Travel

A Portrait of One of the Few African-American Farmers in America

For his project ​"Stolen Land, Stolen Future"​, Michael Santiago spent time with one of the few African-Americans trying to make a living through farming.

by Michael Santiago
Sep 24 2015, 12:00am

All photos by Michael Santiago

In the 1920s, African-American farmers made up 14 percent of the agriculture industry in the United States. Today, they comprise less than 1 percent. Their reduced presence can be linked to racist lending policies, corporate farm buyouts, and migration to cities. But the 1 percent who stayed say they still battle with the consequences of this historical racism

For his project Stolen Land, Stolen Future, photographer Michael Santiago spent time with a man he calls Mr. McGill, one of the few African-Americans trying to make a living through farming. In the 1980s, McGill was running a large farm but lost it after being denied a government loan. He's spent the past 30 years trying to make a living by raising pigs on his father's property in rural California. His father has also lost property and land owing to discriminatory loan practices, but has been able to retain the five acres where McGill now lives.

I recently talked to Santiago about McGill's problems and what could be done to alleviate them.


VICE: Hey Michael, why did you decide you wanted to do this series around Mr. McGill?
Michael Santiago: When living in California, I noticed from walking around farmers' markets there were no black farmers. Once I went up to a security guard to ask if he knew any and he started laughing. I live in Syracuse and have tried to find more black farmers in this area but haven't. I wanted to photograph Mr. McGill to show him as just a normal person trying to get by.

How did you meet him?
I met him through an NGO called Farms to Grow. His story starts in the 80s, when he had a farm of 320 acres. He and his partner needed a loan to avoid going into foreclosure and the US Department of Agriculture denied them. After they were rejected, the person they were dealing with from the agency went and bought the property for a profit. Now he works on five acres of his father's land.

Can he make a living from farming now?
He still does other odd jobs at different ranches. His life is typical for a farmer. He wakes up at the crack of the dawn, gets up to feed the pigs, and do all the farm maintenance in the morning. Goes to other ranches in the early afternoon, then feeds the pigs again and is in bed by seven or eight o'clock at night. That is his day, seven days a week.

While discrimination may not be as blatant as it once was, a lot of farmers never recovered from racist dealings decades ago. What sort of action are people calling for to help?
More direct financial support for the farmers, and organizations to support them. Also, I think the way loans are given out should be restructured to help small farmers. A lot of time the criteria to get loans is based on the size of the farm. So Mr. McGill didn't get approved because his operation wasn't that big. He couldn't get a loan because his farm didn't look like the one that is down the road with extensive land and cattle.

Why do you think farmers like Mr. McGill keep doing this despite tough conditions?
He makes around $2,000 to $3,000 every six months from his pigs—so he's not doing this for profit. But it's what he loves to do. He is now 71 and has been doing this for 50 years. His pigs are important to him.

Interview by Laura Rodriguez Castro, follow her on Twitter.