, intersectional identities can be seen and acknowledged through qualitative, informal means.
Intersectionality also prompts food system reformers to think expansively about how to create liberatory spaces for queerness while acknowledging that such spaces exist on unceded Indigenous land. In California, the intersection of queer liberation and Indigenous land justice is explored in a series of resources by Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an organization farming on land and resources returned to their community of Indigenous land stewards with ancestry in what is now California. In New Mexico, “Queering the Farm” organizer Ana Victoria told Teen Vogue that their collective is about healing for farmers with intersecting queer and BIPOC identities: “We know, particularly for Black, Indigenous, and people of color, our ancestors have been disenfranchised from having access to land and resources. That’s part of the intention, to provide access to land and to facilitate that healing. That can happen when we connect with the land, when we learn how to grow our own food, how to make medicine together, and to really build a community.”
Denial of access to land has historically been a broad tool of social marginalization in US agriculture, excluding farmers whose identities differ from the dominant ideal of the white, male, cisgender, heterosexual farmer. The alternative perspective of queerness challenges the dominant norms of the US agricultural system. Similarly, Indigenous perspectives such as the call for rematriating land suggest additional structural critiques and moral imperatives. Within this context, queer communities and BIPOC communities face the dissonance of balancing viewing land ownership as a tool for personal safety and security and understanding that private land ownership is a facet of the colonial, hetero-patriarchal system that perpetuates land access disparities in the first place. On the pathway toward an inclusive food system, there is an opportunity for queer farmers and advocates to welcome further understanding of Indigenous communities and forge a connection to their liberation.
Economic and political identities also play a role in queer farmers’ safety and ability to succeed. According to direct interview data collected among farmworkers by the US Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey, the number of immigrant US farmworkers who are not legally authorized to work in the US has grown to almost 50% in recent years. Together with the dominant norms of heteropatriarchy, undocumented status magnifies vulnerabilities and potential risks for queer farmers and farmworkers with intersecting identities.
Countless intersectional identities can magnify or reduce risks and barriers for queer farmers. Considering intersectionality when developing solutions to transform the food system will help build the nuance and flexibility necessary to create a food system that supports and values farmers of all backgrounds.
queer farmer contributions to the US food system
Awareness of queerness in farming increases recognition and understanding of broader systems of power and oppression in the food system. This ongoing interrogation of power supports a transformation toward food production systems that increase equitable nutrition access while respecting animals and the natural environment.
Queer farming communities often operate within strong, informal social support networks, providing role models and solidarity for young and beginning farmers, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. These networks can center strength in queer communities as farmers face a cultural crisis perpetuated by corporate consolidation and stereotypes that position white, male, heterosexual farmers as default power holders in US farming.
When it comes to practicing sustainable farming techniques that differ from traditional methods, qualitative and informal evidence shows that queer farmers exist at the vanguard of agricultural innovation. A study examining conceptions of masculinity in sustainable agriculture found that monologic masculinity—a concept of masculinity built on rigid expectations for gender roles—often hindered the openness to change required to transition to sustainable practices.
Queer farmers’ experience operating outside of hetero-patriarchal norms may equate to a greater openness to alternative farming practices. Some queer farmers approach farming with an explicit desire to upend a wide range of exclusionary norms and assumptions that have historically governed farmers’ relationships to the land. For these farmers, shedding the mental frame of heteronormativity naturally aligns with rejecting other dominant paradigms in US agriculture, including racial inequality, normalized animal exploitation, commodification of food, and conventional methods of extractive agriculture.
Farmer Lee Hennessy, who developed a new “behavior-based animal management style” that rejected traditional animal confinement practices, told Eater magazine that his queerness helped him think outside the box. “I think what we see with queer people farming is that they’re already comfortable operating outside the norm,” he said. “Essentially, if you’re already considered, at best, different from and, at worst, unacceptable to mainstream society, it’s easier to say “fuck it” and do your own thing.”
As queer farms gain visibility, they challenge policymakers and consumers to think beyond the prevailing stereotypes—and historically entrenched power structures—of US farming. This challenge includes decoupling the idea of a “family farm” from assumptions of heteronormativity or environmental sustainability.
