Photographing Austin’s Heartland

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L Style G Style featured documentary photographer Jo Ann Santangelo in our September/October 2012 Reveal, where she talked about her work documenting LGBT veterans in her series Proud to Serve and photographing strangers on the Streets of Manhattan and Austin in her long-running series Austin Seen and Walking the Block. Santangelo has just completed an expansive project documenting sustainable food systems in central Texas called Grow, Share, Prepare, which is now on permanent display at the new Sustainable Food Center (SFC) and will also be featured in SFC’s new “Food Is…'” campaign. Below, Santangelo talks about the project, which took over a year and a half to complete, and what she’s up to next.

How did you get the idea for Grow, Share, Prepare? Grow, Share, Prepare is the Sustainable Food Center’s campaign. It’s based upon their model of growing food for your community using sustainable and organic practices, sharing through farmers markets and by meeting with friends and cooking and learning to prepare food through the classes they teach. They approached me and said they had wanted to do a photo project highlighting their farmers and their programs. I ended up documenting all their programs such as The Happy Kitchen and Farm Direct, but I fell in love with the farmers, and that’s where my focus went. In the end, I always find the human part of everything that I cover and that was really the part that sold me. I wanted to give them a voice and show their stories to put the human side behind it, because without the farmers, none of the programs would exist.

What farms and farmers are featured? Kevin Ottmer of Ottmers Family Farm in Stonewall, Texas is a third generation farmer; they’ve been farming on the land for almost 20 years. Mill-King Farm and Dairy has been in the family for three generations, it was started by Craig Miller’s grandfather around World War II. They’ve transformed from being a commercial dairy to a dairy that sells direct to their customers, so they’re at the farmers markets and local markets, and Lick makes their ice cream using their milk. Dorsey Barger, who runs HausBar Farms, is the urban farm that is featured. Her business model is that she deals directly with restaurants; most people have a farm stand or sell at the market. Simmons Family Farms is run by a couple in Niederwald, Texas. Terry is a paraplegic in a wheelchair [so] he takes care of the business side of the farm. I also spent a lot of time with Richardson Farms, whose main focus is pigs, chickens and beef. The way they run the animals across the farm is so fantastic. I would be out on their farm, and it was like heaven.

Had you spent time on a farm before you started working on Grow, Share, Prepare? Before I started this project, I had never been on a farm. It was eye-opening to me. I tried to eat well and organic, but after spending time with these farmers, probably 90 percent of everything I eat comes from local farmers, both to support them and to know where my food was grown. This is what you put in your body every day, what feeds you and keeps you growing. I want to know that the animal I’m eating had the best life possible, that it wasn’t caged and that it didn’t suffer. To me it makes a big difference.

What are some of the main ideas you wanted to get across? Nowadays you can walk into a supermarket and see every food from all over the world. We’re a little bit removed from where our food actually comes from. One of the main things I wanted to do was put that human side to it, because family farms are going out of business every day and mass agriculture is taking over the world. Good food requires dirt, seeds, water and a lot of care, and being a farmer is a 24-hour job. I learned not to take food for granted; I hope people who look at this will walk away with that as well.

What are some of the advantages of supporting family farms and a smaller, local food system? For one, a reduced carbon footprint. Eating local cuts down on transportation; we aren’t paying for fuel to transport food from Brazil or California to here. Eating local keeps money in the community, because if you support a local farmer, you are supporting everything they support. They buy seeds, dirt, wood, and they’re employing people. If small community farms popped up everywhere, it would go back to how it used to be, where we grow food for our own community. The world would change drastically if we got back to that system.

What have people’s responses been so far? A lot of the responses are usually about how they had no idea what goes into growing organically and sustainably, which is exactly what I had no idea about. A lot of people say that buying local at the farmers market is so expensive, but it’s really not. It’s the same price you’ll find at any other supermarket; it’s not overly exorbitant. If you buy something organic from an Austin farmer, it might be a dollar more than something conventional, but a dollar more for something grown locally versus something covered in pesticides from California. A few people came up to me and said they had never been to the farmers market, and now they’re going to go because they want to support local farmers. That’s why I do it; to get someone to stop and make a change.

I know you just finished this project, but are you embarking on any major projects soon? That’s a good question! A goal I have is to expand the video to 30 minutes, so I’m going to try to find some funding to make it a beautiful film. Outside of this, this is the first time since I left school in 2009 that I don’t have a project to work on. I went from Proud to Serve and Walking the Block to moving to Austin and starting Austin Faces AIDS; the minute Austin Faces AIDS finished, I started Grow, Share, Prepare. It’s a little weird, but it’s good, and I’m just going to sit back and continue to shoot my Austin Seen project. Austin is full of nonprofits, and I love telling stories of nonprofits, so I’m going to start looking at other organizations I like and want to work with.

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