Queering the family farm: Despite obstacles, LGBTQ farmers find fertile ground in Midwest
Although they go largely unrecognized and face barriers, Midwestern LGBTQ farmers persist as they reframe the image of the family farm.
By Bennet Goldstein
Shannon and Eve Mingalone avow that their farmers market booth is “very gay.”
They hang strings of pride flags and sell rainbow stickers to help pay for gender-affirming care, like hormone replacement therapy, for Eve.
Sometimes, when parents and their teenagers pass the booth, the adults glance, then speed ahead. The kids pause for a second look. Shannon, 34, hopes it means something for them to see LGBTQ professionals out and succeeding.
People often share stories. The middle-aged woman who confided that her daughter is transgender. The teen who stood in the middle of the Mingalones’ booth and said, “This makes me feel safe.”
“That means everything to me,” Shannon said.
Now in their second season, she and Eve, 35, grow more than 45 varieties of vegetables at their business, Ramshackle Farm, in Harvard, Illinois.
Lettuces and Asian greens emerge on stacks of hydroponic troughs and spinach in a warm hoop house. Outside, Shannon and Eve tend to arugula, broccoli, peas and radishes using intensive planting and heavy rotation techniques — never pesticides or synthetic fertilizer.
Their operation is an exception to the sprawling corn and bean fields that dominate the landscape. Shannon and Eve work to feed people, not livestock or cars.
Shannon wears her politics on her coveralls. Her favorite jean jacket includes patches that declare “End monoculture” and “Save the earth. Bankrupt a corporation.”
The Mingalones are among a multitude of LGBTQ farmers who draw connections between their identities and agriculture, including their adoption of sustainable practices.
“We’re not just raising food,” Shannon said. “We are creating safe spaces for people.”
Like many, they used to have a specific image of a “typical farmer:” white, male, heterosexual, Christian and conservative. Excluded from that vision — or perhaps myth — is a space for them.
So they are creating one.
The presence of LGBTQ people in agriculture challenges stereotypes of who can, or should be, interested in farming. But the community is not a monolith, interviews with 16 Midwestern LGBTQ producers indicate. Some use restorative techniques in hopes of reducing environmental destruction and social inequity. Others run conventional operations, which industry representatives and policymakers say are key to feeding the world’s growing population.
Nonetheless, as LGBTQ farmers navigate common hurdles, ranging from land inaccessibility to federal lending restrictions to social isolation, they rely on creativity and resilience to survive, much like they do in other arenas of their lives.
USDA doesn’t count LGBTQ farmers
No definitive figures measure how many LGBTQ people farm in America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture asks respondents to identify their sex in its five-year censuses, not their sexual orientation or gender identity.
But the department is considering adding those questions to the 2027 Census of Agriculture. It conducted a pilot study in late 2021 to gauge whether their inclusion would affect response rates.
Responses decreased significantly when the questions were inserted, despite the survey’s confidentiality. The study lacked possible explanations for the findings.
But when word of the survey reached U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., he accused the USDA and President Joe Biden of advancing a “woke agenda.” Hawley claimed in a tweet that a farmer sent him a copy of the document. The lawmaker questioned, facetiously, the relevance of “such important” questions to the farming profession.
The National Young Farmers Coalition likewise encountered pushback from outside of the LGBTQ community to a survey that included similar demographic questions.
But a failure to acquire demographic information about LGBTQ people prevents improvements to services, said Katie Dentzman, a rural sociology and public policy assistant professor at Iowa State University.
“If you’re completely unaware that these people are out there, then their issues are completely being ignored,” she said. “In a way, that is perpetuating violence in a system.”
Dentzman jimmied a statistical workaround using the USDA’s 2017 census, finding that 8,302 farms were overseen by men married to men and 3,550 by women married to women. That was about 1.2% of all dually run farms nationwide.
Dentzman found that many same-sex couples farmed conventionally. But same-sex married men were more likely to have organic land and grow products intended for human consumption than farms run by men married to women. Likewise, women married to women more often engaged in alternative farming practices like intensive grazing and the production of value-added products.
Might LGBTQ people’s unique vantage draw them to sustainable farming?
