2023 Common Ground Country Fair Keynote: Sunday, September 24
By Jaclyn Wypler
MOFGA aims to transform the food system by advocating through organic agriculture, highlighting its interdependence with a healthy environment, local food production and thriving communities. I believe that sexuality and mental health are also intricately tied to food systems; queerness and wellness are essential to transform the food system.
This belief developed during my first introduction to agriculture. Though I grew up in the Garden State — New Jersey — my first experiences with farming came while I was in college in New Hampshire. Junior year, I took a course called Food and Power where we covered topics ranging from cultural foodways to global food chains. We took a field trip to the college’s organic farm and I loved it! At the time, I didn’t have the healthiest relationship to food; I was on the track team and had developed disordered eating. But once I saw the college’s farm, I felt drawn to be involved by signing up for their CSA and volunteering weekly. As I planted, harvested and cooked this food, I began to heal my restrictive eating. In a physically and mentally healthier state, I realized I had also been repressing my sexuality: I realized that I was queer. These moments showed me that mental wellness and queerness are tied to food systems, but I found that they are rarely explicitly discussed.
Ninety-seven percent of U.S. farms are family farms. Family farm assumes a mom, dad and children; it assumes straightness. Sexuality is so pervasive in farming that it’s the air we breathe, yet the U.S. Census of Agriculture does not ask about sexual orientation or gender identity. As such, we do not know the percent of straight or LGBTQ+ farmers in the United States. The best proxy is National Young Farmer Coalition’s 2022 survey in which 24% identified as not heterosexual. This means that approximately a quarter of young farmers in the United States may identify as LGBTQ, but we know very little about their experiences.
I spent seven years researching queer farmers’ unique challenges and opportunities for my dissertation. Focusing on sustainable farmers in the upper Midwest I found that sexuality had to do with each stage of their farming trajectories: why the farmers got into agriculture, how they found support to thrive as farmers, and why they left farming.
Some farmers came into ag to live values that are part and parcel to their queerness. One such farmer was Devin — a white lesbian in her late 20s — who excitedly moved from a city to work on a rural small sustainable veg farm owned by a straight couple. Six weeks into the season the farmers asked Devin to leave. Devin believed that she was fired, in part, because of her queerness and that she is not a conventional woman. She felt a sense of relief because she struggled to feel comfortable on the farm as the only non-straight person there. My research and others’ show that queer farmers face barriers connected to their sexuality in their attempts to gain land, labor, capital and knowledge to support their farming careers.
After being fired, Devin found employment on a queer-owned organic farm where she met queer farmer co-workers and neighbors. Devin reported that being around other masculine-presenting lesbian farmers was “a really positive aspect of the summer.” It helped with her own sense of self and to escape restrictive notions about women farmers’ physical abilities. After that season, she wanted to keep farming.
Finding support in other queer farmers came up repeatedly in my interviews as well as in a survey I conducted on queer farmers. When I asked queer farmers to rank the most significant resource contributing to their success, they gave the highest response to LGBTQIA farm peers or mentors. Queer farmers ranked each other as the most important resource for their success three times higher than cooperative extension and five times higher than U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs.
Despite its importance, many queer farmers lack access to other queer farmers. As one farmer told me, “My queer community is not my farming community and my farming community is not my queer community.” She often felt like she had to pick one: farmer or queer. This disconnect can lead to farm exit: half of the 40 participants in my dissertation research left or downsized from farming over the course of my research.
In a moment when farmers are aging out, there are eager, ambitious queer people who want to farm and contribute to food systems but struggle to remain in the profession in part because agriculture systems are heteronormative; in other words, they are deeply based on being straight and cisgender. The pervasiveness of heteronormativity can place stress on queer farmers, impeding their ability to remain in agriculture and contribute to resilient farm futures.
Zooming out to all farmers, we know that the profession is stressful, but many do not realize that the farming community faces a mental health crisis. Land stewards experience high levels of stress due to increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather related to climate change, decreasing access to affordable land, especially since COVID-19, and contaminated water and land. Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) farmers and farmworkers are disproportionately impacted and harmed by farm stressors, compounded by discrimination at all levels in agriculture. For migrant farmworkers, stressors also include unsafe work conditions, social isolation, language barriers, and legality and logistics related to immigration.
