Listening to LGBTQ farmers helped me reconsider my place in the heartland

Editor’s note: 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 America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. It was originally published in Wisconsin Watch on Dec 26, 2022.

Nine years ago, my friends incredulously raised their eyebrows when I told them I was moving to rural Iowa. Good luck with that, several said. Have fun with all the straight farmers. We hope you survive.

From their perspective, I was embarking on a journey to a desolate wasteland, abundant with livestock, but devoid of LGBTQ people. I wasn’t sure what to expect in the countryside, having lived in cities my entire life; but I was not particularly surprised when these presuppositions were later confirmed — at least, partly. It was lonely. No gay bars. Churches and kaffeeklatsches galore. Co-workers with children my age. I could jog across town in eight minutes, from cornfield to cornfield.

I threw myself into work and submerged the gay part of my identity. I began wearing baggy corduroy pants, oversize dress shirts and leather hiking boots. I lowered the register of my speech and buzzed my hair short over the bathroom sink. Anything that might help me avoid detection.

I planned for the day I could leave and get a job in a larger city. Until my return this year to Madison, Wisconsin, fulfilled that vision, I hadn’t noticed the aspects of country living that I appreciated. Charming red brick Main Streets. Affordable housing and easy parking. And if people didn’t like you, they rarely said it to your face. Although few, I did meet other LGBTQ people, including a hodgepodge who farmed.

People often express surprise when I tell them queer people willingly work in agriculture. I believe that is a result of a longstanding archetype within the LGBTQ community — the tragic, provincial escapee. The story nearly always involves a queer person who has recently “come out.” They flee their rural hometown as soon as the chance arises, bound for the nearest urban center. They reinvent themselves. The acculturated person never looks back, only visiting for the occasional family holiday.

Within that framework, how could LGBTQ people voluntarily live in the country, and happily so? Moreover, how could they find a place for themselves in a profession whose image is so clearly defined?

Bailey Lutz, owner of Hollyhock Land and Livestock, hangs out with their goats in Decorah, Iowa, on Oct. 20, 2022. Lutz breeds meat goats and performs contract grazing services. They started the business in 2019. (Photo by Bennet Goldstein / Wisconsin Watch)

When I thought “farmer,” I unreflectively conjured a white, flannel-wearing patriarch, king of his fields. His wife keeps the books, drives the tractor when needed and raises their three kids. They are perpetually stressed, and another baby is on the way. The family attends church on Sundays, except during the planting and harvesting seasons.

Yet after nearly a decade writing about county fairs, commodity prices and hunting — and enjoying the experience — even I managed to find space for myself among Iowa’s cornfields. I came away wanting to learn about the other LGBTQ people who have done the same.

When I pitched this story to my editors, I didn’t expect to discover many queer farmers, much less a group that held such a broad array of perspectives.

“We don’t try to hide who we are,” Josie Paul, 59, told me, “but we don’t make that who we are as farmers either.”

Paul and her wife, Samantha Gorman, 39, raise poultry, eggs, pigs and microgreens in Harvard, Illinois. They identify as transgender and moved in 2021 from Chicago to the bucolic community of about 9,500.

Sociologist Jaclyn Wypler unearthed similar sentiments when she researched the reasons LGBTQ farmers enter and exit the profession.

“By and large, queer farmers are not surrounded by other queer farmers,” Wypler said. “So, your ‘bread and butter’ of your connection is your local community. And for a lot of the farmers, they do have deep, meaningful relationships with neighbors — but there is some precarity there.”

Rural Illinois certainly is not perfect, Paul said. She supposes there could be someone who mutters “terrible things under their breath.”

“But if they don’t come here with it — if they leave us alone — I’m okay with that,” she said.

Other farmers told me it is crucial to signal their presence as queer professionals to increase social acceptance of LGBTQ people and create welcoming spaces. Acknowledging the presence of queer farmers also is important for institutions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture told me that it’s starting to investigate the needs of LGBTQ producers to better tailor its services.

Some farmers drew links between their identities and their desire to steer agriculture toward more environmentally sustainable practices.

“A lot of traditional notions of land ownership are husband, wife and their children farm the land,” said Bailey Lutz, a 27-year-old entrepreneur in Decorah, Iowa. “And when the husband and wife die, the oldest son gets the land.”

Lutz tends a growing herd of goats and contracts with landowners to have the animals consume brush and invasive species on those properties. Lutz also sells some of their goats for meat.

Lutz said the traditional view of land ownership and inheritance reinforces the idea that land exists solely for human extraction — disregarding how other plants and animals live on the landscape.

“I very much see land as being as much in a relationship with me as I am with it, or with other people or with my goats,” they said. “Had I been much more fearful of engaging with my queerness, I wouldn’t have explored these concepts.”

Bailey Lutz, owner of Hollyhock Land and Livestock, pets Butternut, a baby goat, in Decorah, Iowa, on Oct. 20, 2022. Lutz says the traditional view of land ownership and inheritance reinforces the idea that land exists solely for human extraction — disregarding how other plants and animals live on the landscape. (Photo by Bennet Goldstein / Wisconsin Watch)

Lutz, who grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park, had few reservations about moving to a significantly smaller community in northeast Iowa. They miss dance venues, though, and opportunities to hold hands with a significant other in public.

Lutz and I walked past pastures, stopping to watch the herd. The goats munched on bergamot, goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace as the sun began to set. One of the kids, a bottle baby named Butternut, nibbled on my jacket.

“It’s really hard to talk about the land as a singular entity, because it’s made of billions and billions and billions of organisms, just like our bodies are,” Lutz said. “We are billions of cells that all fulfill their own little need to create this bigger organism.”

I used to describe the pastoral ground I formerly called home as the corn metropolis of the universe. Now and again, living there felt like working an unpaid overtime shift. But I also experienced moments that broke through the stereotype of rural isolation.

A few nerve-wracking hours milking cows, anticipating the instant I would have to jump away when they relieved themselves on the platform above me. A short excursion through the downtown on a Union Pacific locomotive, horn blasting at the railroad crossings. Watching, atop a prickly hay bale, a solar eclipse darken the sky. I could revel in the rush of feeling — apart from this otherworldly place, and yet not — and notice something akin to a heartbeat.

Bennet Goldstein is a Report for America corps member reporting on water and agriculture for Wisconsin Watch, as part of  the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.