From Womyn’s Land to Cottagecore

The rise in the number of queer farmers across the country traces its roots back to the 1970s’ lesbian back-to-the-land movement.

In the 1970s, in the spirit of back-to-the-land movements and intentional communities, a group of lesbian separatists in the United States decided to remove themselves from a society based on capitalism and patriarchy. They formed women-only farms, which began to crop up on small parcels of land in various rural areas around the United States, primarily near the two coasts. Their resistance to industrialization meant that many of them turned to sustainable and organic farming methods. They called their movement “womyn’s land” and sought farming as a liberation from an anti-environment, male-dominated society.

In the 1970s, a “womyn’s movement” turned to sustainable and organic farming as a form of a liberation from an anti-environment, male-dominated society. Many of today’s queer youth have followed suit. Photo by Preston Keres / USDA.

The womyn’s land movement was far from perfect. For one, these spaces were predominantly made up of white, middle-class women. Land access issues surrounding class and race did not disappear within the communes, and many of the women viewed farming as a means, rather than a crucial element, to living outside of the confines of society. Many found that the reality of farmwork didn’t always match the idealism of the movement.

But despite the movement’s failings, the sociopolitical motivations behind the movement still exist — and are now seeing a resurgence among queer youth. Queer millennials and zoomers have begun to echo ideas of the 1970s in farming and gardening, and while today’s sub-movement is more informal and less homogenous, it seems that queer youth have increasingly connected queer oppression to environmental concerns.

“[As a person] who is deeply concerned about climate change, I see the potential in farming as a way to make people connect to the land and heal the planet,” says Marianne Olney-Hamel of Berkeley Basket CSA, an urban farm in Berkeley, California.

Of course, Gen Z has become known as a generation of viral moments. In an online culture, trends exist on social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok. Lately, queer subsectors of both platforms have been obsessing over a familiar idea: going back to the land to farm. On TikTok, the popular “cottagecore” aesthetic offers an idealized world where queer love can be visible in rural space, providing marginalized individuals exposure to ideas like self-sustainability and “queer ecology.”

The obvious question now is: Is queer farming another viral trend, or is this a second wave of queer back-to-the-land farmers?

“I do think there is some truth to there being more queer farmers. With cottagecore, it’s somewhat imagined and definitely romanticized, but I don’t necessarily think that’s bad,” says Lucy Bell, a farmworker who worked with Happy Acre Farm in Sunol, California. Bell explains that while the cottagecore trend has promoted an avenue for queer youth to explore a connection to farming and outdoor spaces, the online aesthetic often leaves out an important aspect of queer farming. “The idea of wanting to be isolated and fully be yourself is romantic, but the communal aspect to me is truer to the queer culture and experience,” Bell says.

In reality, today’s version of the back-to-the-land movement goes beyond cottagecore, even if the movement has roots online. “That [online] group isn’t the same group that’s actually going out and farming, but by creating the idea and romanticizing it is creating a generation of queer farmers that might not have existed otherwise,” argues Max De Faria, a queer scholar, farmworker, and a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Congressional Hunger Center.

There is a notably increasing number of queer people supplying the nation’s food. Unfortunately, there are no exact numbers for how many queer farmer are there in the US since census forms do not ask questions about sexuality and gender identity.

“It’s a fun dream, but the realities of [running a farm], logistically, are hard,” says Dede Boies of Root Down Farm near Pescadero, California. “It does seem like nowadays there’s a lot of the same glorified ‘Oh my god, you’re on a farm, it’s so great!’ Come spend a day with me and tell me how dreamy it is. It’s hard every day, all day.”

Beyond this, there exists unique factors within rural areas that draw queer people to this lifestyle. In many ways, rural life has allowed queer farmers an opportunity to feel comfortable in their skin, both by dressing in more androgynous farmer’s fashion and having a more intimate connection with the natural world around them.

While the modern gay experience has largely been depicted as urban, queer people have lived and farmed in rural communities for longer than labels have existed. For many living in suburban and urban nodes, there exists a common conception of rural areas being more heterosexist and transphobic than their urban counterparts. Although queer people may experience challenges such as fewer queer-only spaces and structural and legal access to resources, the majority of queer farmers studied have said that they experienced far less overt discrimination than they had anticipated. “A lot of queer people find community in the outskirts of communities,” says Bell.

Though, that can change depending on where in rural America queer farmers are planting themselves. “We live in this Bay Area bubble where we feel fortunate to feel safe most of the time,” says Boies. “We can very much have people who don’t support us, but no one is telling that to our face. I know the rest of the country is not that fortunate by any means and that rural living can be a challenge for queer people.”

Although it is impossible to categorize queer farmers as a whole, they generally align with alternative food networks and sustainability models. Here, it’s easy to see the parallels between today’s queer farming movement and the womyn’s land movement from the 1970s. Both women and queer farmers have expressed motivations based on their sexuality and gender that led them to become interested in farming.

“From a historical lens, queer farmers, especially AFAB farmers, were motivated by the clearly flexible gender expression and remoteness that came with farming. It would be easy to hide out in the middle of the land and do subsistence farming,” says De Faria, who explains that today, like previously, “motivations are largely rooted in anti-capitalist or anti-the ‘System’ sentiments of ‘everything is bad in the world and farming is the one thing I can control and give back to the world.’”

Today’s queer farming movement, like womyn’s land and other back-to-the-land movements, doesn’t escape criticism, however.

““Rural communities face so many challenges, from underfunding to lack of infrastructure to climate change, and our voices are consistently ignored because of assumptions that we’re ignorant or conservative,” says Hannah Wilson-James, a homesteader and community organizer from Davenport, California. “I worry that these romanticized TikToks rely on existing tropes about rural Americans and do little to amplify the voices of people who are already there, doing the work in these communities, because it isn’t glamorous enough.”

But that’s not always the case. “There is definitely and crucially a big distinction between a ‘queer farmer’ and a farmer that happens to be queer,” says De Faria. I think the latter has existed longer in terms of visibility.”

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