Farmers face all of these stressors, plus stigma in farming communities around mental health and a shortage of mental health providers who are available, affordable and competent to support the diversity of farming populations. Stress in agricultural communities can lead to poor decision-making, higher risk of physical injury on farms, and farmer attrition. Farmers and farmworkers face higher suicide risk than most other occupations. This is the mental health crisis in farming.
For the first time, the 2018 Farm Bill awarded funds for farm stress. I am honored to be part of the resulting Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) in the Northeast. We call ourselves Cultivemos, a call to cultivate mental health together. Cultivemos (cultivemos.org) is a robust network of service providers united by a commitment to improve wellness and mental health for agricultural communities, with a focus on BIPOC farmers, young farmers, and farmworkers.
We aim to address structural root causes to farm stress — especially for marginalized communities — by regranting funds to collaborative and emerging efforts. Within Cultivemos, cohorts of ag service providers or farmers come together based on a common geographic area, a topic of interest or an affinity group. Each cohort works together to identify areas of need around stress and then applies for funds to implement projects that improve wellness. This on-the-ground approach shifts decision-making to those who are in touch with issues in ag communities and better positioned to support change.
Cultivemos’ cohorts include LGBTQ affinity groups who have created projects such as queer farmer skill-shares, a zine and an online platform for trans farmers, and a conflict transformation resource guide for BIPOC queer and trans farmers. These projects bolster mental health by connecting queer farmers to each other and by providing spaces to exchange knowledge and skills.
One queer cohort awarded wellness microgrants to queer farmers, trusting individuals to self-determine how to care for their wellbeing. Over 350 people applied, but the microgrants could only fund 40% of applicants, highlighting the ongoing mental health funding need for queer farmers. The granting process also highlighted opposition to supporting LGBTQ people in farming. The cohort received trolling applications, a far-right media outlet targeted the granting efforts and one of its members, and a legislator’s office questioned the merits of the grants. This backlash demonstrates the bias and discrimination that queers experience in agriculture, which can exacerbate other farm stressors.
Returning to my opening beliefs, sexuality and mental health are intricately tied to agriculture. To transform the food system, we need policies, programs and practices that support queerness and wellness in agriculture, based in self-determination and community care.
First, we need to challenge heteronormativity in agriculture by collecting sexual orientation and gender identity data on agricultural communities. Heteronormativity does not exist in a silo; this is also a call to challenge interlocking systems of oppression such as white supremacy, colonization, xenophobia and racism in ag trainings and resources. Along with better data and challenging systems of oppression, we must ensure queer-competent programming, staff and events for farming communities. We can further bolster queer farmers by providing funding to support their self-determined pathways toward thriving in agriculture.
Second, we need to support greater mental wellness in agriculture. We need competent, accessible and affordable mental health providers, especially for BIPOC farmers. Farmers need to have the ability to self-determine wellness and have access to those resources. However, farm stress is not the responsibility of individual farmworkers and farmers. We need long-term commitments and funds from decisionmakers to address large structural and systemic root causes of farm stress.
Finally, I am asking each of you to talk to friends, colleagues, family and local officials about sexuality in agriculture and farmer mental health. These are topics that are so pervasive that we can be oblivious to the experiences of queer farmers in our communities as well as the mental health crisis among farmers. They are also shrouded in stigma: talking is the first step to recognizing and celebrating queerness and wellness in farming as crucial components for transforming the food system.
Jaclyn Wypler holds a doctorate in sociology and is a farmer mental health advocate. Wypler currently serves as the farmer mental health director with National Young Farmers Coalition, supporting Cultivemos — also known as the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in the Northeast (FRSAN-NE). Learn more at jaclynwypler.com.
This essay is adapted from Wypler’s keynote speech at the 2023 Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Maine. You can watch the keynote in its entirety at mofga.org/keynotes.
This article was originally published in the winter 2023-24 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.