It’s possible, Dentzman said, but as other sociologists have proposed, the economic and social disadvantages queer people face also might funnel them into alternative agriculture. That is, they lack the expansive resources and capital necessary to farm conventionally.
Statistically, LGBTQ people experience higher rates of poverty and food insecurity compared to non-LGBTQ people. They also earn less dollar-for-dollar and disproportionately experience homelessness.
Then add the upfront costs of farming.
Land access remains a top obstacle to entering agriculture, and attempting to do so without the backing of family can be a Herculean task.
Fifty-nine percent of respondents to the 2022 National Young Farmer Survey said finding affordable farmland to purchase is very or extremely challenging, while 45% said the same of finding any farmland at all.
Meanwhile, the cost of cropland is rising nationwide.
Corbin Scholz, 27, operates Rainbow Roots, an organic farm “rooted in queerness” on 6 acres of rented land north of Iowa City, Iowa. She does not come from a farm family and works two other jobs to support herself.
Scholz’s lease expires after the 2024 growing season and she doesn’t know whether she will be able to renew.
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to ever afford a farm,” Scholz said, “and moving everything I’ve built to another one-to-five-year lease really limits my growth opportunity.”
Family link keeps Iowan farming
No rainbow flags hang on the red barn at Hoefler Dairy.
But it’s apparent the men who live there are hitched when one casually grabs the other’s butt as he strides past him in the milking parlor.
Under the drone of equipment, Andy Ferguson walked down a row of cows to check that the milkers were running smoothly. His husband, John Hoefler, a third-generation dairy farmer, crouched to retrieve a bucket of rags. Outside, dusty brown fields — freshly combined during the autumn harvest — stretched across the gentle hills surrounding New Vienna, Iowa.
Hoefler feels fortunate to own a farm. He milks 230 cows, occasionally with help from Ferguson, who is a school administrator in nearby Dubuque.
Both 51-year-olds previously were married to women and fathered children.
Marrying, having kids, it was the normal thing to do, said Hoefler, who spent nine years with his wife.
“I thought I could just do it.”
But he couldn’t.
Hoefler’s divorce upset his father — a “good German Catholic.” That his son was gay added to his distress. He tried to take Hoefler to the hospital after the secret came out.
“Because you’re sick,” his father told Hoefler. “You’re sick.”
Hoefler feared his dad would kick him off the farm and sever ties permanently. Hoefler would miss the opportunity to purchase the family business.
His mother intervened.
“If you kick him out, I’m going too,” she told her husband and later relayed to Hoefler.
Father and son didn’t speak for three years. But they continued to milk side by side in silence.
Hoefler doubts he would be farming today had he lost his family link to the dairy.
Relationships, kinship matter
Intimate relationships and economic capital are bound together, said Isaac Leslie, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont Extension. Often, farmers turn to partners and family for on-farm labor, extra income and health insurance.
“We see that in the process of accessing each of these key resources, queer farmers face barriers that cisgender and heterosexual farmers don’t,” said Leslie, who has studied farm viability and the experiences of LGBTQ producers.
Matters of the heart are tough for LGBTQ farmers to begin with.
Locating a partner in rural America, where an estimated 2.9 million to 3.8 million LGBTQ people live, poses a challenge when there are fewer queer people and gathering spaces. Rural areas, especially where agriculture is an economic mainstay, trend religiously and politically conservative.
Moreover, two traditional avenues to land acquisition — marriage and inheritance — can be tenuous routes for LGBTQ people. Wedding into ownership was not necessarily an option across the country until 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all states must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and recognize same-sex unions performed in other states. Inheriting a farm might be off the table for LGBTQ people whose familial relationships have frayed.
Most farm loans hinge on family status
The family makeup of a farm is a crucial factor for those seeking government support.
Many USDA loans, such as those allocated for beginning farmers and ranchers, require that the applicant operate a “family farm.” That means “the majority of the business is owned by an operator and any individuals related to them by blood, marriage or adoption” — a definition that applies to about 98% of all U.S. farms.
