Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
COLLAGE BY NICO KRIJNO
A new generation of LGBTQIA+ farmers are tending the land through a lens of radical empathy and mutual respect by putting people and planet before profit.
As an adult, Hannah Breckbill imagined herself an academic. It was a logical path. After all, she loved numbers and problem-solving. So, when the time finally came to enroll in college and pick her major, math was the obvious choice.
Two years later, Breckbill realized she had made a mistake. Seminars were inspiring, sure, and college life was fun. But Breckbill’s ambitions had changed. She wanted concrete action; to pursue a career that could tangibly improve the world. That’s when agriculture entered the picture. “I was exploring various realms of activism, but ultimately found farming an extremely rewarding way of cultivating change,” Breckbill said. “Agriculture can happen anywhere; people need to eat everywhere. So, after college I started working on vegetable farms and soon found myself on that career trajectory.” That was in 2009.
Now, Breckbill is the founder of Humble Hands Harvest, a queer-run, LGBTQIA+ friendly farm in Iowa committed to regenerative agriculture and unconventional, slow-growing farming practices.
Breckbill is not alone in reimagining farming spaces. On the contrary, she is part of a new generation of LGBTQIA+ farmers determined to queer our food production systems. Historically, farming practices in the West have been shaped by oppressive systems—heteronormative patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism—that have prioritized profit and volume over people and planet. Queer farmers, especially queer farmers of color, are met with high rates of homophobia, transphobia, racism, and sexism as they navigate farmland. Those like Breckbill are determined to reshape farming spaces to be inclusive and safe, and reimagine farming practices to better reflect their experiences of what it means to be queer.
“Queer theory complicates reductive binary understandings of the world; it complicates ideas of hierarchy; it complicates the idea that there are better positions and worse positions”, said Benedict Morrison, member of Quinta, an ecovillage and LGBTQIA+ community project. “Queering our food systems is an attempt at radical empathy. It’s an attempt to always find the value in difference.”
Sustaining Safe Spaces
For Breckbill, building safe spaces for trans and queer people in farm country is one way radical empathy can manifest in practice. “It can be isolating to be queer and rural—for a very long time, every other farmer around me was straight,” said Breckbill, who initiated the Queer Farmer Convergence as a way of bringing LGBTQIA+ farmers together in an environment free of discrimination to disrupt racist, capitalist, and heteropatriarchal legacies in U.S. agriculture. “It’s a really beautiful thing to be able to invite and sit alongside a wide swath of people to help make something happen.”
“Queering our food systems is an attempt at radical empathy. It’s an attempt to always find the value in difference.”
Safe spaces are necessary for trans and queer individuals living in the countryside. Rural areas tend to have a higher concentration of Republican and Republican-leaning residents, a party that has become synonymous with homophobic and transphobic laws. Republicans have been responsible for rolling back healthcare for trans people in states like South Dakota, Arkansas, and Alabama. They have also implemented laws that prohibit trans people from participating in sports teams consistent with their gender identities in Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Montana, and West Virginia. More recently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is Republican, signed into law a bill that criminalizes the teaching of sexual orientation and gender issues in schools. None of these examples are legislative outliers. They are just a few examples of what has become a sustained assault on LGBTQIA+ people over the last few years.
It’s why safe spaces—which are few and far between in rural areas—have become a lifeline for trans and queer people, who are more likely than their cishet counterparts to be affected by homelessness and food scarcity. The redistribution of resources and shelter to those that need it is a responsibility that some queer farmers are building into the way they run their farms.
“Food insecurity is an issue of means and resources,” said trans visibility activist and Moxie Ridge Farm founder Lee Hennessy. “LGBTQIA+ rights is about making sure the basic needs and freedoms are not stolen from members of our community, and food is perhaps the most basic of all needs. Providing food along with housing and other support [to members of the LGBTQIA+ community] has always been a part of the movement.”
Queer farmers have also been compelled to build networks that connect, celebrate, and empower fellow LGBTQIA+ ranchers. It’s become a coping mechanism born out of the struggles that arise from life in provincial areas. Such communities—both in person and online—are a crucial resource for knowledge-exchange and friendship-building outside the oppressive conservatism endemic in many rural spaces.
