Danni Elias (They/Them)

Danni has been professionally farming on farms not their own since 2013. Currently they are making plans for the upcoming growing season in Rhode Island. 

My dad is in landscaping and we always had a big garden when we were kids.

I always really loved spending time with him out there. Some of my earliest childhood memories are with my dad showing me how to differentiate between weeds and crops. 

When I got out of high school I was living in Rhode Island, and I thought that I wanted to work in food service and be a chef.  I apprenticed under some chefs here, and I realized that it wasn’t for me.

The pressure and the yelling took out all the joy of cooking. 

I was working in one kitchen early in the spring of 2013 and was really miserable. I remember the crocuses were just starting to come up. I’d walk to work and the best part of my day was stopping and seeing these flowers growing a quarter of an inch.

In some small way it made me realize that I needed to leave my job.

I found my first farm job that year on Craigslist and now that farm owner is basically an adopted sibling and my mentor. 

There was a long time where my end goal was to have my own farm and it still maybe is.

I’m up in the air about it. It’s a hard question.

For the past 5 or 6 years in the off season I’ve been doing childcare work and really enjoy that. I have also been doing garden programming with kids and I love working with children. The idea of incorporating those two things has slowly become more and more important. Production doesn’t seem like the way to go, but working for a school for me does not feel good.

I’m in the process of figuring out if it’s possible to do that in a way that is freelance and where I have a little more control and am not totally beholden to other people. 

I want the freedom and to not really have to answer to a supervisor, but financially it’s not within reach (to have my own farm) at this moment and maybe ever.

Something that I’ve seen that tends to be frustrating is this attitude that comes up a lot in small business ownership, not just particular to farming – this idea of we’re all a family, a team…the individual and the individual’s needs are sacrificed for the good of the farm.

I have had difficult relationships with farmers because I am not super willing to put up with that. I have pretty strict work boundaries, which can make you a little unpopular with certain farm owners.

That idea that we have to work until the harvest is done, so all of us need to stay in the field until 8pm. Or last year you hired 7 people, this year you decided to only hire 6 and now you’re seeing that this doesn’t work and not hiring another person, and putting that burden on your staff.

I don’t own this business, and I don’t need to ruin my body and let go of all other aspects of my life to allow this business to succeed. 

Coming from a background of food service, i’ve witnessed a tendency to ignore food safety standards on farms, which is really frustrating to me. 

It’s not always the case that farms have a safe workplace. Both physically and even having people trained in tractor safety – that is something that I’ve found to be lacking. 

Depending on the farm, there has been a lack of safety equipment, eye protection, something like spreading Diatomaceous Earth and not having a mask to wear. I’ve seen farmers who don’t give apprentices proper instruction in how to use their tools and carry their bodies in a way that is ergo dynamic.

A lot of farmers expect you to work through the pain of various injury or illness. 

I see myself as a farmer. I have had people not in the industry, when I tell them I’m a farmer, ask questions like I am the owner and I have to clarify.  I still think of myself as a farmer but I would also identify as a farm worker. 
Farming is the labor that I do so I do engage in that title despite not being a property owner. There is a dichotomy and I’m not really interested in that. I’m pivotal in the success of the farm even if I don’t have ownership. That doesn’t make me or anybody else less than. 

It’s hard to imagine a dream farm from the one I worked on for a few years in Rhode Island. There was a strong sort of attitude and sense of community care there, and that was something that was built in and intentional from the owner.

I don’t necessarily need to be in a position of creative control, but working for someone who is willing to listen to you and interested and values your opinions, and willing to take into account your needs as an employee. 

One farmer I worked for, he is so good at timing everything. We never, in the almost 4 years working there, were on the property past 6. We started at 6 and stopped at 6. He knew how long every task would take us. That’s an under appreciated skill – time management in your head.

I’ve worked on some bigger farms that were 8,10,13 acres – I don’t like it. I don’t like things to be mechanized. I hate water wheel transplanters. I get physically sick on the back of them and I feel like I can work just as fast on my hands and knees transplanting.

I feel a sense of separation from the land when things are mechanized.

I would rather just work on a farm that is small enough that you don’t need that kind of equipment. 

I find a real sense of fulfillment working with plants. And one of the things I love the most about farming is that sense of community. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. 

I love being outside. I feel a sense of peace or quiet in my brain when I’m doing manual labor, and farming is my favorite manual labor.