Such restrictions can curtail the options of farmers who have faced or continue to experience biological and legal hurdles toward creating families. LGBTQ people who are unmarried or lack children might turn to non-family business partnerships for assistance. That would make them ineligible for the types of USDA loans that help the majority of farmers.
“There’s a value of the traditional family that overlooks other ways to be a community, to be in a relationship, that operates outside of blood and marriage ties,” said Michaela Hoffelmeyer, a doctoral candidate in sociology at The Pennsylvania State University who has studied LGBTQ farmers and sustainable agriculture. “The queer community has been doing this for a long time.”
Additionally, the USDA does not offer targeted grants to LGBTQ farmers, a department spokesperson said, and they are not considered a “historically underserved” population. That precludes their participation in loan, credit and insurance programs that are reserved for “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” unless they qualify under other program criteria.
The USDA is working to ascertain the needs of LGBTQ farmers, the spokesperson said. The department held the first-ever LGBTQ farmer roundtable in June to learn how producers access department programs. The USDA also plans within the next year to hold listening sessions to “better understand issues and barriers” facing LGBTQ farmers.
Sometimes in the absence of “traditional” families, LGBTQ people have constructed chosen ones that encompass a gamut of possible relationships. In farming, too, LGBTQ producers have conceived new kinds of partnerships.
“Queer people have different perspectives on life,” said Rufus Jupiter, 42, a flower farmer living in Viroqua, Wisconsin. “Just the verb ‘to queer’ is taking whatever is the status quo and seeing what different possibilities exist.”
Finding family in community
Chef Fresh Roberson grew up poor but believed they lived in a state of plenitude. The feeling stemmed from the food growing around them.
Roberson, who uses she and they pronouns interchangeably, was raised in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It was a small Southern town, she said, where the railroad tracks separated Black from white residents.
Roberson and their mother visited nearby sweet potato fields to gather the still-edible tuberous roots that heavy machinery failed to collect on the first pass. Roberson filled milk crates and kept them to overwinter in the bottom of closets throughout her home.
Roberson moved to Chicago in 2001 to study biomedical engineering at Northwestern University. One day, they decided to bake a pecan pie but discovered they could not afford a small bag of the shelled nuts.
Back in Rocky Mount, Roberson had been able to locate the food she needed, whether from an aunt’s pecan tree or a cousin’s grapevine.
“I don’t think I really thought about it in that perspective until something that was always abundant for me, I couldn’t afford,” Roberson said.
They later changed course. Roberson left Northwestern and went on to work on an organic, heirloom farm; attend culinary school; start a catering company; travel to California; work in the Silicon Valley kitchens of Google and Facebook; return to Chicago and manage a mobile produce market.
For Roberson, 40, gardening makes the world disappear for a moment.
Now they run Fresher Together. The business, located in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, exists to improve community access to fresh food. It is framed by four pillars: build, grow, cook and heal. Each supports a vision of creating an equitable food system that prioritizes community sovereignty.
A team of staff, fellows and volunteers farms on 0.25 acres at an incubator on city property and oversees a nearby community hub and aggregation space, where they store, wash and pack food.
“A lot of how we are building is through this lens of choosing our family — choosing our loved ones who we are taking care of,” Roberson said.
Fresher Together partners with people and organizations with similar aims. Each week of the growing season, the team creates harvest bags filled with produce, herbs and value-added products from the urban farm and other businesses owned by people of color.
The business has grown and is relocating to a permanent home in Beaverville, Illinois, near a historically Black farming town. Roberson will continue to sustain Fresher Together using diversified funding streams.
Other LGBTQ farmers have looked to unconventional financing models to launch their operations.
Hannah Breckbill, a vegetable, pork and lamb farmer in Decorah, Iowa, said her local USDA Farm Service Agency classifies her 22-acre, organic operation as a “home garden,” which disqualifies her from utilizing some financial programs. She did not attempt to secure an FSA loan when she started farming because she lacked confidence the agency would take her efforts seriously. So, Breckbill, 35, purchased the land using donations and personal savings.
