The Queer-Led Groups Modeling a New Form of Land Access
This article was originally published by Yes! Magazine.
BY JEFF FENG
A small, 20-horsepower Kubota tractor inches forward in a sea of John Deeres, with a sticker saying “queerest farm around.” It’s the 2019 Pride Parade in Decorah, Iowa, and this tractor belongs to Humble Hands Harvest, a women-worker-owned farm nestled on 22 acres. The farm’s aim is to present an alternative to industrial agriculture.
“Our farm is queer because it’s really different from the normal farm,” says Hannah Breckbill, one of the farm’s three worker-owners. For one, the farm prioritizes sustainable perennial crops, which regrow year after year, in contrast to the vast majority of global croplands that are dedicated to annual crops, which require planting each year. She says that her farm’s emphasis on community also stands in stark contrast to out-of-town commodity crop growers. As a vegetable farmer on small acreage, Breckbill isn’t considered a “real” farmer by many other farmers in the area.
“Day in and day out we’re growing food for people,” she says of herself and her fellow worker-owners. “We’re bringing people out onto the land and into connection with what’s going on.”
That access to land is a critical component of this work. It’s an effort to overcome the centuries of systemic discrimination that have prevented marginalized groups from owning farms or homes, as well as the economic freedom and mobility they can provide.
To this same end, Queer the Land is tackling the Seattle housing crisis head-on by setting up a land trust to support those left behind by rampant gentrification and displacement. The group centers BIPOC leadership and just purchased a 12-bedroom house after a drawn-out racist battle in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. Housing manager for Queer the Land’s Beacon House, Nya Shahir, knows the housing crisis firsthand, having lived in a tent in an unfinished basement for a time. They say that their project is more than just helping people find secure housing.
“We want our BIPOC queer community to be well,” says Shahir, who is Black-Latinx and uses fae or they pronouns. “The key is to survive, thrive, all the things.”
Though different in their focus and approach, both Queer the Land and Humble Hands Harvest are working to defeat the extractive capitalist economy that fuels the climate crisis. In its place, they aim to create a regenerative economy of care. Key to this is taking back the land.
Addressing History to Thrive
As it stands, systems of oppression make it difficult for QT2S BIPOC (Queer Trans Two-Spirit Black Indigenous people of color) to thrive. After centuries of Native genocide, the U.S. passed a series of federal laws in the 1950s “terminating” 100 tribes and selling their land to non-Natives. By design, people of color, particularly Black folks, have also been denied the opportunity to accrue wealth. About a quarter of Americans in the year 2000 could trace their land ownership or the wealth it created to white ancestors who were beneficiaries of the Homestead Acts passed during the Civil War.
On top of that, cities have long used redlining, a practice of color-coding maps to segregate and deny mortgages for Black people and other marginalized groups. In Seattle, where the influx of Amazon employees and wealth has contributed to displacement and gentrification, those same redlined neighborhoods are now pushing out people of color. In light of the almost nonexistent social safety net in the U.S., between 20% and 45% of houseless youth identify as LGBTQ, despite only comprising 9.5% of the population between ages 13 and 17.
This systemic discrimination matters in accessing land for housing as well as for farming. People of color and women also face a USDA that has denied them lending for decades and still uses racist policies. Today 98% of farmland is owned by white people; only 1.6 % of U.S. farms have at least one Black farmer. And only about 36% of U.S. farmers identify as women. As Breckbill, who is white, explains: With heteronormative family structures where women have to either marry a man or inherit land from family in order to farm, the barriers to land ownership compound as white farmers pass down their land.
“This original theft enshrines this white supremacy and white wealth accumulation.”
The Connection Between Land Access and Climate
Why does this matter for the climate crisis? Corporate interests that directly exacerbate climate change can purchase land. For example, the land on which Humble Hands Harvest now sits was set to be purchased for a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) until neighbors banded together and convinced the landowner to sell to them instead of putting it up for auction.
Addressing the white supremacy embedded in land and housing inequalities also addresses the climate crisis. Housing, land, and food justice cannot be separated from climate justice.
Queer the Land suggests that the existing system has long contributed to the climate crisis by operating on a logic of scarcity: the idea that there’s only so much to go around and therefore marginalized people must simply endure crisis after crisis. Instead, the group wants to move to a logic of abundance. While their house is still under repair, members have big visions for what’s to come: a microfarm that provides free or low-cost organic food for the community; a facilitation space for folks to teach or create art; a bike share program; and a community apothecary stocked with herbs.
Jayce Marrakesh, a Two-Spirit Black and Indigenous program facilitator for Queer the Land, says they will do their part to minimize climate impacts through permaculture, which is all about regeneration. Marrakesh sees the elements of their work as connected by a common thread of healing generational trauma and reclaiming wellness for marginalized people: “If you’re well in body and spirit, you can dream and create.”
The project’s decision-making and structure reflects a queer mode of relating to each other, too. Marrakesh explains that with about 80 members, four paid staff, and an advisory board, Queer the Land is creating a model different from “colonizing, white oppressive spaces” where bosses surveil and micromanage workers. Moving by consensus, the Project wants to establish a space with grace, generosity, and trust so that everyone has a say over their land and labor.
Humble Hands Harvest likewise uses a worker co-op structure to make decisions. Instead of those with more equity having more power in decision-making, all workers have equal say. “We needed a way to have clear agreements,” Breckbill says, “to match what our values were and the world we wanted to live in.”
One of those values is to open opportunities for future generations of farmers through a project called “the Commons.” When Breckbill and other worker-owners want to retire from farming, new farmers will be able to enter without debt, thanks to long-standing investments from the local community. As she puts it, “I think of the Commons as a resource held by the community that uses it and manages it for sustainability.”
Creating the World We Want
Both projects acknowledge the massive scale of the climate crisis and consider their work to be a model that other communities can follow. “We want Queer the Land houses everywhere. It’s not just a Seattle thing,” Shahir says. “We do this to inspire people to build their own land trusts in their own cities.”
Luckily, Queer the Land and Humble Hands Harvest are in good company with their efforts. Humble Hands Harvest organizes a Queer Farmer Convergence, which annually gathers queer farmers to connect with one another. BIPOC-led projects like the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust are using a Commons model to advance Indigenous land sovereignty and reparations. Across the U.S. since fall 2017, Interlocking Roots has forged bonds among QT BIPOC farmers. The Northeast Queer Farmer Alliance and platforms like Not Our Farm build solidarity. For a year starting in 2017, the Queer and Trans Land Trust envisioned land justice in West Virginia. And in 2018 in California, #Liberate23rdAve worked with the Oakland Community Land Trust to purchase the 23rd Avenue Community Building, which continues to be used as a space for affordable housing, a community garden, and the home for a queer and trans arts organization.
Breckbill suggests that her work at Humble Hands Harvest provides the foundation for a social transition as much as a technological one: “When I think about transforming the entire economy, I don’t just think about fossil fuels. I think about how do we change ownership? How do we distribute wealth?” These changes, even at a small scale, present a model for how to ultimately address the climate crisis.
This story was originally published by Yes! Magazine.