I have ADHD, so often it feels like things in my head are very rapidly spinning, doing manual labor is helpful for that. My body feels good and my brain feels good when I’ve put in a long day of work. 

I’ve worked with a decent amount of high schoolers – I volunteered with 4H, met young people who want to go into organic farming, and they ask me:

“How do you find a farm, what do you look for?”

I always tell the high schoolers that the first thing is:

  • Ask for references. You want to talk to previous employees. That’s a huge red flag if they don’t offer references. That first farmer I worked for in Rhode Island taught me that. 
  • The other one – if they are paying you less than a living wage and saying that is coming back to you in the form of education, you should be given a syllabus. If it’s an internship specifically, there should be actual educational support, not just this idea of you’ll learn it by doing. If you’re not being paid appropriately for your labor and they are claiming to be educating you, it needs to be more than just how to hold a hoe.

I’ve been out for 5 years as a non-binary trans person.

It’s taken me a while and a lot of negative experiences to get to a point where I’m really comfortable telling employers that and grilling them about it up front during the interview process. 

I have a list of questions I ask to potential future employers, because I have had a lot of very negative experiences on various farms in the 8 years I’ve been working as a commercial grower:

Danni’s Interview Questions:
  • What are your individual management styles and how do those intersect (cooperative farms) ?
  • Are you willing to invest time and energy into respecting, honoring, understanding queer identity, gender identity, including correcting each other, explaining that to CSA members, etc.?
  • What is your biggest pet peeve as an employer and what it was as a farm employee?
  • What are your goals as farmers?
  • Who do you respect in your farming community and whether that is locally or more broadly?
  • How do you express frustration?
  • What coping skills have you developed with dealing with less than ideal situations?
  • Conflict resolution → how highly do you value patience as an employer? How are you coping with shit that is not going well?
  • Do you have workers’ compensation?

A lot of people have this assumption that because you are an organic farmer, you are this righteous pure of heart person, wholly good, which is not true.

Farmers are just as capable of causing harm as anyone else.

I had a farm manager who had an unbelievable temper: throwing things across the room and punching holes in walls and screaming at people. He mostly talked that way to people he perceived as female. I know we talk a lot about unsafe working conditions, to me, despite not being in physical danger, that was an unsafe working environment. 

I worked for a couple who were very transphobic even though they thought of themselves as really progressive.

Constant misgendering, and outright refusal to use my correct pronouns.
They were so awful about it even after I had left: Sending me text messages saying it was somehow my fault that they had misgendered me and that I was too sensitive about it.

Again, I think of that as an unsafe work environment. When someone is telling you “we’re all a team and we’re all in this together, we’re like one big family all with a common goal and we really value you as our team” and then outright refusing to honor or respect a very fundamental part of your identity it really wears on you mentally and emotionally. They have a strong internet presence and are really revered within their farm community. It’s so deeply frustrating to see people praise them, to see them interviewed on podcasts etc.

That is the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night.

In truth I have a lot of anger at some farmers that I’ve worked for. 

One of the farms that I worked on had been in business for 8 years. It was just under 10 acres. While I was working there I fell out of the back of a pickup truck and really severely sprained my ankle. I had to quit and move back to PA. They had no workers comp, which was legally required in their state. They had been paying me a stipend ($120/week), and I was supposed to be paid $8000 – $10,000 at the end of the season. After I fell I communicated that I needed to leave and return to my hometown where I would have support to be able to heal.They refused to reimburse me for that time that I worked, over 300 hours of skilled labor. They said that because I didn’t finish the season, they weren’t obligated to pay me. I had no contract or written agreement with them and they also had been providing me housing so now I had nowhere to live either. I was panicking because without that payment for the labor I had done I didn’t have enough money to get home. Luckily I was involved with the IWW in that state and a friend of mine there who had a lot of experience in labor disputes really saved me. We sat down and went over the whole department of labor’s website for that state particularly pertaining to agriculture and wrote down everything they were in violation of. Then he called them and read out the list and said look you have a choice to make here, you can pay Danni for the labor they did or I can report you to the department of labor and you can take it up with them. Eventually they caved and paid me, but the experience was terrifying and extremely disheartening. 


Best Friends Farm is a little project I’ve been running the past couple years with help from friends and we just donate all the produce that we don’t eat. It’s really informal and just sort of exists in some capacity wherever I exist.