In 2018, she organized her business as a worker-owned cooperative and created “the Commons” — a capital account that was funded by donations and constitutes 40% of the farm’s ownership. Nobody owns the Commons; it is a shared resource. When a worker buys into the farm, they pay into their own capital account. That investment is offset by the Commons, which also reduces the amount the farm must pay out when an owner retires.
Not all LGBTQ farmers link their identities to farming.
Liz Graznak, an organic vegetable grower who lives outside of Columbia, Missouri, believed that she had to stay guarded when she moved to her rural community in 2008.
“I didn’t want people to know that I was a lesbian,” said Graznak, 46. Not only was that a futile effort in a small town, she said, it also mischaracterized residents’ attitudes.
It is easy to stereotype rural communities as bastions of conservatism. While polls have measured less acceptance for issues like same-sex marriage and LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections compared to urban residents, a majority of rural residents nonetheless agree with such policies.
“In the country, at least from my experience, people are much more concerned about the kind of person that you are,” Graznak said. “Are you kind? Are you helpful? Will you stop and help somebody change their flat tire on the side of the road?”
Even when LGBTQ farmers aren’t making a conscious effort to enact change, their presence offers alternatives to family norms.
“It’s not just a heterosexual man does this, a woman does this, children do that,” said Jess Frankovich, 30. She and her wife Jessica Chamblin, 33, produce honey and raise poultry and rabbits on their 3-acre farm near Ellsworth, Wisconsin.
Chamblin, who also teaches, says puzzled students ask her who feeds the farm’s animals, who runs the chainsaw and who constructs the vegetable beds.
“We do,” she said. “The two of us. The two women here.”
This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Wisconsin Watch is a member of the network. Sign up for our newsletter and donate to support our fact-checked journalism.
Growing networks connect LGBTQ farmers
To foster connection among LGBTQ farmers and other workers in the agricultural industry, several people have created social and professional networks.
“Many of our LGBTQ members in the rural areas talk about this sense of isolation, and how difficult it can be to make connections with others,” said Bill Hendrix, a board member of the Cultivating Change Foundation, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ agriculturists.
Other websites and listservs foster community, such as the Queer Farmer Network.
The Queer Farmer Convergence, an annual gathering at Hannah Breckbill’s Decorah, Iowa, farm, features workshops and kindles connections through activities like “weed dating.”
“It’s like speed dating, but you’re over a row of weeds with people and then you rotate every five minutes,” Breckbill said. “Farmers will definitely tell you the best conversations ever happen while working together. So, we just capitalize on that for potential romance.”
The website Not Our Farm celebrates the overlooked stories of farm workers, farm employees, members of farm crews, farm managers, apprentices and interns, many of whom identify as LGBTQ.
BEHIND THE STORY
Listening to LGBTQ farmers helped me reconsider my place in the heartland
Interviews challenged stereotypes of the rural Midwest.
By Bennet Goldstein
Nine years ago, my friends incredulously raised their eyebrows when I told them I was moving to rural Iowa. Good luck with that, several said. Have fun with all the straight farmers. We hope you survive.
From their perspective, I was embarking on a journey to a desolate wasteland, abundant with livestock, but devoid of LGBTQ people. I wasn’t sure what to expect in the countryside, having lived in cities my entire life; but I was not particularly surprised when these presuppositions were later confirmed — at least, partly. It was lonely. No gay bars. Churches and kaffeeklatsches galore. Co-workers with children my age. I could jog across town in eight minutes, from cornfield to cornfield.
I threw myself into work and submerged the gay part of my identity. I began wearing baggy corduroy pants, oversize dress shirts and leather hiking boots. I lowered the register of my speech and buzzed my hair short over the bathroom sink. Anything that might help me avoid detection.
I planned for the day I could leave and get a job in a larger city. Until my return this year to Madison, Wisconsin, fulfilled that vision, I hadn’t noticed the aspects of country living that I appreciated. Charming red brick Main Streets. Affordable housing and easy parking. And if people didn’t like you, they rarely said it to your face. Although few, I did meet other LGBTQ people, including a hodgepodge who farmed.