How movement allies Can support queer farmers
Change begins with a mindset shift. Contrary to traditional depictions, rural communities are diverse, and many farmers in rural spaces hold intersecting racial, ethnic, economic, and LGBTQ identities. Not only do queer farmers exist, but they also bring unique strengths to their communities and agriculture. The dominant structures of economic and social power in US rural society are interwoven with colonialism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy. Working to actively disrupt those structures and expand understandings of sexuality and gender in farming contexts supports food system innovation for the common good. Alongside new, innovative approaches, this expansive mindset could also catalyze future support for the rematriation of land to its Indigenous stewards.
Leveraging purchasing power and mutual aid are other ways to support queer farmers. Some queer farms publish and promote their presence, providing easy opportunities to forge commercial relationships that resource and uplift queer farming. There are very likely other queer-operated farms that do not publicize their queerness for reasons related to safety or preference, which may be detected through informal networks or local word of mouth. Providing mutual aid in the form of networking assistance can also be beneficial to queer farmers. If a farm is openly advertising as queer and would like more visibility, sharing their farm with relevant networks alongside a call to provide mutual aid or purchase products from the farm could provide much-needed support and capital to queer farms. Foodtank and Farm to You NH have provided lists of queer-operated farms in the US as a starting point for mutual aid.
Policy change is necessary to better support queer farming visibility and viability. Improved data collection is needed to give queer farmers the recognition needed to fuel broader policy change. Currently, many federal surveys like the US Census, the USDA Census of Agriculture, and American Community Survey do not collect data about sexual orientation or gender identity, fueling the inaccurate perception that queerness is virtually non-existent in rural communities. Data gaps combine with uneven legal protections for queer people across the continental US, intensifying queer farmers’ vulnerability to discrimination. In rural areas where resources like healthcare or legal services are already scarce, invisibility and lack of legal protection from discrimination can further limit resources for queer farmers. Finally, land access, a historical pain point for people with different combinations of marginalized identities, can be an area of intervention for policymakers and advocates looking to support queer farmers. Policy change can create and support programs that specifically focus on increasing land access for marginalized groups, including queer farmers.
Along with other marginalized groups in US farming, queer farmers can be valuable allies in the movement for food system transformation. Their unique, underrepresented perspectives on food system change can contribute to building alternatives to the dominant oppressive and extractive food system. Food system advocates with diverse theories of change may benefit by recognizing queer farmers as stakeholders in transformation. Uplifting queer farming furthers the goals of agricultural sustainability and food system justice, weakening systems of economic and social power that hinder the development of a food system for the common good.
Written by contributing author Anna Straus. Anna (she/they) is a freelance writer, researcher, project manager, and fundraiser working to build a better food system. Read more about their work here.
[i] Stray Dog Institute uses the term BIPOC to recognize the lived histories of oppression and resistance experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. Additionally, the language of this term reflects the specific historical social context of the United States and may not accurately reflect current or past racial and ethnic descriptions elsewhere. We recognize these drawbacks and use the term BIPOC only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Middle Eastern, North African, East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander communities in the US. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.
 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Duke University Press, 1993).
 See endnote 1.
 Isaac Sohn Leslie, Jaclyn Wypler, and Michael Mayerfeld Bell, “Relational Agriculture: Gender, Sexuality, and Sustainability in U.S. Farming,” Society & Natural Resources 32, no. 8 (August 3, 2019): 853–74, https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2019.1610626.
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 Isaac Sohn Leslie, “Queer Farmland: Land Access Strategies for Small-Scale Agriculture,” Society & Natural Resources 32, no. 8 (2019): 928–46.
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 See endnote 8.
 See endnote 10.
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 See endnote 1.
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 See endnote 1.
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 Bobby J. Smith, “Food Justice, Intersectional Agriculture, and the Triple Food Movement,” Agriculture and Human Values 36, no. 4 (December 1, 2019): 825–35, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-019-09945-y.
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 “Queer, BIPOC Farmers Are Working for a More Inclusive and Just Farming Culture,” Civil Eats, April 1, 2021, https://civileats.com/2021/04/01/queer-bipoc-farmers-are-working-for-a-more-inclusive-and-just-farming-culture/.