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.
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 Americaand 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.