Neal Santos’ “A Practice of Freedom”—which appears in our new issue—is a stunning portrait series featuring some of the queer farmers from Philadelphia’s urban agriculture scene. Neal, in addition to being a photojournalist, is an urban farmer himself. He and his husband Andrew turned an abandoned plot that runs adjacent to their home into a veritable oasis, brimming with fruit, vegetables, bees, chickens, dogs, and more, and for a time they sold their much of their harvest from a popular farm stand out front called Farm51. In addition, Neal co-founded Pelago, a pop-up dinner series devoted to Filipino food. When we visited him on a sunny and scorching day last summer, it struck us as an idyllic life, but one rooted in a strong sense of purpose. Neal’s passion for food and farming, for community, and for creating beauty are infectious—that sense of purpose might be the secret to his limitless supply of energy for new projects. We spoke with Neal about “A Practice of Freedom” and more in our latest Jarry Briefs Q+A.
How you did you find the farmers featured in "A Practice of Freedom"? What did you aim to convey in your portraits of them?
The farmers you see featured in "A Practice of Freedom" are friends and colleagues I've met through my years of being a photojournalist and through me and my husband Andrew's time running Farm51. I present these portraits with minimal fuss, and hope that a feeling of familiarity is felt through these portraits, as if you could see these faces in every corner in any neighborhood. These portraits convey diversity, they convey leadership, and they convey domesticity in overlooked spaces.
You make the case that the urban agriculture community and queer community have more in common than one might expect. Could you elaborate a bit on this idea?
I make the argument that farming in the city is a very queer concept, something not of the norm, if you will. For many, farming in a city is about overcoming struggle and being able to feed themselves in communities where fresh and affordable food is scarce. I think queers, like urban farmers, are no strangers to struggle, recognizing marginalization, and perhaps why a lot of the farmers featured here are so drawn to this type of work.
What have you learned from the experience of building out and running Farm51?
Andrew and I learned that it's a challenge to create boundaries. It's a double-edged sword, where in our case, we live next to a space that has become a vibrant and beautiful community fixture. We both worked full-time jobs outside of this endeavor and it was hard to meet the expectations of producing food, being available to harvest, prepare, and sell what we grew. But the beauty lies in the seasonality of our lives, every year we did something different to the garden and we to this day are fully able to enjoy the excitement of spring, the bounty of summer, the glow of autumn light and the sweet, sweet hibernation in winter.
You're also one of the founders of Pelago, a Filipino-inspired restaurant popup. What's the genesis of that?
I grew up in a Filipino household, where rice, vinegar, and fish sauce were easily found next to our salt and pepper shakers. Philadelphia at the time of starting Pelago had zero Filipino restaurants, and the pop-up series is a direct response to that. I've used what Andrew and I have grown at Farm51 for our pop-ups, utilizing vegetables like ampalaya, kangkong, eggplant and okra in many of the dishes that we serve. Our last pop-up was a farm-style "kamayan" dinner held at Farm51.
For those interested in getting involved in urban agriculture: Where to begin?
Offer to volunteer with organizations and groups that are already doing this type of work in your area, or in places across the globe. Urban agriculture takes different meanings depending where you look, but perhaps getting familiar with those featured in this portrait series is a good place to start.
Neal's story "A Practice of Freedom" appears in Issue 3. Order your copy now.
Photos by Quyn Duong.