Performer Jenna Jive (left) and Chef Ouita Michel (right) (Source: Space, Place and Southern Grace Photography)

On a Sunday morning in early June, Honeywood restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, was filled to the brim. Dressed in their Sunday Best, patrons had turned out to kick off Pride Month with country cooking, country music, and the indisputable talent of a host of local drag queens at the Drag Me to the Farm brunch.

The event was a fundraiser for the recently developed LGBTQ Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Fund, which awards scholarships to LGBTQ-identifying students at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment.

(Photo provided by University of Kentucky)

The fund, which is the first of its kind in the region, was started by employees at the College of Agriculture last year with the help of a grant from JustFundKY, a non-profit organization that has awarded $520,000 over the last decade to projects supporting LGBTQ communities in every county in Kentucky.

“Speaking as a closeted kid who grew up on a rural Kentucky farm, I wanted to create the message I needed 20 years ago: you are not alone, and you belong here,” said Seth Riker, the marketing and communications manager for the UK College of Agriculture and the steward of the fund.

This message, as well as the practical financial support the scholarship provides, is just as ethical as it as economical, Riker said. “After all, if we consider the challenges of feeding a growing population in a changing climate, it is inexcusable to have bigotry and ignorance impeding tomorrow’s leaders from stepping into the places they will be needed.”

Launching the Scholarship

With the help of the grant from JustFundKY, the College of Agriculture commissioned artwork from Kentucky-based queer artist Wylie Caudill. The resulting print, titled “Ag is for All: Diversity Feeds the World” helped draw attention to the scholarship launch, and was sent free of charge to anyone who requested it. It can now be found hanging in classrooms and government offices around Kentucky, and has even reached as far as agriculture classrooms in Texas and political offices in Washington, D.C., according to Riker.

Seth Riker holding the commissioned ‘Ag is for All’ print. (Photo provided by University of Kentucky)

Like the fund itself, the commissioned print performs multiple important functions. “Of course, the original goal was, and is, to raise scholarship dollars,” Riker said. “Yet, arguably as important as the money is the message we’ve been able to send: whether it’s a farm, a classroom, a lab…we want you as your full, authentic self.”

Although the goal is for the fund to eventually have an endowment with which to award scholarships, for now it depends on individual donations made through the University of Kentucky’s online philanthropy website. That’s where events like the Drag Me to the Farm brunch come in.

“Like most queer millennials from rural America, I am a sucker for Reba, Shania, Dolly and the like,” Riker explained. “So, since launching the scholarship, I had this idea for a country drag queen brunch fundraiser.”

With the lure of drag performances, iconic country music, and food served by celebrated Kentucky restaurateur Ouita Michel, tickets to the drag brunch sold out in a matter of days, with tickets and donations ultimately raising nearly $10,000 for the scholarship fund.

Michel, who Riker described as “a farm-to-table advocate, a legend in Kentucky cuisine, and just an overall badass with endless heart” said that her goal was to “shine a light on inclusivity in agriculture.”

“I am interested in promoting agriculture to young people as a career path- hopefully helping a young generation of farmers feel included, seen and important to their communities,” Michel said.

According to Brandl Skirvin, the President of the Board of JustFundKY, receiving the grant application from the UK College of Agriculture felt like an “a-ha moment.”

“We think of agriculture and the school of agriculture of having a very long history of intolerance, and of marginalizing voices within agriculture. So we thought, ‘gosh, this is a fantastic program that we want to be involved in,’” Skirvin said.

The Regional Leader

This year the fund awarded its first $2,000 scholarship—the first of many, Riker said— but its impact is already being felt more widely. For Ariel Baldon, a rising junior and at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and a proud member of the LGBTQ community, the fund signals a shift in the reception of queer students at the college. 

Set up outside the Drag Me to the Farm fundraiser brunch. (Photo provided by University of Kentucky)

“People can say that they accept queer people and recognize queer people, Baldon said.” “But when you start to see things like scholarships and funds and centers for the LBGTQ community, that’s how you know UK is actually accepting them and not just tolerating them in the room.”

The LGBTQ Agricultural and Environmental Sciences fund is the first of its kind in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and has the potential to inspire other colleges to follow similar paths. Already two other schools have reached out to Riker about establishing a similar fund.

“It makes me ecstatic,” Baldon said. “UK is a trailblazer. I think this is just the first step for something that is going to be way bigger than the University of Kentucky can even imagine now.”

While the scholarship fund is still in its early stages financially, it has already begun to spread its intended message.  Riker said the fund is a reminder to show up proudly in unexpected spaces, especially those where he may stand out the most.

“Do it with love, with pride, and with authenticity,” he said. “And most of all, do it for those you may never know.”

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