People often express surprise when I tell them queer people willingly work in agriculture. I believe that is a result of a longstanding archetype within the LGBTQ community — the tragic, provincial escapee. The story nearly always involves a queer person who has recently “come out.” They flee their rural hometown as soon as the chance arises, bound for the nearest urban center. They reinvent themselves. The acculturated person never looks back, only visiting for the occasional family holiday.
Within that framework, how could LGBTQ people voluntarily live in the country, and happily so? Moreover, how could they find a place for themselves in a profession whose image is so clearly defined?
When I thought “farmer,” I unreflectively conjured a white, flannel-wearing patriarch, king of his fields. His wife keeps the books, drives the tractor when needed and raises their three kids. They are perpetually stressed, and another baby is on the way. The family attends church on Sundays, except during the planting and harvesting seasons.
Yet after nearly a decade writing about county fairs, commodity prices and hunting — and enjoying the experience — even I managed to find space for myself among Iowa’s cornfields. I came away wanting to learn about the other LGBTQ people who have done the same.
When I pitched this story to my editors, I didn’t expect to discover many queer farmers, much less a group that held such a broad array of perspectives.
“We don’t try to hide who we are,” Josie Paul, 59, told me, “but we don’t make that who we are as farmers either.”
Paul and her wife, Samantha Gorman, 39, raise poultry, eggs, pigs and microgreens in Harvard, Illinois. They identify as transgender and moved in 2021 from Chicago to the bucolic community of about 9,500.
Sociologist Jaclyn Wypler unearthed similar sentiments when she researched the reasons LGBTQ farmers enter and exit the profession.
“By and large, queer farmers are not surrounded by other queer farmers,” Wypler said. “So, your ‘bread and butter’ of your connection is your local community. And for a lot of the farmers, they do have deep, meaningful relationships with neighbors — but there is some precarity there.”
Rural Illinois certainly is not perfect, Paul said. She supposes there could be someone who mutters “terrible things under their breath.”
“But if they don’t come here with it — if they leave us alone — I’m okay with that,” she said.
Other farmers told me it is crucial to signal their presence as queer professionals to increase social acceptance of LGBTQ people and create welcoming spaces. Acknowledging the presence of queer farmers also is important for institutions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture told me that it’s starting to investigate the needs of LGBTQ producers to better tailor its services.
Some farmers drew links between their identities and their desire to steer agriculture toward more environmentally sustainable practices.
“A lot of traditional notions of land ownership are husband, wife and their children farm the land,” said Bailey Lutz, a 27-year-old entrepreneur in Decorah, Iowa. “And when the husband and wife die, the oldest son gets the land.”
Lutz tends a growing herd of goats and contracts with landowners to have the animals consume brush and invasive species on those properties. Lutz also sells some of their goats for meat.
Lutz said the traditional view of land ownership and inheritance reinforces the idea that land exists solely for human extraction — disregarding how other plants and animals live on the landscape.
“I very much see land as being as much in a relationship with me as I am with it, or with other people or with my goats,” they said. “Had I been much more fearful of engaging with my queerness, I wouldn’t have explored these concepts.”
Lutz, who grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park, had few reservations about moving to a significantly smaller community in northeast Iowa. They miss dance venues, though, and opportunities to hold hands with a significant other in public.
Lutz and I walked past pastures, stopping to watch the herd. The goats munched on bergamot, goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace as the sun began to set. One of the kids, a bottle baby named Butternut, nibbled on my jacket.
“It’s really hard to talk about the land as a singular entity, because it’s made of billions and billions and billions of organisms, just like our bodies are,” Lutz said. “We are billions of cells that all fulfill their own little need to create this bigger organism.”
I used to describe the pastoral ground I formerly called home as the corn metropolis of the universe. Now and again, living there felt like working an unpaid overtime shift. But I also experienced moments that broke through the stereotype of rural isolation.
A few nerve-wracking hours milking cows, anticipating the instant I would have to jump away when they relieved themselves on the platform above me. A short excursion through the downtown on a Union Pacific locomotive, horn blasting at the railroad crossings. Watching, atop a prickly hay bale, a solar eclipse darken the sky. I could revel in the rush of feeling — apart from this otherworldly place, and yet not — and notice something akin to a heartbeat.
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