Resistance is Fertile: Queering Farms, Farmers, and the American Homestead
As an American Studies major, I have quite a bit of liberty to create a unique program of study out of my time at Yale. While the past two years have been great—taking classes in everything from U.S. constitutional analysis, to gay and lesbian history, to how the dinosaurs came to be—I’ve now formally embarked on a path all my own.
This past summer, I interned at the Yale Farm and found that I Ioved agriculture in the truest, dirt-under-my-nails-and-sun-on-my-shoulders kind of way. At the same time, I’m super queer. While I was farming, reading about farms, and talking to farmers, I realized that there didn’t seem to be that much space in agriculture for queer folk, especially when talking about small family farms and homesteads and the reinvigoration of American foodways and culture. I made it my mission, then, to find that space where my own queerness and love of farms and food could have a healthy co-existence (marriage is so passé). That’s why this semester I undertook an independent study, “Queer Farms, Queer Homesteading.”
Firstly, I wanted to figure out what the small family farm really means. As much as big-shots like Wendell Berry romanticize it, what does the homestead look like historically? In searching for an answer, I went all the way back to pre-colonization and saw what various food, gender, and sexual dynamics looked like before Europeans ever stepped foot in North America. From there, I worked my way through early settlements, teasing out just how central family roles (and gender relations) were to social/religious life, and how settlers from New Haven to the golden West Coast physically, spiritually, culturally, and cognitively dominated the landscape and native peoples, imposing particular land ethics and enforcing prescribed gender/sexual relations.
This history is far from uniform, linear, or bloodless, but it did provide us, living in a post-1950s world, with a good amount to fantasize and romanticize about, often serving religious, political, and nationalist purposes.
The fun (that is, queer) part has been seeing just how transgressive some folks are. What is queer about farming and homesteading isn’t that there happen to be gay and lesbian farmers (even if they are as “fabulous” as the Beekman Boys), but that there are people who actively resist the language and practice of heteronormativity and homonormativity. Heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexuality is the only “normal” sexuality, and that all aspects of life (and the way we talk about it) center around that state of “normalcy.” Think about “family,” “marriage,” “love,” and “healthy relationships,” and all the expectations those entail, as well as the images they conjure. Homonormativity is the belief that queer relationships are best when they are “normal” like those of the heterosexual ideal (between two people, monogamous, with children, sanitized, de-politicized, de-sexualized, etc.). I want to know about those folks that queer (as a verb) farming by doing things outside of the box—unafraid and against assumptions of “normal” farm or “home” life.
There are lots of places to look. One of the most interesting examples I found was a group of queer men who live on communes in the middle of Tennessee, have an egalitarian family and work structure, and dress in drag for daily chores and pagan ceremonies alike. One of the guys who lives there even wrote a book on fermentation that is now a bible among the homesteaders; in this way, Sandy Katz is subtly queering the whole new foods movement with his expressed queerness and occasionally overt campiness (i.e., a discussion of trans folk next to a recipe for kefir). Or there is the example in Rebecca Gould’s book of a straight couple that resists gender normativity at every turn, creating a homestead where all constructions of gender, sexuality, and desire can exist independent of work performed. Or how about the guy directing a movie about queer farms, actively trying to infuse into the new foods movement the voices of those folks whom talk of “tradition” has often left voiceless.
The topic—queer farmers and homesteaders—may seem to come from out of left field. Or maybe it seems like I’m being overly academic and making arguments about things that aren’t important. Well, in the current political climate where discussion of queers is limited to their service in the military or right to marry, consider how those queers that happen to be farming or creating a home that’s self-sufficient are marginalized by a discourse that assumes they want to serve in the military rather than grow food, or assumes all they want from the government is a marriage license rather than, say, support to buy hoop houses and new seedlings. Even in the “progressive” foods movement, consider how every time we idealize and fetishize the “small family farm,” we are invoking a whole slew of images and meanings that effectively erases and deems unsavory folks that have alternative families, or don’t have families at all.
Queer theory and agriculture aren’t unrelated. In fact, this study has given me a whole new way of considering how my daily food choices can either contribute to or transgress a culture and society that assume our Thanksgiving yams were grown by a straight guy.
Cody Hooks is a junior American Studies major in Trumbull College. He was a 2011 Lazarus Summer Intern on the Yale Farm. To read more about his academic investigation of queer farming, check out his blog at http://codybuffalo.tumblr.com/
Some Reflections on Farm Workers’ Rights
What were 1.5 million agricultural works to do after NAFTA flooded Mexico’s market with artificially low priced corn, effectively eliminating their jobs? Speaking at Yale on October 11th, that was just one question Richard Mandelbaum of the Comité De Apoyo A Los Trabajadores Agrícolas (C.A.T.A.), or the Farmworker Support Committee, posed to us. Among the others: how are we to think about a racialized food system, and how does that system neglect the livelihoods of millions in the United States?
First and foremost, it’s vital to recognize the inherent harm to which agricultural workers in this country are vulnerable, especially those 300,000 employed in the fields of big agribusiness companies. Aside from being exposed to various pesticide and fungicide toxins and the possibility of machine-related accidents, many of these folks live without adequate healthcare (if any at all) and under threat of deportation due to their status as transnational undocumented workers.
What makes the food system even more unjust is that most farmworkers have none of the rights afforded in every other workplace. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, which provide for overtime compensation, Social Security, unemployment, workers comp, and protection against child labor, as well as organizing rights provided by the National Labor Relations Act, aren’t guaranteed in the fields. This can lead to conditions in direct violation of international laws governing human rights and safe work places.
Furthermore, we cannot ignore the fact that our food system is highly racialized. People of color have been bound to fields since this country’s earliest days, when its founders imported laborers from Africa to work the land. Abolition lead to sharecropping, slavery’s cousin; our current system exploits immigrants from Mexico (increasingly from indigenous and rural communities) and other Central and South American countries, taking advantage of their poverty, ignorance and lack of legal standing to force them to do jobs that citizens would never consider taking on.
Reform is happening in many sites throughout the food system. While media often privileges small sustainable farmers and farmers’ market patrons, it’s important that we expand our focus to include resistance by migrant and settled farmworkers elsewhere in the United States. C.A.T.A is organizing, training, and fighting for farmworker justice in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. What’s more, their organization is led by a board of directors composed of organization members, all of whom are fieldworkers. This is a telling example of power created by and for the people most marginalized by our everyday food choices. Justice is possible, but it’ll take a lot more than buying our salvation; for more information about how to get involved in and support the fight for food and farmworker justice, visit www.cata-farmworkers.org.
Cody Hooks is a junior American Studies major in Trumbull College. He was a 2011 Lazarus Summer Intern on the Yale Farm.
Over the course of these next few weeks, as we ease into our new blogspace, we’ll be introducing both ourselves and our Farm with posts on who we are, what we grow, and how to cook with that produce.
Hey Y’all! I’m Cody, a rising junior and American Studies major. I am too excited to be on the farm this summer; after having spent the long and grueling New Haven winter indoors, this southern boy just had to get outside in the sunshine and dirt. The YSFP and the Yale Farm are two of the most enriching and dynamic experiences of my Yale career, and I couldn’t imagine spending this summer any other way.
Not only do I love farming myself after having raised bantam chickens all my childhood (a practice from my great grandma), but I love the study of farms. Hopefully, I’ll soon begin research into the sexual politics of the farm and the radical queer potential within the local foods movement. My projects this summer are to learn to make a mean latte, practice yoga, and write the first act to a queer space odyssey.