Farming with this amendment isn’t a climate silver bullet, but it could make more soil a carbon sponge.
April 1, 2021
As friends, farmers, and lifelong advocates for food justice, Maggie Cheney and D. Rooney started Rock Steady Farm and Flowers in 2015 with no land and $500 dollars each. They also received loans through a co-op, and the funds were just enough to allow them to sign a lease for land in rural Millerton, New York.
The two set out to start a farm to reflect the queer community they had been part of and feed it through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program with seven pickup locations throughout New York City.
“Rock Steady was really an opportunity to create something that I didn’t see existing in the local farming community,” said Cheney, who goes by she/they pronouns. “And in many ways, representation is a big part of that, as a kid not having queer role models who I saw myself in.”
Rock Steady is Cheney’s and Rooney’s first foray into farm ownership, and the initial five years were tough. But with support from their community and neighboring farmers, they managed to build a successful cooperative. What started as a volunteer effort is now a wholesale operation that employs a crew of 10 farmers and partners with a robust network of community organizations.
The pair chose Millerton because of its proximity to New York City. “I don’t think we would be as successful as we are without the relationships that we came to the Hudson Valley with,” said Rooney, who identifies as a gender nonconforming, mixed Latinx person. “And we’ve been able to move forward because it’s a combination of new friends and supporters.”
And yet, for every successful example like Rock Steady, there are an unknown number of queer, trans, and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) folks who don’t have a way to enter the farming industry. And when they do, they often face a barrage of limitations. Up to 5 percent of rural Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+), 20 percent of whom are people of color, according to a report on LGBTQ+ life in rural America. Queer folks lack federal and state nondiscrimination protections, and with queer people of color being more visible in predominantly white areas, they may be especially vulnerable to discrimination in employment, housing, healthcare, and more.
Racism, sexism, and other forms of identity-based oppression continue to run rampant on farms. And although the Equality Act, if passed by the Senate, will offer federal protections against discrimination to members of the LGBTQ+ community, the culture of farming will not change overnight. Nonetheless, farmers like Cheney and Rooney hope to reimagine traditional systems of agriculture and pave the way toward a more inclusive industry.
Anita Ashok Adalja has worked on numerous farms across the U.S. for the last 10 years. Formerly a social worker in New York City, Adalja became interested in farming after co-founding a rooftop garden in Brooklyn with her co-workers. She quit her job to apprentice at U.C. Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems and has been farming ever since. She now works as a produce manager at the Agri-Cultura Network, an Albuquerque-based food cooperative, and runs Ashokra farm, a small-scale queer farming operation she started with her partner Ash.
Although Adalja’s identity is inextricably tied to farming, she’s had to endure some very difficult times. She was often the only Indian American woman on the field, toiling on the land amid crowds of white men in the depths of the woods. “As a queer, brown woman on majority white-run farms working for white cis men and women, I’ve experienced a lot of racism, classism, and sexism on levels that are pretty painful and traumatic,” Adalja said. Feeling like a perpetual outsider because of her race, Adalja kept her queerness a secret to deflect further scrutiny from potentially homophobic managers and co-workers. “I often didn’t disclose my sexuality [on farms] for my own safety,” she said.
Despite Adalja’s efforts to avoid unnecessary attention on farms, Adalja nevertheless faced an abundance of racial microaggressions. Farm owners expected her to live comfortably in a trailer park surrounded by confederate flags, urban farms took her picture for diversity grants, and bosses downplayed the impact of racial slurs. To prevent her contributions from being classified as “Indian work,” in which her efforts as a farmer were obscured and minimized by her Indian identity, Adalja felt the pressure to prove herself by working herself to the bone. And despite often feeling gaslit and tokenized, accountability was never an option. Because the small-scale and industrialized farms Adalja worked on didn’t have human resource departments, other than the farm owner or manager, she never felt comfortable reporting workplace abuse out of fear she’d lose her job.
