Farming Casts Its Spell On Young, Queer Farmers at Hocus Pocus Farm
June 24, 2022
SEEKONK, Mass. — Across Henderson Bridge and over the Seekonk River, past East Providence, and into Massachusetts, the tree cover starts to thicken, the birds get a little louder, and the air feels cooler, even on a sunny day.
About a 20-minute drive from downtown Providence and just over the state line lie more than 400 acres of farmland and nature. And on an acre of those hundreds sits Hocus Pocus Farm, a queer-owned and operated endeavor that embraces tradition, invention, and fun.
“Everything is popping,” Sasha Wolfe, who uses they/them and she/her pronouns, said as they walked through the snap pea stalks on Hocus Pocus’s 1-acre plot at Osamequin Farm at the at the corner of Walnut and Prospect streets. Many of the plants stood as tall or taller than Wolfe as they picked a few pods to snack on.
Wolfe, 29, is in their third season working on the chemical-free farm. They started their agriculture journey in their mother’s garden outside Boston, but they began to learn about food justice and urban agriculture when they were in college. They have worked on farms throughout the Northeast since 2014.
Hocus Pocus was originally started in 2016 on a parcel of land in Cumberland, R.I., by three young women who later passed the farm to Wolfe. The transition from farm hand to farm owner has been a “steep learning curve,” Wolfe said, but they are learning every day.
The farm operates as a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, which means customers pay the farm at the beginning of the season to get a share of its produce, giving Hocus Pocus the money to pay for seeds, mulch, and other costs upfront. Hocus Pocus currently accommodates about 70-75 customers a season — each share can accommodate one to four people, depending on the package size a customer buys and the farm’s yield.
The CSA model works for Hocus Pocus because of the tight margins. “We don’t make a ton of money,” Wolfe said, laughing a little. “We don’t have a lot of money left over at the end of the year.”
The model also spreads out the risk to the producers and consumers, which helps when successful farming is often left to chance.
“It’s always a toss-up of how the weather will be,” Wolfe said.
In Wolfe’s first year, the farm experienced “serious drought,” but the next year the fields flooded, wrecking the squash crop. “It just kind of rotted,” Wolfe said.
Eliza Harrison, 28, who also uses they/them pronouns, manages the farm with Wolfe. They said it can be difficult to explain they are a full-time farmer when people often think it’s only a hobby or a phase “because it’s so economically difficult.”
“It’s hard to make money,” Harrison said, “but easy to make friends.”
One of Harrison’s first jobs was working as a farm hand for a CSA that their parents belonged to when they were growing up, and they have been farming ever since. Harrison said that although a lot of people see farming as something “rooted in the past, with pitchforks,” they feel like there’s so much to experiment and try.
“There are so many different ways to farm,” Wolfe said, explaining that growing one vegetable can be done using several different techniques. Though the region somewhat limits what they can grow, they can also add different plants to their repertoire: This year, they are trying some dry beans and Romanesco broccoli, also known as Roman cauliflower.
Wolfe is also interested incorporating Jewish traditions into their farming. Gleaning — the process of picking through crops left over after a commercial harvest — is something Jewish people have been doing since ancient times. Last fall, Hocus Pocus welcomed the farmers’ families and friends and CSA members to celebrate Sukkot, a Jewish holiday surrounding the fall harvest, and they placed a sukkah — a type of temporary hut used during Sukkot — in the planting field.
While currently the farm cannot physically expand beyond its leased acre of land, Hocus Pocus is expanding the products it offers, adding flowers — Wolfe’s “babies” — and bread to the CSA program. Like the produce, customers who want those add-ons pay up front and get a portion of what is grown and baked over the season.
Hocus Pocus uses a sliding scale for pricing and offers a work-share program, where customers can trade a few hours of work a week for produce.
Noah Bogdonoff, 30, started off participating in the work share last year but started working more hours, so Wolfe insisted on paying him with the other type of green. Now he works at the farm part-time in addition to his work as a social worker/sex therapist and writer.
Of his three jobs, Bogdonoff said he identifies most with being a farmer.
“I don’t know if I lead with, ‘I’m a farmer,’” he said, “but it’s the thing I say at parties because it gives people a better idea of who I am.”
He said he became interested in environmental studies and food politics in college, but “my actual interest in farming came from dating a farmer,” he admitted. Bogdonoff has been farming on and off since 2015.
Although he’s worked on several farms and had wonderful experiences at all of them, Bogdonoff said Hocus Pocus has been the first place he’s really felt comfortable, and he associates that with the fact that he, Harrison, and Wolfe are all queer.
Because Bogdonoff is a cisgender, queer man, “it should be easier to farm” and blend in with the demographics of the trade, he said, but the occupation is still “hyper-masculine, very straight, very hierarchical.” (According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 64% of the country’s farm producers are men, most of whom are over the age of 35 and white.)
Bogdonoff said that while he never worked anywhere that was anti-queer, Hocus Pocus has a special feel, where people are “welcome because of [their identity] and not in spite of it.”
Wolfe said they haven’t faced any farming challenges because of their queer identity, and that being known as a queer-run operation has encouraged more queer folks to participate in the farm’s activities. Wolfe hopes Hocus Pocus will be able to continue to grow its community by “building a space and a culture that people want to visit,” they said.
Farming can have a focus on making the best, most marketable product in the most efficient manner, and for the least cost, Bogdonoff said, but that’s not the focus at Hocus Pocus.
“We make amazing vegetables, and we make enough money,” he said, while Harrison and Wolfe came off the field laughing after a full day of farming, “but we are also trying to have fun.”
Colleen Cronin is a Report for America corps member and writes about environmental issues in rural Rhode Island and southern New England for ecoRI News.