Skip to main content

Cultivating change

By Joseph Rand

Graphic: Rural America is home to many LGBT people. 2.9 - 3.8 million LGBT people in rural America

My partner Todd and I purchased ten acres in central Minnesota about four years ago, dreaming about building a house, hobby farm, and starting a small beef herd. We achieved that dream just over a year ago right before COVID hit. Last summer was spent landscaping, grading, and prepping a spot out back where a future barn will sit.

One of the first neighbors we met from right next door also has a hobby farm. I remember when he pulled up on his “Kubota” (that’s how he always refers to his tractor) and said, “So, you guys are gay huh? I gotta brother who’s gay. You won’t have trouble with me, but there are other neighbors who might just steer clear of you.” While some of this introduction was problematic, the positive welcoming intention was genuine. We have since become great friends and neighbors. We didn’t know what to expect when we moved to a small rural township southwest of St. Cloud. However, we have become friends with neighbors around bonfires and the exchange of holiday cookies.

A report published in 2019 by the Movement Advancement Project indicated that between three and five percent of people living in rural US communities identify as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer). As the LGBTQ+ population grows in rural communities, it has also grown within the ag sector both organically and through intentional recruitment efforts. Big ag corporations have created diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives within their organizations and provide funding to outside organizations that promote LGBTQ diversity in agriculture. Ag industry leaders like BASF, USDA, Syngenta, Bayer, Valent, Tyson, Farm Journal and even National FFA financially support the Cultivating Change Foundation, a national organization creating a network of LGBTQ+ people who work in the agricultural industry and collegiate ag groups at Universities. In addition, many promote employee relations groups centered on bringing together diverse populations of employees to advance DEI work from within and to the public. John Deere has a group for LGBTQ employees and promotes it as an asset when recruiting. Syngenta has committed to the United Nations LGBTQ Standards for Conduct for Business and regularly takes part in LGBTQ pride events. Tyson changes its logo to promote LGBTQ pride month and states on their website “Our aim is to ensure team members can bring their best, most authentic selves to work each day, creating the inclusion and diversity that drives company culture, business outcomes and success.” 

As the ag industry advances DEI initiatives, it is important that agriculture based youth development programs like 4-H and FFA, and youth development programs more broadly, follow suit. The two previous articles in this series highlighted how Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) values work cultures that include them and connect to greater societal change. The next generation of ag professionals and farmers doesn’t look like previous generations. They are diverse in both visible and invisible ways. A Gallup report published in February showed the population of LGBTQ people in the US at 5.6% and that one in six adults in Gen Z consider themselves LGBTQ+, double that of the generation before. They value diversity and social justice causes while honoring and upholding the positive traditions of the past. They understand change is necessary to achieve progress. These are young people entering the workforce that have grown up in a time when gay marriage was legalized and discrimination of LGBTQ+ people criminalized. With the world’s food production needs predicted to grow by 70% by 2050, food production and ag related industries will require an ever expanding and diverse workforce to meet the needs of the global population.

Youth development programs can help prepare young people to be global citizens able to navigate diverse work environments. In the early days of 4-H clubs, best practices emerging from research in universities were delivered through educational programming to young people in order to cut through the misconceptions and resistance to change. 150 years later, we have the opportunity to build on that strategy in order to create more inclusive environments for young people. As 4-H expands diversity efforts and engages more LGBTQ+ participants, more tools are developed that can be adapted for any youth development setting. The Practices for Inclusion of all Genders and Sexual Orientations document outlines specific ways our programs can adapt to be more inclusive. Information about terminology and additional LGBTQ+ resources can be found on our website in an LGBTQ+ research brief

Todd grew up on a dairy farm in central Minnesota milking about 40 head until he was in high school. The family then transitioned to crops and his dad and brother now farm about 1000 acres of primarily corn and soybeans. He actually hadn’t told his parents or most of his family he was gay when we first met 11 years ago, and didn’t until several months later when he told them about me. Not surprisingly, his conservative Catholic parents were not happy. Having grown up in a conservative Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church attending family, I was familiar with the reaction. I was not welcome at family gatherings at the farm for the first three years. However, as time has passed and they have seen us grow as a couple, and part of the family, I am just “Uncle Joe.” Todd’s dad and I chat about crop farming and his mom and I laugh and whisper about how much he and his dad are alike. I am welcomed at all the family gatherings, including Christmas Eve. Hugs and sentiments of love have become commonplace, but not taken for granted given the journey it took to get here. 

Change is hard. Progress is hard. However, it is necessary to ensure we have a future generation of farmers and an agricultural workforce that can meet the needs of the global population. How can you take a note from the extension agents throughout history and use the emerging research to influence change within your programs and the communities in which they are grounded?

-- Joseph Rand, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Such a beautiful post, Joe. I can totally relate to a lot of the experiences you have mentioned here. I fully agree more work needs to be done to expand the misconception and biases against LGBTQ+ folks, and that a youth development program like 4-H is an ideal place for that.

  2. Thanks for your post, Joe. Change can feel so painfully slow, but I believe it's also inevitable. I know that may considered by some a naïve thing to say. But when we make intentional steps to bring about that change, we do see it over time. I've seen incremental changes in how Extension functions as an organization to be more inclusive. Change is dependent on individuals, but when we can change our policies and systems, those individuals change quicker. One thing we can do (and I've seen this work first-hand) is take a deep look at our way of doing things and then ask ourselves why we do them that way. Do our methods support our goals? Or do they get in the way of those goals? For instance, in our youth development programs, such as 4-H, we've taken a look at some of our policies to make sure that they don't get in the way of what we want to accomplish for young people. If they do get the way, we make a change. And ever-so-slowly, after the grumbling about change stops, people adapt, until finally, they wonder why we ever did it the other way to begin with.

  3. Thank you Joe for your post. As someone who grew up in rural MN, saught a degree in Agriculture and another degree in Youth Development- I think about how 4-H can cultivate posititve change for LGBTQ+ youth a lot. Thank you for sharing the resource, Practices for Inclusion of all Genders and Sexual Orientations. It is a great place to start promoting change and moving towards progress.

  4. Joe, I got chills as I read the end of your blog--thank you for sharing about your own personal experience, and all the ways that it reflects the opportunities for change in our communities and our program. One of the takeaways I really appreciate is to not seal people in to where they may start out. Advancing equity and inclusion for LGBTQ+ may feel awkward or even offensive to some people, but that doesn't mean we should stop with important practices like asking people to introduce themselves with their pronouns, or providing all-gender bathroom facilities at our events. All of us change as we live and learn in the world, and you offered beautiful examples of the ways that change often comes about through developing relationships. In youth development, I think we need to be working on both changing systemic policies and helping people have lived experiences and relationships that help them understand why those changes matter. Thank you for the profound work you have done and continue to do for our center on both of those fronts.


Post a Comment