“I would be working and imagine myself throwing down the carrots and beets and just running off the field,” Adalja said.
Even when Adalja was hired to be a farm manager, the discrimination followed. Farm owners assumed she was incompetent despite parallel levels of experience, and visitors were often visibly shocked when they learned she managed the farm. While the majority of leadership was white men, female farm owners also criticized Adalja for being unable to handle certain physically demanding tasks.
These remarks were so common that every time she moved to a new farm, she anticipated a base level of intolerance. “If you’re working on predominately white cis male farms, that’s the reality,” Adalja said. “You probably aren’t going to be able to be your genuine self because it’s not safe.”
While the fear of living openly as a queer woman may be one reason some farmers like Adalja feel disempowered to speak out against injustice in the workplace, there is little to no data on their unique challenges, especially in rural areas, according to Logan Casey, senior policy researcher and advisor at the Movement Advancement Project.
Federal surveys such as the U.S. Census, the USDA Census of Agriculture, and American Community Survey don’t include questions on sexual orientation and gender identity, and there is often a perception that people of color don’t exist in rural communities. These gaps of information, compounded by the lack of rural legal protections for LGBTQ+ folks, make queer people of color vulnerable to discrimination.
“Rural communities have always been home to LGBTQ+ people of color, but their lives and their needs are often unexamined or overlooked,” Casey said. “That leaves queer people and queer people of color less able to respond to the harmful effects of discrimination when it does happen.”
The lack of data on queer BIPOC farmers is also prevalent in academia, said Jaclyn Wypler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies queer and transgender sustainable farmers in conservative rural communities. Wypler was recently hired as the Northeast project manager of the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network at the National Young Farmers Coalition.
“There is discrimination for BIPOC folks and queer folks within academia, including within the environmental and rural and agricultural departments,” Wypler said. As a result, research studies that highlight their experiences are difficult to adequately fund.
To bring public awareness to farmworker discrimination, Adalja started Not Our Farm, a platform that provides farmers a space to share their stories on workplace abuse. Since its inception, Adalja has interviewed more than 60 workers—many of whom identify as LGBTQ+ and BIPOC—who faced similar experiences working on small-scale, organic farms.
On the site, queer Black farmers share their stories of feeling isolated and unsafe on white-owned farms, and other farmers of color open up about how their bosses treated them unfairly because of their race. While Adalja admits that Not Our Farm may not be fully representative of all farmers (there aren’t many stories from farmers on industrialized operations or from Latin American migrants, for example), she believes that the platform has implications for American farms at large.
“What has developed from Not Our Farm is the creation of solidarity and a community of folks who work on other people’s farms, because the abuses, challenges, and even the beauty that we experience can be very, very isolating,” Adalja said.
Economic barriers deter many farm employees from starting their own operations, Adalja said. Many aspiring farmers start their careers working on other people’s farms where they are paid low wages, usually through a monthly stipend or room and board. As a result, they are often unable to build enough capital required to afford land and farm machinery.
But even if queer farmers have that capital, they still may not be able to access land in a location that feels safe to them, said Isaac Leslie, a postdoctoral research associate in food systems at the University of New Hampshire who studies the structural barriers faced by queer farmers in the Northeast.
“Are they going to move to a rural community where there might not be many other BIPOC or queer folks who can be their social support system?” Leslie said.
Through interviews with dozens of queer farmers in New England, Leslie also found that visibility in the marketplace may be a liability. Regardless of whether they sell produce at local farmers’ markets or directly to consumers, queer farmers may not be comfortable being public about their gender identity or sexuality for fear of discrimination. And given that 97 percent of U.S. farms are family-owned, single queer farmers may struggle to keep their operations afloat.
Some aspiring farmers also say that the people they work for don’t often share the operational knowledge of farming—things like crop planning, produce distribution, and sales. “There is knowledge hoarding that happens,” Adalja said. As a result, farm employees often hit a career ceiling once they advance to a management position. On farms where Adalja was the manager, decision-making power was exclusive to its owners, she said, which is why she made a habit of taking notes after a long day of work.
