Unlike most days, South Carolina native Jenks Farmer spent his morning inside working on his taxes and preparing for a lecture at the Gaston County (N.C.) Master Gardener Group. 

It rained the day before and along with two part-time workers, Jenks and his partner Tom Hall spent the morning cleaning out the barn on their eighteenth-century farm in Beech Island. They went through the barn, clearing out junk and organizing stuff they will need for the upcoming season. Crinum lilies, a specialty found at Jenks Farmer, Plantsman, the name of their company, grow best from March through October. 

After the rain, they planted red peppers and made a list of plants that had to be dug and shipped out the next day. By early evening, they were taking photos of a plant they plan to promote on social media. 

Farmer (yes, that is his real name) ships crinum bulbs and other plants around the country. 

Born Augustus Jenkins Farmer, III, he refers to himself as a renaissance plantsman. Born into a family of artists, musicians and farmers, he fell in love with the land early in his childhood 

Mixed throughout Jenks Farmers’ organic flower farm are vegetables that feed his family and guests throughout the year. Photo: Jenks Farmer, Plantsman

Growing Up in Rural Carolina

“I worked all through high school on a hay and beef farm,” says Farmer. “When I was eighteen, I was like, get me the hell away from here.” 

Still with a love of the land, Farmer went to Clemson University to pursue a degree in plant and environmental sciences. He thought about going to graduate school at N.C. State, a school well known for its agriculture programs. Farmer remembers that during the interview a professor said, “You cannot come here.”

It was not in a discriminatory way. Farmer remembers the professor telling him that he needed to be in a place that was more open and creative – specifically, a place where there were more gay people. That early mentor guided him to the University of Washington in Seattle where Farmer pursued a degree in botanical garden design. 

There, Farmer was finally able to truly embrace his identity as a gay man, but in 1990 he had the opportunity to come back to South Carolina to build the state’s first botanical garden in decades at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia. “I felt often like a little bit of a missionary,” remembers Farmer. “South Carolina was poor. Our horticulture industry was not very exciting in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I got this incredible opportunity to come home and to do something that I had molded from my love of farms and earth.” 

South Carolina had changed a lot in the few years he had been away, but it was far from being a gay mecca. 

“Coming back was a struggle, because it was so open out there and when I came back I gave myself a list of things. If I can’t be out in South Carolina, then I’ll do this for a year and I’ll go straight back to Seattle,” he said. 

After Riverbanks, Farmer became the founding horticulturist and director at Moore Farms Botanical Garden in Williamsburg County and then moved back to his family farm about 15 years ago following his father’s death. 

Today, Farmer and Hall operate a flower farm on the land that sits just across the river from Augusta, Ga. They supplement winter income with garden design and small farm master planning, and the farm includes a mix of organic crops that provides the family and their guests with all the vegetables they need. 

Queering the Future of Farming

Grassroots organizations and shifting attitudes, especially post-marriage equality, have made farming a little more welcoming for LGBTQ people over the past decade. In 2014, The National Center for Lesbian Rights partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to launch the Rural Pride Campaign. According to the Williams Institute, almost 10 percent of all same sex couples in the U.S. live in rural areas. 

Nonprofits like Out in the Open, Cultivating Change Foundation and Lesbian Natural Resources, and projects like Country Queers, Southern Fried Queer Pride, Idyll Dandy Arts, The Quinta and The Gay Farmers Facebook community are all building community in rural and agricultural spaces. 

The Carolinas Farm Trust is a member of the Carolinas LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce and proceeds from the 2021 Carolinas Jubilee Music and Food Fest at Van Hoy Farm in Harmony, N.C. benefited both nonprofits. 

Farmer says that discrimination still exists though. He says it has been harder to get press about the farm, something every small business relies on, and he knows they have been discriminated against when applying for farming grants. 

One funder visited the farm a few years ago and Farmer could tell right away that his and Tom’s relationship freaked him out a bit. Roadblocks followed and he remembers feeling like the process was extra difficult. “I think they don’t want us to have this grant,” he recalls. 

The two operate farm tours as well and knows that he has lost some business due to the fact that the farm is operated by a gay couple. “I have no doubt that we have people not come because we are open,” says Farmer. “I just decided that is all right; I would rather people not come than come and be freaked out or offended.” They hope to one day host an LGBTQ group at the farm. 

While working in Americorps VISTA, Taylor Hochworth (right) launched a Queer Farmers Day at the Boone Winter’s Farmers Market. Photo: Taylor Hochworth

Several hours north in Boone, N.C. Taylor Hochwarth launched a Queer Farmers Day at the local winter farmer’s market in January. The event involved local vendors, a “Queer Farmers’ Trivia” and an outreach for local stories. According to Hochwarth, queering agriculture can look many different ways. “Queerness allows us to come up with creative solutions or ideas not as constructed by norms,” they said. 

For them, the purpose of the project was to make an activity where anyone can participate regardless of gender, sexuality or age to expand the borders of understanding in local food and farmer communities. “I think just the practice of imagining it can lead to tangible changes in the future as we practice challenging and providing alternatives to harmful norms in small moments in our daily lives,” says Hochwarth. 

In 2019, Farmer published the “Funky Little Flower Farm” which in many ways he describes as his public coming out. “For the kids that live on my dirt road, I want to make damn sure that they know that there’s a gay guy down there that’s probably going to give them a job on the farm when they’re a teenager, and that he’s okay,” says Farmer. 

“Being open to me maybe takes a little heat off of someone else.”