In Case You Missed It: Amplifying Queer Voices in Agriculture

Redefining Farming Through Inclusion and Resilience

On March 14, 2024, the Office of Sustainability’s Social Sustainability Coalition hosted “Rooted in Inclusion: Queer Narratives in Farming,” which aimed to amplify the voices of those traditionally excluded from leading roles in agriculture.

The event started with a land acknowledgment that recognized the University of Wisconsin’s occupation of stolen Ho-Chunk land. The acknowledgment helped speakers connect the processes of colonial settlement to land grant universities like UW, which were founded to increase agricultural output and which forced indigenous people onto shrinking reservations.

The three speakers drew on their varied experiences as they discussed how a history of discrimination has led to a lack of diversity in farming around the state. In response to a question about overcoming colonialism, speakers compared the vast and persistent injustices to immense man-made structures. For instance, Chalchiuhkoatl, an earth worker from Minowakiing (Milwaukee), described colonialism as a “man-made mountain.” Cassie, a co-owner of Crossroads Community Farm, furthered the analogy, tying in colonial processes of ecological degradation by calling colonialism a “landfill island.”

Speakers sitting at a white table in a classroom with a large TV screen behind them.
Speakers at “Rooted in Inclusion: Queer Narratives in Farming,” from left to right: Chalchiuhkoatl, Cassie Wyss, and Margo Butler.

The metaphor helped convey the vast wounds a history of colonization and queerphobia have left on communities. Despite this, Chalchiuhkoatl emphasized resiliency, remarking that “kinship sustains me.” Margo, the education director at The People’s Farm, agreed and added that the “queer community is incredibly important” when dealing with adversity.

One way of counteracting colonial monoculture farming, speakers said, comes through redefining the terms of the discussion. Chalchiuhkoatl continued to dissect the predominant narrative of farming in their explanation of why they prefer to be called an “earth worker” as opposed to a farmer, as “farming is often considered extraction from the land with no relationship to the people you’re feeding or what you’re growing.” Chalchiuhkoatl emphasized that, instead of just growing plants, earth workers are also “tending to relationships.”

In contrast, Cassie explained how white male farmers in industrial agriculture often intentionally diminish her 28-acre Crossroads Community farm when they refer to it as a “garden” and her as “just a gardener.” She emphasized the importance of being recognized as a farmer, given the sexism prevalent in the field and the personal journey she had undergone to overcome internalized stereotypes. Nevertheless, Cassie was proud of the distinctions between her organic grassroots farming methods and those of prevailing industrial farms, describing her work as literally “coming from the ground up.”

Margo explained how The People’s Farm operates with nine student staff and many volunteers to provide Madison community members with free and fresh produce from their acre of land, while Chalchiuhkoatl spoke about being a steward of “We Have Always Been Related,” “a kinship webwork of beloved intergenerational, two-spirit, queer, trans, nonbinary, and gender expansive BIPoC earthworKIN.” Additionally, as an earth worker Chalchiuhkoatl works to rebuild soil from colonial monoculture and “grow all sorts of relationships with plants, living beings, medicines, and energies,” such as with the Fondy Food Center in Milwaukee, which aims to improve healthy food access while supporting local farmers. As a co-owner of a 28-acre certified organic farm in Cross Plains, Wisconsin, Cassie ensures her farm pays all employees a living wage and gives away 30 percent of its produce for free by partnering with groups like Second Harvest.

Audience members and event organizers said they appreciated the unique perspectives each panelist contributed.

“I was really grateful that [the Office of Sustainability] made the space to highlight queer voices in agriculture because that is definitely needed, especially in rural community,” Margo said in a follow-up interview. “I think the OS did a really good job of finding a variety of farmers, earth workers, and just people who have cool perspectives on growing and working on the land.”

Melina Nguyen, a member of the Social Sustainability Coalition, said it was “nice to see their stories together, it created a bigger picture,” a sentiment attendees echoed in interviews.

Despite the differences that panelists shared, it was clear their love for the land and the importance of community brought them together, and they encouraged audience members to participate in the community.

“You don’t need to be a full-time farmer to be involved with farming,” Margo said.

As the event wound down, the panelists were asked, “What drew you to farming?” After pondering the question, Margo said, “It’s the most magical and rewarding thing to see something grow in front of your eyes … it’s the most natural thing, to grow food.”

In our In Case You Missed It series (also known as ICYMI), student interns from the Office of Sustainability offer reflective reports on sustainability-related events and lectures at UW–Madison. This entry is by Winston Thompson