Carving out an authentic love of agriculture and self

J.J. Hartley had to leave agriculture in order to find the path back

J.J. Hartley’s loves the dairy industry, has a passion for rock climbing and is gently creating gender-neutral space within agriculture.

Hartley’s journey from a Saskatchewan family with a history in beef and cash crop farming to Ontario’s dairy industry was rife with twists and turns no one, especially Hartley, saw coming.

Hartley is genderqueer and uses they/them pronouns. It isn’t the main focus of who they are, any more than being cis-gender (the gender you were assigned at birth) is the main focus of anyone else, but it is key to understanding why they/them pronouns are used in this article.

Depending on who's asking or what your definition is they do not come from a farming background, they said.

“Because to me, my life in farming and in agriculture really only started about six or seven years ago when I got that job,” Hartley said. “You know, growing up I spent the past 25 years around the farm and on it, but it really it was like a huge 180.”

Hartley’s grandparent's farm in excess of 1,000 acres, and their father has plans to become more involved on the farm once he retires from his full-time job at Farm Credit.

Although Hartley grew up being involved with their grandparent’s farm they never saw a future in farming. Instead, they developed a passion for food and considered a career as a baker or chef until their parents encouraged them to go to university for a more stable career.

“The idea was definitely not to go into farming,” Hartley said. “So when I decided to go to school, I chose to stick within the realm and pursue a degree in nutrition and food chemistry.”

Hartley packed up and moved to Montreal to attend McGill University and entered a world filled with polar opposites from their prairie life.

“After my first year and a half there I was like, ‘Wow I really like it’,” said Hartley, adding they weren’t interested in changing majors. “I felt like I had my bases covered if I went into something in the food industry. There's always security in that because people will always need to eat.”

Instead of heading home for the summer Hartley got a job working at McGill’s dairy barn as an agricultural interpreter offering tours to people of all ages. The other option was to work as a groundskeeper but the dairy barn paid better and Hartley already had an understanding of raising cattle on a farm.

“I literally applied for it because I was comfortable on a farm . . . and it's a great job that means I can stay in Montreal for the summer,” Hartley said.

It was a job that would change Hartley’s life direction.

“The connection that I made with the dairy herd there – I'm not exactly sure where it came from – it was probably in me the entire time,” they said. “Just like sometimes people just pick stuff up right away for me, for whatever reason, that was dairy cattle, milking cows, calf care. That was what I ended up going into once I finished my degree.”Paul Meldrum, McGill’s dairy barn manager, was a big factor in Hartley’s desire to work with dairy cows. He told Hartley on the first day that even though he managed the barn and the cows it was just as much theirs as it was his.

It changed how Hartley envisioned their position and allowed them to feel comfortable asking questions, offering input and delving deeper into the dairy industry.“He’s one in a million, he’s like a father figure for me,” said Hartley. “Everyone who works for him –there’s such a love and passion in his heart. And it's honestly unparalleled – I have never met anyone like him at all.”They connected to Quebec 4H when they were 18 and realized after attending a youth agriculture summit they were part of a sizable group who’d come back to agriculture in spite of rejecting it early on.“The more you learn about the world, the more you learn about yourself. I found especially there was a part of me that when I went to reject it (farming),” said Hartley. “I found it was actually a very key component of who I am. I just feel it was kind of buried underneath everything else for a bit.”

When Hartley graduated, Trouw Nutrition Agresearch (TNA) was hiring for a position in the cow barn. Once again Hartley used the barn door as an opportunity to create the career they wanted, something combining their nutrition background and dairy. Although Hartley admitted there is a huge difference in nutrition between the two. When Hartley’s TNA contract ended Holstein Canada was hiring for a customer service representative. Hartley went for it and was hired.Moving into a desk job from an on-farm position was a challenge but Hartley stayed on part-time with TNA to balance their need to be in the barn.

Currently, Hartley’s job focuses on solving genotype conflicts for dairy cattle whose registration doesn’t match the DNA.“I normally compare it to 23andme or but Jerry Springer is basically what it is,” they said with a laugh. “Because a lot of my day is, ‘Hi, so we have the DNA results for your cow and her registered father is not her father’.”Most of the time it is a misidentification, other times it is a logging error where a cow was bred twice and the farmer only has the second service without noticing the first service was to a different bull.“A really big part of what I do is trying to keep ahead of the curve, because every year we're learning more and more about genomics and about dairy cattle performance, about their nutrition about their genetics,” Hartley said. “And we have to try to stay ahead of that curve and be able to provide relevant information.”

Finding their career path wasn’t the only thing McGill offered Hartley – it’s where they were finally able to express accurately who they were.“We are brought up in this culture of it (gender) being one of the other, black or white,” they said. “I didn't even have a term for myself until I was 17 and it is such a hard concept to grasp.”Hartley likened it to being colour-blind and putting on the glasses that allows a person to see the full spectrum of colours. “You know the colours they haven't seen before – they were there the entire time,” Hartley said. “You just didn't need to know what they were, or have the ability to look beyond what you think you see and understand.”

Hartley connected to a community of non-binary, or non-gender conforming people who were able to put words to how they’d felt their whole life – genderqueer.Non-binary or genderqueer encompasses a wide spectrum of gender identities, which are not exclusively masculine or feminine, and fall outside the traditional gender binary.“What they articulated was really what I felt,” said Hartley. “It was a revelation – this is who I am. I just didn't have the words to articulate it.”Hartley came out to their family and people close to them but often didn’t disclose much within their work-life because of the stigma attached to being transgender.Fortunately, Holstein Canada was very supportive and respectful when Hartley opened up about being genderqueer and asked to be addressed by They/Them/Their pronouns.Still, Hartley is hesitant to disclose who they are until people have had an opportunity to meet them and develop a relationship – either personally or through work.“It's really hard to take a bias and apply it to someone you know instead of just a nameless group if that makes sense,” they said. “

On the whole people have been very receptive and the only real harm has come from ignorance – especially because it concerns my identity and my pronouns are neutral.”Having people challenge the validity of Hartley’s pronouns or refusing to use them purposefully is a huge struggle because it denies Hartley’s existence.

Hartley equates it to someone learning a person’s name, telling them they don’t look like their name and changing it to something else and refusing to use their actual name.Even though Hartley is slowly building a safe space for themselves, and by virtue of that for others, within the agriculture community, they don’t feel it should be on them to constantly educate and fight for equal genderqueer recognition.“It's re-teaching old habits because many people were raised in that dichotomy that we as a culture have made,” they said. “It does take time to unload and I won't fault people for it.”

Over the phone, Hartley’s voice sounds like a woman and they understand if a person who isn’t aware of their pronouns and mistakes them for a female. The other challenge is speaking to French clients in which the language has no mainstream neutral pronoun translation.“Basically on my voice, that's what you would assume and I won't take the time to correct them,” they said. “At least not at this point in my life because it's not a battle I feel like I have the emotional labour to fight right now.”Instead, Hartley gains strength, physical and mental, by pushing their body rock-climbing their latest passion to take hold.

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