Don We Now Our Hay Apparel: The Rise of Gay Farmers
When Sally and June announced three years ago that they were exiting city life in Florida to take up farming in rural New York state, most of their friends thought they had lost their plucking minds. It’s one thing to have a fondness for chickens, goats and sheep; it’s another to crawl out of bed in the freezing pre-dawns of winter to feed, milk and shear a menagerie of critters. Especially for a gal like “Mz. Sally,” who rarely leaves the house without her blonde hair perfectly coiffed and her stylish clothes neatly pressed.
Initially, the girls’ e-mails were filled with enthusiasm for their animals, the organic veggies they were growing, and—especially—their new circle of friends. What surprised us most was that they were meeting so many other gay and lesbian farmers, folks like neighbors Farmer Billiam and Rene, operators of the Liberty View Farm which overlooks the Hudson Valley near New Paltz.
Although Billiam van Roestenberg has been farming for more than a decade, he’s no gay rube. The former Manhattan resident is a political activist who is as serious about gay rights and other progressive social issues as he is about the organically grown apples, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers he and Rene produce. They also keep bee hives for honey and goats for milk and cheese, plus the public can join their “Lease a Tree” and “Charter a Chicken” projects, which allow year-round access to their orchards and eggs. The charter even permits chicken lovers (insert joke here) to view their adopted birds via live webcam.
Of course, the world has had gay farmers for as long as it has had mud and seeds. But people like Billiam and Rene are turning a career in agriculture into something of a socio-political statement. One reason the couple chose the farm’s name is their determination to achieve “liberty from damaging pesticides and conventional farming practices.” And they encourage gay men and women from all over the country to get involved. (To learn more of Billiam and Rene’s activism, go to www.libertyviewfarm.blogspot.com).
This summer, more of us have become aware of the growing gay Green Acres movement thanks to a thoroughly entertaining new reality television series, The Fabulous Beekman Boys, which has aired on Planet Green as well as its parent Discovery Channel. (The first season’s 10 episodes are available online at planetgreen.discovery.com).
The series tells the story of two New Yorkers who on a whim bought Beekman Farm, a decaying old mansion with acreage near Sharon Springs, New York. For the past two years they have spent every available hour renovating the house as well as battling the elements (and each other) to turn the property into a money-making concern. The show’s protagonists are Brent Ridge, a medical doctor and former vice president for Martha Stewart Healthy Living, and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, a writer and former Manhattan drag performer known as AquaDisiac (who was renowned for wearing goldfish in her see-through brassiere).
Josh, who is instantly likeable, still spends five days a week in the city working at an ad agency, while Brent, who is something of a control freak, stays at the farm and dreams up chores for his partner to accomplish on the weekends. Brent is insistent on turning Josh’s dream of a relaxing country getaway into a thriving global business, distributing handmade goat-milk soaps, goat cheeses and anything else his entrepreneurial spirit can conjure. Josh says his dream is to live an enjoyable life with Brent and it does not include becoming a gay Martha Stewart. Brent argues that financial success is the only way they can both live at the farm full-time. The continuing question is whether the guys’ personal partnership can survive their respective priorities.
The drama is often intense—and completely credible—as is the spectacle of watching these two city boys tend to their large family of 80 goats, two pigs, a dozen chickens and a huggable llama named Polka Spot. Fortunately, they have the help of their own gay farmhand, the loveable Farmer John (Hall), who brought most of the goats to Beekman House. John, who had raised goats for more than a decade, was in need of a new home for his herd (as well as himself and his boyfriend) when he learned that the New Yorkers were coming to town. It was a match made in hog—or goat—heaven.
John is a joy to watch especially when he tends to the individually named members of his tribe, whose hairy-chinned kisses and puppy-like affection frequently bring him to tears. It’s enough to make almost any animal-lover want to own at least one goat.
The Beekman Boys also turn for help to two other gay neighbors, the long-time owners of a local inn who had been influential in Brent and Josh’s decision to buy the farm. There are so many queer characters in the series that it often seems like the tiny community of Sharon Springs is a gay ghetto.
Without much shrieking (except for a few of the animals), The Fabulous Beekman Boys has quickly become one of the most compelling reality series on television to date—and (despite little fanfare) viewers have responded to it. Planet Green has renewed the show for a second season, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. (The early days of the boys’ experience at Beekman also is the subject of Josh’s new book, The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers, which was reviewed in the last issue of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth.)
So, how are my friends Sally and June doing? Well, their experiment in farming lasted little over a year. They’re back in Florida now. June, who had initially campaigned hard for the farm, would have stuck it out longer. But as they entered their second winter, Mz. Sally announced that she could not take the cold any longer. June, who appreciated the fact that her partner had done her best to acclimate to northern rural life, agreed to come back with her.
At first they discussed the possibility of buying a small farm in Florida. Sally says she would have gone along with June’s compromise. But when they both landed good jobs and found a suburban pool home in need of their renovation talents, they decided to give up the notion of farming—and farm animals. They left their goats with Billiam, though they check on them frequently via the internet.
Farm life is definitely not for everyone, Mz. Sally says with a roll of her eyes. But she adds that the adventures she shared with her partner and the friendships they made remain close to her heart. Besides, while they were up north June and Sally got married. So in a sense they both bought the farm.