Katie Willis (she/her)

Katie has been farming on farms not her own for 14 years. She has farmed in Alabama, New York and Minnesota. Currently she is in her second season at a 5 acre diversified vegetable farm outside of Birmingham, Alabama. 

I started farming in high school. There was an urban farm a few blocks from my high school that did an agri-science class in the school. They offered internships over the summer, and I started farming when I was 16.

I didn’t expect to like farming,

but it reconnected me to Alabama, a place that I was really wanting to leave.

It reconnected me to my body, something that I really struggled to love or find value in.

Later it would deepen my connection to my working class roots with my parents, and also eventually help me come to terms with my queerness.

I struggle to leave farming because I’m able to be my fullest self when I’m farming in terms of gender, sexuality and class background. 

In the beginning, I always dreamed of having my own farm. I think part of why I never jumped the gun is a lack of confidence and not feeling like I had been prepared enough with all the right knowledge because I feel like in a lot of situations there was some knowledge hoarding (doing the labor and not being told why).

Financial reasons are most of what has kept me back from pursuing my own farm goals. Lots of student debt and I have no access to wealth in my family or stocks or anything like that. 

Now the way that I see farming is – I haven’t seen it as economically sustainable anywhere that I’ve worked and so as much as I would like to have my own farm and make a living, it doesn’t seem like it’s possible unless you have wealth from family or support from wealthier friends or access to family land.

I feel pretty locked out at the possibility at this point.

Coming back to farming even though it’s still frustrating and I’m undervalued and disrespected often, it puts me back in my body and is just who I am. I don’t know what else to do with myself. I don’t feel like myself when I’m not farming.

I would like to continue farming. I am pursuing a masters in counseling right now because when I started school I wasn’t working on a farm at that point… I was working in a bakery, and didn’t want to work in a bakery for the rest of my life. I had vowed never to work for a farm in Alabama again, and went back to school.

I’m struggling to figure out ways to bridge things that I’m passionate about:

I went into counseling for reasons of social justice, helping people see their own humanity and humanity of others. I run a feminist bookstore, too.

I struggle with all of those things and figuring out how to live the way that I want to.

If I had it my way, I would farm for the rest of my life, but I don’t know if financially I can do that. 

When I moved back to Alabama, I worked on a farm where I experienced the most sexism that I’ve ever experienced farming.

It was hard to bottle up all of those feelings and not be able to push back on them.

I also looked around at other farms in Alabama, and most are not owned or run by women. And if they are, they don’t pay a living wage or hire employees. I didn’t think I could stomach it anymore and didn’t want to put myself through that. At that point, I thought I’d just work at this bakery and save money and buy a farm, and then I realized that wasn’t a reality for me either. I got lucky and had a friend who was working on my current farm – he was managing the farm at the time and he hired me to work there. 

I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve tried. I don’t know how to not work with my body.

When I think of wearing professional wear, I don’t feel like my gender is affirmed on either end of the spectrum. That has become more and more important to me. 

I come from parents who didn’t go to college and my dad did manual labor for all of my life. They basically forced me to go to college; they wanted me to have a better life and better financial opportunities. I did that and I’m really in debt and working on a farm.

I feel like the more I pursue education or office jobs, the more I feel like I’m disconnecting myself from my parents and uprooting myself from truly who I am. I know that is not real, but I think farming keeps me connected to a lot of my identities in a way that I don’t think I would feel in a different position. 

I’ve often dreamt about being a “real” person when working on a farm. My clothes are always dirty. I’m always dirty. I don’t have weekends off. I’m living in a 10×8 foot room. There needs to be space for people to decompress from farming, so your life is not fully consumed by farming.

The biggest thing I’ve experienced on farms is sexual harassment and blatant sexism.

I’m a white woman and I’ve farmed with mostly H2A workers who were male from Mexico. I saw racism and sexism –  I don’t know what language to describe it – in the way our roles were relegated. I was washing veggies for 8 hours a day and they were picking okra and squash, all the horrible jobs that I wanted to do, but because of our identities and who we were, we were regulated to our tasks.

Another challenge is the small, meager wages and the thinking that housing is adequate compensation for farm laborers, and then the housing is pretty shitty. Making people live in cramped spaces or spaces with a lot of mold. You cover it over with “building community” and you love the other apprentices, so you don’t see that you’re living in a way that is not sustainable and not normal.

This is not a lifestyle that could continue if you wanted a partner or a family. I think that can be a really hard mindset.

I thought it was great at the time, but it’s hard to break out of that and envision different ways of being and different ways of compensating people for their work. That was a really great farming experience, working for little money and shitty housing, working with women and queers and felt totally respected in the field, but on the backend it’s the compensation that was the disrespectful aspect. 

That is even more complicated when you think about apprenticeships: the people often doing the apprenticeships are white and college educated so you can afford to be poor, so there is less complaining about that and romanticization about living on so little, when other people aren’t choosing that. We need to acknowledge that and think about it.

we need an organization that supports farm workers in terms of sick leave and parental leave and adequately investigates sexual harassment, sexual assault and racism, and brings those things to light, so these farmers’ market loving shoppers have a better idea of what actually happens on farms.  

It doesn’t matter if you are Earthbound Organics in California or a small family farm in Alabama. A lot of the horrible things that happen on farms happen at both. 

Family farms don’t mean friendly farms.