As the culture of acceptance continues to shift, there is a growing number of once silent queer folks putting down roots in Canada’s vital agriculture sector.
From growing up on his family’s beef cattle ranch in Merritt, British Columbia to operating his own farm in Killaly, Saskatchewan, Stuart Chutter has always felt supported by his rural community – even though he only came out as a gay man at age 32.
“I was late in life to realize I was gay, and then I had to figure out how I was going to live as a gay man in agriculture,” says Chutter.
As he began coming out to his community however, he realized his fears were rooted in the same mistaken beliefs many people have about small-town acceptance. “The reaction from everyone was incredibly supportive,” Chutter explains. “Compared to how hard it was for me to accept myself, coming out to my rural community was unexpectedly relatively easy.”
Studies support Chutter’s experience of Canadian queer acceptance. In a 2019 federal poll commissioned by the Privy Council Office, roughly nine out of 10 of those surveyed said they would feel “comfortable” if a next door neighbour was gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Canada consistently ranks within the top ten most LGBTQ2+ friendly countries on the globe. In its 2020 ranking, the Spartacus International Gay Guide published its “Gay Travel Index”. Canada ranked as the number one most accepting country for living conditions and legality for queers. A UCLA Williams Institute study also said Canada was one of the five “most accepting (countries) in the 2014-2017 time period.”
Despite Canada’s reputation for being LGBTQ2+ friendly, there may still be a perception that agricultural communities are not as accepting.
“The urban-rural divide in my mind is such a massive issue, even beyond queer-related issues,” explains Chutter. “The perception that rural people and urban people are so different is untrue in my experience. My farm friends and my city friends share so many more similarities than they do differences.”
LGBTQ2+ farmers like Chutter can be found all over the country, openly leading a life that rejects the typical farmer stereotype. Gebadia Haverkamp is one such farmer with his operations in Listowel, Ontario – a town with a population of under 8,000. Haverkamp, who also grew up in a small farming town, notes that there has been significant improvement in rural attitudes towards queer people as society evolves.
“I definitely have seen change. At first, I was always worried that something terrible was going to happen, but that was my own portrayal of life outside the city,” says Haverkamp. “Perception is changing, attitudes are changing. It might not be as quick as Toronto, but it is certainly moving in the right direction.”
With crosswalks painted in rainbows and entire city blocks dedicated to queer liberation, urban centres are meccas for people seeking camaraderie in their queerness. These communities offer something their small towns did not: visibility. Homophobia still exists in rural areas – it continues to exist everywhere. It is why ‘gay villages’ are established, attracting LGBTQ2+ people from all over. Being around people who support you, accept you and are similar to you helps you cope with those who refuse to understand you.
Mary Gray, a queer regionalist scholar discusses the politics of visibility in her book ‘Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America’. Her idea is that being visibly different from the majority, whether that be because of your style, skin colour, facial features or sexuality, makes a political statement that it is okay to be outside of the “norm”. Gray describes queer-specific visibility politics as an act of heteronormative resistance. She views it as the best way for “political liberation and equality for queer communities.”
In recent decades, visibility for LGBTQ2+ people has grown exponentially, especially in the media. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) found that in 2019, 10.2 per cent of characters appearing on scripted prime time television were part of the queer community.
In Ontario, there are live queer-focused events popping up in rural towns. An entertainment company called TroyBoy Entertainment puts on drag shows that typically would only be seen in bigger cities. With the shows selling out in small towns like Harriston (population under 2,000), the shift in attitudes is clear.
“If they can do it in Harriston, we can do it in Listowel!” exclaims Haverkamp.
For Haverkamp, being openly gay in his rural community has already led to positive attitude changes. “I’ve been able to be openly myself all over – at the gym they all know I’m gay. I’ve even been called a local celebrity when going for brunch with my boyfriend,” he says. “People have told me that I have opened their eyes to a world they knew existed and never thought they would get to know. I got stuck in my head about how open I should be, but I’ve never had any negative situations come upon me because of my sexuality.”
This showcase of queerness has helped to educate the wider population on what being ‘different’ actually looks like. It has humanized LGBTQ2+ folks for communities that may have never encountered someone like that in their small town. This is why it is important to have strong queer advocates like Chutter and Haverkamp. Visibility helps build a community of tolerance so other queer people may feel more comfortable working towards a career in agriculture.
Organizations advocate for diversity
Some agriculture organizations are taking steps to address diversity and inclusivity.
The Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO) staked-out a strong position on this issue in its “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” statement. Their views on discrimination within agricultural communities are clear and show an understanding of the change in attitude needed across rural Canada.
BFO’s mandate states, “The Ontario beef industry is an ally against discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, and ability (visible and invisible), as well as linguistic discrimination. We recognize that we are not always a diverse industry, but we believe in fighting racism and discrimination in all its forms.”
In a recent interview with radio show ‘Real Ag’, BFO board member Joe Dickenson reiterated the importance of being vocal for marginalized communities. “We know that on the farmers side of things there’s a lot of homogeneity in the agricultural sector. We also know that our consumers and society as a whole is a lot more diverse than we are,” says Dickenson. “We have a lot of things we need to work on and we have to listen to the people that are being impacted and do what we can to make a more inclusive industry and community.”
