“Queers on the farm not only challenge the stereotype of who is a farmer, and what does a farmer look like,” muses Sandor Katz, a fermentation expert as he sits cross-legged and picks at the grass in a lush green Tennessee field. “But it also challenges the stereotype of what do queers look like, and where do you find queers, and what are queers doing?” Farmer-filmmaker Jonah Mossberg explores these questions in Out Here,a full-length documentary film and official selection of the Frameline San Francisco LGBT International Film Festival this June. After conducting more than 30 interviews during four years of touring farms the United States in a borrowed car, Out Here shows snapshots from life on seven farms run by LGBT people.
All of the interviewees, largely led by their own beliefs in “queering” agriculture, farm in a way that supports sustainable and community-based food systems. In the film, Courtney Skeeba, of Homestead Ranch in Kansas, says, “If you need a village to raise a child, you definitely need a community to have a sustainable food source.” Kay Grimm and Sue Spicer, of Fruit Loop Farms, grow 30 types of fruits on their land. They call their farm a “closed-loop” system: they forage from neighbors’ unused fruit trees and put almost everything on their farm to good use. At Fruit Loop, old doll heads decorate outdoor walls and seasonal weeds indicate the types of fruit trees that would thrive in that particular soil. Their model, and those of all the other small, sustainable farmers across the country, has exciting implications for an eco-feminist re-definition of our food system as a whole.
When not touring the country to film this documentary, Mossberg works on a farm in Northeast Connecticut. I stole a few minutes of Mossberg’s valuable time on film tour to talk about the film, the eco-queer movement, and what’s next for the Queer Farmer Film Project.
VIVIAN UNDERHILL: How did you get the idea for this film?
JONAH MOSSBERG: When I discovered that I was interested in farming when I was 18, it was around the same time that I was coming out as queer, and genderqueer, and just sorta struggling in the world, not having a lot of spaces in the world where I felt good in my body. Farming really changed my life in that way. It gave me meaningful work, it gave me nourishment, it gave me activities to do where I felt strong and valued. I didn’t know too man other queer people who were farming, but I sure wanted to. In the Bay Area there’s quite a few urban gardeners and farmers, and we started the Rainbow Chard Alliance—we’d get together and have potlucks and seed swaps, and I love that kind of camaraderie and kinship with other queer farmers and gardeners. I love hanging out and chatting with most people who are interested in plants—I love to nerd out on that stuff—but there was something super special about hanging out with a bunch of other queer people.
Do you know Ecofarm? It’s this big sustainable-agriculture conference. It’s very straight and homogenous, so we wanted to have a queer farmer mixer, and came up against a lot of pushback from the organizers of that conference. The organizers— most of whom were straight—just didn’t really understand. They were like, “No, that doesn’t need to happen in this space.” That really got me thinking. I started doing research, looking up anything related to gender/sexuality and farming, and didn’t really come up with much. I love oral histories, I love radio, I love writing. I was just asking, “What could I do that would really provide some visibility for this community?” It seemed like video was the logical choice.
I loved the part of the film where you ask everyone what queer means to them, and you get such an array of answers. I think speaks to the term’s ability to encompass so many different experiences. So obviously I have to ask you what your definition of queer is, if you have one.
Like people said in the movie, it’s such a hard thing to define, so my definition is what all of those people said put together. It’s going to be something different tomorrow. It’s this ever-changing, ever-evolving thing.
I put that part in the movie for that reason. When it was a rough cut, I showed it to my parents and some of their friends, and you know the definition of queer is a real generational thing. For a lot of older folks, they really don’t like that word. So in trying to make a movie that would appeal to a wider audience than just queer people, just farmers, I needed that part to construct a definition and offer it to people. But I don’t know—I don’t know what my definition would be. That’s a hard question.
You’ve asked your interviewees what they think the queerest vegetable is. They all say, “Notrainbow chard!” What do you think it is?
I think it’s something that’s so delicious, but highly underappreciated. Something like celeriac—
What is that? Celery?
No, it’s a root. Celery root. See? You don’t even know it. Try it! Sautee it with butter and garlic, put it in your soups—it is so good. I love growing it, it’s highly underappreciated. Why don’t more people eat this? It is so good.
Photo: Denise Whitesides, Courtney Skeeba, and their son Marek on Homestead Ranch.
Coming from a non-film background, what was the filmmaking process like?
It was hard. I was just learning. I mean, in that respect the movie is both queer in process and in content—I was just carving out a space for myself here and going for it. Which was fun and I also made a ton of beginner mistakes. I had help in editing and production and I took community college classes in video production—but that was pretty much it. So it was all very DIY, self-taught. This is just part of my personality. I was like, “I’m going to take on this big creative project, and I don’t know what I’m doing,” but I like that, for some reason.
In the film, you say you now have only more questions than answers. Do you have a sense of what more questions you would ask?
I’m most interested in the question, “What are we doing as farmers that’s more than just farming?” Most of the people I interviewed were working on small-scale, sustainable farms, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. That wasn’t necessarily something I thought about going into the project, but that’s something I have more questions about now. I think small-scale sustainable agriculture is inherently a logical and safe place for queer people because it’s a place where we can enact and practice our queer values. For me, my queer values are that I’m anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian too, and engaging in farming is another beautiful way to do that.
Also, I’m most interested in the stories of people who don’t get to tell them. Especially in the food system, people are so disconnected, and they don’t know who’s growing their food, and I’m interested in those people’s stories that never come to the surface. In the movie, showing a diversity of people was a real priority for me, and I think that’s one of its strengths, and it’s also one of its weaknesses too.
It’s so interesting too, what people identify as first. Do they identify as queer first? As a farmer? Karen Washington, for instance, said, “No, I’m black. People don’t see me and think queer first, they think black, and that’s how I identify in the world.” Something that I really relate to was people saying that the identity of being a farmer is something that connects them to other farmers, not relative to queerness. I have a similar experience. I mean, I live in my hometown, and I run into people all the time. If I run into whoever at the feed store, we talk about feed. We talk about seeds. We talk about how the hay crop was this year—you know? We don’t talk about queerness. And as I’m getting older, and coming into my identity as a farmer, that’s first and foremost for me. The queerness is more around the periphery. I don’t see things in black and white anymore. I see them in shades of grey.
What do you hope people walk away with?
I think the movie is an uplifting movie. That was intentional. I think people’s stories are inherently compelling and joyful, so I hope people walk away seeing that it’s possible, and feeling inspired to live in rural places. I especially want to see more queer people really thriving in rural places. I hope people contemplate queerness and farming in these new ways that it’s never dawned on them to think about before.
Do know what’s going to happen next with the project?
I’m just trying to get through this tour. [laughs] Well, I don’t know. That’s something I’m really trying to strategize. I have so many contacts, and I’m trying to find out what to do with them. Is it going to be some sort of online directory? Is it going to be some sort of queer WOOFing thing, is it going to be a regional newsletter, a gathering or conference? Part of this tour has been to ask people what they want next. I’m not exactly sure. But stay tuned.