“For a lot of LGBTQIA+ people, finding community means being in a city where they are, to a large extent, prohibited from being involved in farming,” said Morrison. That’s why Quinta has focused much of its resources on building a digital network and discussion group that explores the principles practiced on the organization’s farm in Portugal, such as ecosexuality, ecoqueer body positivity, and environmental justice. The idea is to strengthen interpersonal bonds between Quinta members who may not have direct access to a local network of gender non-conforming and queer farmers with similar lived experiences.
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And beyond the solidarity that results from community-building among LGBTQIA+ farmers, networks cultivated with radical empathy are also an integral component of reimagining mainstream agricultural practices. They offer frameworks shaped by care and compassion that can be applied to the ways in which we redistribute food and farming resources. “Queering the food system means cracking off the brittle corners of the current industrial system and replacing them with small farms and makers focused on feeding their communities,” said Hennessy. “It means teaching anyone with access to land how to grow and raise food. It means approaching the growing, making, and distribution of food with the same sense of community, support, and care that we, as queer people, can achieve when we are at our best.”
Diversifying Farming Techniques
Dismantling hierarchies can be achieved not only through safe spaces and community-building, but also through the techniques that are used when farming produce. Monoculture farming—which was born from colonial-era sugar plantations in the Caribbean—continues to be a popular mode of farming despite the many environmental, social, and economic issues it generates. By drawing on their respective agricultural experiences and ideological affinities, queer farmers are experimenting with more just and inclusive ways of tending to the land.
“We can see the environmental damage that monocultures are doing,” said Quinta’s Morrison. “Queerness, which is about inclusivity, is about embracing difference, and cherishing it. That’s actually good for agriculture. It’s good for the crops that we’re producing. It’s good for the planet.”
Humble Hands Harvest, for example, is working towards a regenerative agricultural model that prioritizes perennial polyculture commons, which make space for a diverse abundance of tree crops and vegetables year after year. At Quinta, farmers think holistically of the crops they tend to, not as resources to be extracted, but rather as members of an ecosystem. In practice this means planting vegetables and fruits next to each other that require a different set of nutrients to grow, leaving an abundance of minerals in the soil for neighboring plants. And Hennessy has ensured that Moxie Ridge Farm is led by behavior-based animal management as a way of completely rejecting mechanized farming techniques.
“We need to look holistically at what’s going on in any system and actively question it. That’s the only way to change the foundations of an extractive system.”
“We need to look holistically at what’s going on in any system and actively question it,” said Humble Hands Harvest’s Breckbill. “That’s the only way to change the foundations of an extractive system and rebuild it differently.” For trans and queer people, many of whom are navigating life outside society’s archaic norms, adopting farming practices that celebrate diversity is the only viable way forward.
Reimagining Economic Systems
Queer land justice cannot exist within a capitalist model that’s based on domination, extraction, and violence. As Morrison states: “The current [profit-driven agricultural] systems we subscribe to coerce the bodies of various species, effectively translating them into resources rather than living entities. Parallels exist with the ways in which the bodies of LGBTQIA+ people have been coerced; they’ve been pathologized, they’ve been criminalized—indeed, in some parts of the world, they still are.” It’s why queering the food system, according to Morrison, means practicing radical empathy in the ways in which laborers are treated.
This might require building alternative business models free of outdated hierarchies. Organizations like Out in the Open and Not Our Farm are paving the way for worker-owned farms that can be passed down to future generations of LGBTQIA+ individuals without debt. The significance of their mission is clear, especially considering the systemic barriers that hinder trans and queer people from accessing capital: LGBTQIA+ people have a collective poverty rate of 21.6%, which is notably higher than the 15.7% poverty rate of cishet people. For others, like Coco Faria, a queer farmer based in Washington, food redistribution to those affected by food scarcity—in addition to paying workers living wages and practicing slow farming techniques—has become instrumental to their farm’s operations. The practice was born from a recognition that access to fresh produce is still a privilege available only to an elite few.
In both instances, queer farming is synonymous with mutual respect; with putting people and planet before profit.
It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Vanessa Radtiz, cofounder of Queer Ecojustice Project, an organization that runs media and educational workshops that explore the intersection of ecological justice and queer liberation. “All wealth originates from this Earth, this land, this home. It is our labor that has been exploited for the extraction of that wealth from this land, and it’s the control over our bodies that has led to its enclosure in the hands of fewer and fewer incredibly wealthy people,” they said. “Queer land justice is a reclamation of our labor from the grips of the extractive economy and an assertion of our right to place our labor into a regenerative, caring, collective management of home.”