“Most folks who work on farms don’t know the budget of the farm, how much the farm is making, how much the produce is being sold for, or who the customers are,” Adalja said. “They aren’t creating those relationships that would be really crucial to starting [their] own farming operation.”
Operational relationships were paramount to the success of Rock Steady, which is just 100 miles north of Manhattan. But as queer folks, developing these bonds was a complicated dance between courting LGBTQ+ customers and cautiously getting to know their rural neighbors.
During the early stages of operation, Cheney and Rooney didn’t brand Rock Steady as a queer farm because they were mainly focused on keeping their operation running. But through community outreach and support from preexisting relationships in the city, Cheney helped start the Northeast Queer Farmer Alliance, which hosts talks on queer visibility in farming, led presentations on food access at queer community centers before the pandemic, and partners with numerous nonprofits. She has also connected with queer farmers through social media platforms. Ultimately, Cheney has helped bring together queer folks in New York City who are interested in local food and farming. Rock Steady has become so popular that all of the applicants for positions on the farm are now queer folks from across the country.
Even though proximity to a large city was paramount to Rock Steady’s early development, building a successful farming operation could happen in a number of places, as long as it is close to an established queer community, Leslie said.
“The queer and BIPOC folks that I see persisting in agriculture haven’t necessarily experienced less discrimination,” he said. “Rather, they have a stronger queer and BIPOC community who they can go to for support.”
Cheney and Rooney were also deeply aware that building relationships with the locals of Millerton—a predominantly white and conservative area—was important. They relied on a local tractor mechanic for technical support, exchanged crop knowledge with neighboring farmers, and devoted ample time to the township’s community centers, food pantries, and libraries. “The fact that we’re not just trying to feed high-end Manhattanites is meaningful to the local community,” Cheney said.
Toeing the line between building queer-friendly spaces and cultivating a tight-knit local community is delicate, Cheney and Rooney said. They continue to approach their efforts with intentionality, choosing who they surround themselves with, and often find themselves cautiously testing out how open they can be about their sexuality.
“There are many people here that do respect us because we’re incredibly hard working,” Rooney said. “But at the same time, there’s still other folks that don’t know this, whatever their beliefs and prejudices are. You can feel that tension.”
Rooney, to this day, says they are in a continuous state of subtle unease in upstate New York. On a weekly basis they face gender bias, or not being taken seriously. For instance, local farmers constantly ask Rooney if they know how to drive a car or operate a tractor. Nonetheless, Rooney acknowledges how lucky they are to be able to live as openly as they do with little consequence.
“We see the privilege we have,” Rooney said. “Even if it [the local community] is really different from us, we have the support of NYC. We can be out—really fucking out—in a way that a lot of other farmers can’t.”
The response to Rock Steady has been immensely positive. CSA members write to Rooney and Cheney to express their gratitude that queer people are growing their food, and parents have expressed how their work has made a profound impact on their children who are coming to terms with their identity. Rock Steady has also given Rooney the space to explore their own gender identity.
“It’s not always easy to be who you are,” Rooney said. “My identity is still evolving, but I have only been able to do that . . . within the queer farming community.”
Like Rooney, Adalja feels gratified to help other young queer farmers finally feel seen. Some spend all night perusing the website, Adalja said, and tell her how grateful they are to know they aren’t alone.
Not Our Farm has been especially healing for Adalja. Since starting the project, she regained the confidence to start farming again after taking a year off. While she now feels empowered to call herself a farmer, she does not plan on buying land. Instead, she’s interested in pursuing a collective ownership model similar to farms such as Soul Fire and Sylvanaqua. To Adalja, the fact that farms like Rock Steady exist is a sign that farm culture can be accessible and inclusive.
All photos courtesy of Rock Steady Farm, except where noted.
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