While growing up in western Kansas, Jayne Henson was surrounded by agriculture. Her father was a county extension agent and her uncle ran a conventional farm. She raised animals with her sisters to show at local 4-H fairs and learned how to drive a tractor before ever sitting in the front seat of a car. “I didn’t necessarily grow up on a farm, but it was always around me,” she says.
But Henson never expected it would one day lead her down a path to finding herself, or to her future overseeing TransGenerational Farm in the Hudson Valley.
When she went to college, Henson chose to follow her passion for playing the drums and studied music therapy. During her sophomore year, her uncle died and the family took over his farm. Henson stepped up to help grow conventional corn, wheat, soybeans and beef cattle on the 50-acre farm. And while she excelled in her tasks, she struggled with feelings of gender dysphoria and soon began to come to terms with her identity as a trans woman.
“When I finally made the decision to transition, Kansas didn’t feel like a place where a person like me had a future,” she says. “I didn’t see anybody like me reflected in the landscape. There was plenty of messaging—both spoken and unspoken—to let me know that rural life in Kansas wasn’t a place for a trans woman, for someone like me.”
She made the difficult decision to leave Kansas and took a job working in HIV counseling and testing for AmeriCorps in New York City. There, she was exposed to GrowNYC, an organization dedicated to regional agriculture and ensuring a continuing supply of fresh local produce for New Yorkers. Henson started working in its Fresh Food Box program and enrolled in GrowNYC’s Farm Beginnings program, which involved agricultural workshops developed to help aspiring farmers succeed. “That reignited an interest for me in agriculture, seeing the ways in which food access and community organizing can have a social justice impact and how much those things are at the root of so many injustices around us,” she says.
Photo courtesy of TransGenerational Farm.
Seven years after moving to New York, Henson came to terms with another aspect of her identity. “I’ll always be grateful for what I learned in the city. I was able to find our community and…find space where me being trans wasn’t an issue,” she says. “But I’m really not a city girl.”
With a reinvigorated passion for farming and a vision for a future that involved queer people growing food with and for each other, Henson applied for a pro-farmer program through the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, a nonprofit based in Hurley, New York working to build an equitable and ecologically resilient food system in the Hudson Valley. Through the program, Henson managed SustainAbility Farm, where she worked with autistic adults and oversaw growing operations for a greenhouse and an acre-sized plot in exchange for housing.
Some of the challenges queer and minority farmers face involve funding and land acquisition. While Henson isn’t a first-generation farmer, leaving her family’s farm in Kansas has meant she’s had to pave her own path and find land elsewhere to cultivate. And with the influx of people moving to the Hudson Valley in recent years, that’s a costly endeavor—especially since the pandemic has triggered bidding wars and an influx of outsiders buying up any available land. “Capital is always a struggle,” says Henson.
In 2019, Henson founded TransGenerational Farm, where she employs regenerative practices. In partnership with Arrowood Farms—a brewery, taproom and outdoor venue—she grows her own vegetables for a small CSA program and oversees Arrowood’s hop yards. She originally intended to sell most of her produce in New York City’s Union Square farmers’ market, but pulled back on that idea when COVID-19 struck the region last year. Instead, she’s shifted to an all-CSA model.
This summer, Henson is excited to get back to in-person community building by hosting planting and food events. “A big thing with queer and trans folks is this notion of found family and chosen family,” says Henson. While TransGenerational Farms is still a small operation, she’s working to build a space where no one is excluded based on their gender identity, sexuality, race, class or physical ability.
“I like to think of the farm as more than just myself,” says Henson, who hopes to see more people like her reflected in farming on both local and national levels. “Queer and trans people can and do farm.”