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Some of Iowa's queer farmers are taking a different approach to agriculture

Hannah Breckbill
Catherine Wheeler
Hannah Breckbill stands near the vegetable patches at her farm Humble Hands Harvest.

Shae Pesek and Anna Hankins’s farm is off a gravel road in Coggon, north of Cedar Rapids. Pens for chickens, ducks, and turkeys are woven through yard space, in between a farmhouse, buildings, and sheds. After a rainy morning, the chickens are coming out of the greenhouse and starting to sunbathe in the yard.

Pesek’s life now is one she didn’t exactly envision for herself as a kid. Growing up here on her family’s farm, she didn’t know any queer people in agriculture.

"I really didn't feel like that was an option for me," Pesek said. "So, I thought for me, to be out and have a wife and have this out relationship, or like, to even find and date someone, that I needed to move to a city. So that's what I did. I left, and I moved away for eight years."

Anna Hankins and Shae Pesek
Catherine Wheeler
Shae Pesek (left) and Anna Hankins (right) own and operated Over the Moon Farm and Flowers in Coggon.

But agriculture called her back to Iowa from San Diego. A while after returning, she met Anna Hankins, who had moved from the East Coast to work on a farm. Together, they started Over the Moon Farm and Flowers in 2019. It's a direct-to-consumer farm with livestock and flowers.

Pesek said now she and Hankins are the examples, especially for people who can’t or don’t want to leave, that you can live in rural Iowa, farm, and be queer. They’ve done that by making a big effort to be connected in their rural community.

"We've had a lot of support, honestly, especially from our very local community. There's a lot of people that will tell us like, 'Oh, I showed my queer, relative your page, and they were really excited to know that you existed.'"

Hankins said their business's commitment to their small, rural community helps them make an impact, even if they'll never know the scale.

"I do know for some people, we are for sure probably the first queer couple they have ever interacted with," Hankins said. "I hope that it kind of maybe expands some people's worldview. I think Shae and I are in a position of relative safety and support, and so, not that it's easy, but I think we've been able to navigate that dynamic in our communities."

Shae Pesek chickens
Catherine Wheeler
Pesek lets the chickens out the greenhouse following a rainy morning.

But on top connecting with the people around you, it can also be difficult to find a queer community in these rural places.

Hannah Breckbill knows this struggle well.

Breckbill is one of the owners of Humble Hands Harvest in Decorah. She said she was lonely out on the farm in northeast Iowa in 2018. She wasn’t finding a lot of queer people in the area, and a lot of her queer friends lived in cities and couldn’t quite relate to farming. So a friend encouraged her to build her own community. She started an annual event on the farm called the Queer Farmer Convergence. There’s local food, workshops, a fun dance party and more ways to more ways to share skills and bond.

"The point of it is to see my people, and to be seen and understood as a whole person by the people who share a lot of experiences with me, and then also to be challenged by my people."
Hannah Breckbill, owner of Humble Hands Harvest

Now, Breckbill has a community of farmers who work at Humble Hands and other queer farmers in the area.

Breckbill said she wants to use her position as a landowner for justice. Humble Hands is a worker-owned cooperative farm with pigs, lamb and vegetables. Breckbill and the farmers at Humble Hands Harvest said they are working to reduce barriers for getting started farming.

Work clothes drying on a porch railing in the sun.
Catherine Wheeler
Work pants dry on the porch of the farm house at Humble Hands Harvest in Decorah.

"Queer people have had to buck systems that don't work for us. But because of that experience of bucking those systems, we are good at bucking other systems," Breckbill said.

That’s something researchers have noticed about queer farmers. Michaela Hoffelmeyer, a Ph.D candidate in rural sociology at Penn State University, is based in Winterset. Hoffelmeyer said queer farmers can take on a what they called queer approach to farming.

"To embrace a queer farm approach is very much to question things like the family farm model, to question things like, "How are we feeding the community? Who is the community that we're engaging with? How am I bringing myself into the community?" they said.

Hoffelmeyer said not all farmers in the LGBTQ community take on a queer approach to farming. But those who do are often coming up with solutions for big problems.

"What we know about queer farmers, and particularly those who are taking a queer approach to farming and challenging the norms and assumptions that we have, is that they're actively creating solutions to issues in the food system, such as hunger, food insecurity, malnutrition, and they're doing this with less resources," they said.

breckbill checking on pigs
Catherine Wheeler
Hannah Breckbill checks on the farm's pigs.

One way to make things more equitable for farmers could be to have more data on who is farming in this country, said Katherine Dentzman, an assistant professor of rural sociology and rural public policy at Iowa State University.

The USDA doesn't include sexual orientation or gender identity in its Census of Agriculture, when it gathers other demographic information, like race. But Dentzman has been trying to make a dent in that. Dentzman and the research team analyzed the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

"We looked at men married to men and found about 8,300 farms that were run by men married to men, and that accounts for about almost 1 percent of all two-producer farms," Dentzman said. "Then for women married to women, it was a lot lower, we found about 3,500, which is about .4 percent"

But that's a significant undercount, Dentzman said. Her research was limited to finding two-producer farms, where both principal farmers noted they were married to the other principal farmer. She said that narrow field leaves a lot of LGBTQ people out.

But Dentzman said these baseline numbers are important, though, because knowing more about who is farming in the U.S. means they can get more direct resources and support.

"Invisibility is just kind of another form of violence in some ways, because if you don't know that people exist, then you don't know what their struggles are, then you can't help them."
Katherine Dentzman, Iowa State professor in rural sociology

Hoffelmeyer said anticipated and systemic discrimination can keep queer people out of agriculture, so we’re missing out on the solutions they are coming up with. But on top of that, they said we’re also missing out on more farmers, especially when the industry is asking where the next generation of farmers will come from.

"There are people who want to farm. They may be queer, black, indigenous people who are not You're not so used to seeing in power or in farming, but they most certainly want to farm," Hoffelmeyer said.

Hoffelmeyer says that will mean addressing systemic barriers and discrimination in agriculture that’s been hurdled at a broad range of farmers with a wide range of backgrounds, including racial and socioeconomic.

But despite these barriers, they say queer farmers like Over the Moon and Humble Hands are finding ways to do good work.

Catherine Wheeler is Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter.