By Jeanne Janson, NFU Intern

To understand how to build thriving rural communities, all we need to do is consider the ground beneath our feet.

Healthy soil is complex mixture of organic and inorganic elements: clay and sand, worms and fungi, plant matter, and minerals. This hodgepodge forms the foundation that sustains all life on earth. If just one small thing is out of sync, the whole system is thrown out of whack.

Our communities are as diverse as the soil we cultivate. They are built of a hodgepodge of unique people – young and old, men and women, accountants and farmers. Just like the diverse building blocks that make up soil, all people, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation, are necessary to build strong, thriving rural communities.

Unfortunately, throughout history, certain groups, including Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ people, have been left out of the narrative of what rural America looks like. To maintain the mirage of a homogenous community, their presence has been ignored and their stories have gone untold. But just as soil made up solely of clay cannot produce a bountiful harvest, our communities, solutions and policies will be similarly incomplete if we continue to disregard how diverse rural America truly is.

Hannah Breckbill co-owns Humble Hands Harvest with her second cousin, Emily Fagan. They are first-generation, women farmers operating a 22-acre, organic community supported agriculture (CSA) farm in the heart of corn country. In Iowa, according to the 2017 USDA census of agriculture, the average farm is 355 acres, there are nearly three times more men principal producers than women, and 0.008% of all farms are certified organic. In this landscape, Humble Hands Harvest is a clear anomaly.

“I don’t feel a lot of challenge because of my identity as a woman, but I think an important thing to note about our farm is that I do have a queer identity, and that has made me feel isolated sometimes in rural communities,” said Hannah.

This isolation is deeper than the feeling of living ten miles from your nearest neighbor. This is isolation rooted in the stereotypes that family farms are made up of a heteronormative male/female partnership, LGBTQ+ communities are meant to stay in urban areas, and marriage is a necessary step to obtaining land.

As many as 3.8 million LGBTQ+ people, nearly 20 percent of the country’s total, live in rural America. They choose to live there for the same reasons as anyone else. A 2019 report titled Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America found that family and community ties, connection to nature, and love for a slower, more relaxed pace of life drew LGBTQ+ people to the countryside.

As farmers, ranchers and agricultural professionals, it is long past time to adopt a queer-inclusive culture, and Humble Hands Harvest – along with the community of Decorah – is paving the way. Together, they are rewriting the narrative by building communities and norms that defy these divisive stereotypes.

“What we’re doing is we’re ‘queering’ agriculture by creating these systems that actually work better for us, that aren’t reliant on some kind of preconceived route through life.”

Common Ground  

Hannah grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and moved to Decorah in 2010 to work for the Seeds Savers Exchange. After two seasons of farming on rented land in Minnesota, she decided to move back to Decorah. “Basically, I got sucked in and never wanted to leave.”

Hannah’s love for this small-town is palpable, even over the phone. She attributes the thriving community to a food co-op that was established there in the 1970s, which set the foundation for a collective mindset with an appreciation for local food at the center. “I think a big part of creating a feeling of community is to create regular reasons to get together and to see each other.”

There are monthly potlucks that trace back to the original “co-op hippies” and Humble Hands Harvest’s own traditions, like inviting people out to harvest dry beans or partake in lambing season. These gatherings create a space for community members to get to know one another and maybe learn about a new perspective while sharing good food.

Making communities more inclusive and welcoming is a crucial step in the right direction, but it can’t stop there. For LGBTQ+ people and farmers to truly thrive in rural communities, we have to change the ingrained norms that allow certain types of farmers to succeed, while others suffer.

“My community is very, very welcoming of queer people,” Hannah said, “but nevertheless, heteronormativity colors everything, like all the assumptions that are in place about how people should want to live.”

“Inherit It or Marry It”

Heteronormativity is the expectation that heterosexuality is the “standard” sexual orientation. Hannah’s business plan to start Humble Hand’s Harvest was heavily colored by this assumption and she had to find clever ways to access capital and leverage her community to succeed.

According to a 2014 study, most women farmers obtain land “through the traditional means of marrying a male farmer, at a young age through the pooling of martial resources with a husband who works off the farm or later in life after a life-altering event like a divorce.” All three of these options place marrying a man at the core of owning land. Hannah has observed this trend in her community as well. “Around here anyway to get land you just marry a farmer or someone that’s inheriting land. That’s the way in, so that’s part of the problem of land access right now.”

That wasn’t going to work for Humble Hand’s Harvest, so with the help of her community, Hannah found a different way. “The land was going to auction and [the neighbors] were afraid it would be bought up by a hog confinement. They didn’t want that to happen to the neighborhood, so they bought the land and put it into hay to save it from that potential use. That’s when I came in and said, ‘Ok we could do something really awesome with this place.’”

This solved one problem, but Hannah still needed capital to buy the farm and all the necessary machinery and supplies to cultivate it. So, she bottomed out her savings, borrowed some money from relatives, and hosted a huge community fundraiser where they auctioned off services like splitting wood.

“Decorah has a great community infrastructure for connecting people to each other, so we just leaned heavily on that,” said Hannah.

Hannah’s ingenuity and the collective mindset of Decorah allowed her to break out of the heteronormative system and forge a new, more feasible path for LGBTQ+, along with women and beginner, farmers to thrive as farm owners.

Queer Farmer Convergence

Despite a community’s best efforts though, changing policies, systems, and norms is something that takes time. In the meantime, queer farmers like Hannah are stepping in to make sure that no one feels isolated or excluded.

“I started a queer farmer convergence and we’ve had two annual things so far. Last year, there were 55 people who came and camped on our farm for the weekend,” said Hannah.

Once a year, LGBTQ+ farmers from Massachusetts to California gather at Humble Hand’s Harvest to build community, make connections, and reflect on the unique challenges they face in agriculture.

“It was really fun to start that and feel how needed it was, like it wasn’t just needed in my personal life, it was needed in many people’s lives,” said Hannah.

Last year, the attendees of the queer farmer convergence created a zine with poems, art and essays from the weekend. On page four, there’s a sing-along contributed by Hannah: “And on this land, I call my home. Through these hills, where I roam, I hear a voice, deep in my bones, I ain’t a stranger no more.”

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