Large farming organizations advocating for marginalized communities is an important step in bridging the gap with urban ideals. The value of having these shifting attitudes can be measured in the success of diversified Canadians taking up careers in farming. Initiatives that encourage LGBTQ2+ people to consider a career in agriculture are already emerging across the country.
The Rainbow Chard Collective, a British Columbia-based initiative, works to raise awareness for queer farms in Canada while connecting farmers across the country. Also, in British Columbia is Sweet Digz Farm, a queer-run farm rooted in charitable community work and sustainable farming methods.
Fierté Agricole is a non-profit organization based out of Quebec. They aspire to educate and advocate for LGBTQ2+ issues, while creating safe spaces to connect rural queer farmers in the province.
Sundance Harvest is an Ontario-based queer and BIPOC-focused farm working towards food justice as it relates to marginalized youth. Spearheaded by Cheyenne Sundance, the farm runs the ‘Growing in the Margins’ program, a “12-week free educational program for low-income youth who face barriers within the food system.”
The goals of these programs are to raise awareness for BIPOC and queer-related agriculture issues, while also educating people in a safe space. The importance of teaching people to be confident in their diversity is key, especially as labour issues in agriculture continue.
The farm labour crisis
With the pandemic worsening agriculture’s labour shortages, enticing diversified communities to join the farming workforce is vital. According to Statistics Canada, agriculture is Canada’s fourth most negatively impacted industry in terms of labour. Employment in the sector is down 9.5 per cent in January 2021 as compared with pre-pandemic levels in February 2020.
Haverkamp, who has run four poultry farms simultaneously, explains how difficult labour has been to find.
“I have great staff that have been with me for years, but it’s a different generation of understanding of what is needed on a farm,” he says. “My father and I recently had to shut down his farm because there wasn’t enough labour to keep it operational in its current format.”
This labour shortage is nothing new to the Canadian farming industry, in fact it’s an ongoing issue. A 2019 Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) survey shows that 47 per cent of respondents are unable to fulfill their labour needs, with one third of them saying they received zero Canadian applicants. The data further indicates farmers across Canada’s agriculture sector reported $2.9 billion in lost sales because of unfilled vacancies – a large increase from $1.5 billion in 2014.
Pre-pandemic projections from the Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Task Force estimate labour shortages could grow to 114,000 jobs by 2025 if the current recruitment methods continue. The organization has previously called for reform of agricultural hiring practices. They say the Canadian agriculture industry “always looks for Canadians first when it comes to fulfilling its labour needs.” The difficulties seem to be with finding Canadians interested in farm work.
As a result of the pandemic, Canada has a unique opportunity to incentivize members of marginalized communities to become skilled farm workers guaranteeing a position in an essential industry.
Canada needs more queer farmers
Unemployment continues to negatively impact queer people disproportionately. The pandemic has accelerated this trend. According to Egale’s Covid-19 impact survey, 52 per cent of LGBTQ2+ households have experienced layoffs or reduced hours, compared to 43 per cent of all Canadian households.
Statistics Canada says “the age and gender distribution of the LGBTQ2+ population puts them at higher risk for experiencing loss of employment.” The study also demonstrates they are more likely to experience financial insecurity and they are over-represented in lower income categories.
There is need to find work for Canada’s displaced queer population, and yet there is very little – if any – targeted marketing from farming communities to them. To entice queers looking for employment and farms looking for employees, a culture of conversation around acceptance must take root in rural Canada.
“To draw queer people into a rural workforce, we need to make it more attractive to be in these communities. The only way we can do that is to have more queer-friendly spaces in rural towns,” says Haverkamp. “It’s about shifting those attitudes and also trying to educate queer communities what farm work life really means. Agriculture always needs employees, and it’s a stable source of income.”
Much like the BFO, other organizations need to vocalize their pledge for diversity in farming, and make it clear that it is the way of the future. The small rural towns of Canada should continue to represent the mosaic of the total population. When queer people begin to realize they are welcome, they will take up space and create even more space for members of their community.
It’s what farmers like Gebadia Haverkamp and Stuart Chutter continue to advocate for every day. “Now that I am openly gay in agriculture, I’ve realized that there are a whole bunch of other queer farmers. We do exist,” says Chutter. “I’m not the only one. We’re here.”
If you or someone you know is looking for farmwork, visit Farmwork to Feed Canada’s ‘Find Farmwork’ page.
“‘Queer’ is an identity, a theory about nonheteronormative sexuality, and a theoretical orientation for how identity is to be understood.” – Nagoshi and Brzuzy, Gender and Sexual Identity.
I recognize that not everyone in the LGBTQ2+ community may identify with the word ‘queer’. In this article I use ‘queer’ as an umbrella term for our beautifully diverse community, with no intention of mislabelling individuals who may feel the term does not resonate with them. The term ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by many in our community, though I do understand that for some people, particularly older generations, the label may be triggering. Please understand its use in this article is meant to be positive, and to continue with the reclamation with a term once used against us.
A good resource regarding terminology as it pertains to the LGBTQ2+ community can be found on the GLAAD website, here.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.