March 25, 2019|By Peg Kohring| Community Development

From Jails to Jobs: Training Incarcerated People How to Farm in West Virginia

My day began with a comprehensive pat down, a police background check and being buzzed through many locked gates. My heart contracted as each door closed with a clang. No, this was not an airport screening. I had entered St. Mary’s Correctional Facility to teach an agriculture class for incarcerated people in West Virginia. 

While this may sound like odd territory for a conservation organization, the reasoning is sound. Once released, formerly incarcerated people often have a hard time finding stable jobs, forcing many to start their own businesses or work for themselves. Offering real-world farm skills greatly improves their chance of reintegration and economic success. It also helps increase the amount of locally grown food in a state with a steadily increasing demand. 

3 25 19 Garners Produce Mock GAP Audit PA and DC c Sam Levitan201808077 2Photo by Sam Levitan.

Conservation requires a broad holistic approach. From ranchers to farmers to food processors and distributors, we all depend on the responsible use of our natural resources. Our sustainable food initiatives are built to support that connection through a range of tools that protect the land, build healthier food systems and offer productive jobs. 

Once inside St. Mary’s Correctional Facility, Jennifer Stoneking, the only agricultural teacher in the West Virginia prison system, met me at the gate and affirmed her support of this mission. Stoneking told me that she’s “committed to preparing her students for agricultural jobs” and wanted those students “to be exposed to programs that would ensure their success on re-entry.”

3 25 19 TTCF Resourceful Communities NC c Olivia Jackson 30Photo by Olivia Jackson.

In addition to classroom instruction, students gain experience through growing food on site. This practical, hands-on skill building was key to grabbing the attention of the group. 

The Conservation Fund training began with students walking the prison farm to evaluate what it would take to lease the land. The class then divided into groups according to interest: one for growing vegetables, one for raising animals and one for fruit farming. The students evaluated everything from the soil to the buildings, critiqued what was not there and what they would talk to the landlord about. It was fun to hear the practical way the students looked at the farm and its assets. It was as if the students were looking with new eyes. 

3 25 19 Greenseams Heidel Baker Farm c Ivan LaBianca 120161018 2 1Photo by Ivan LaBianca.

Though many of the students work best in their own businesses, they needed the skills to get started. Stoneking asked me to show students how to access USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) cost share programs and lease land. NRCS helps beginning farmers and socially disadvantaged farmers with the technical and financial assistance they need to get projects off the ground.

The demand for locally grown food in West Virginia is not being filled because there aren’t enough trained agricultural workers. According to Kacey Gantzer, a business planner with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WDA), “WDA has learned through surveys from the West Virginia University Food Justice Lab and a thorough statewide strategic planning survey and community meetings that lack of farm labor is one of the biggest issues that small farmers are facing.” 

The Conservation Fund received a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA NRCS to support this work focused on assisting low-resource farmers with economic and technical assistance in six states including West Virginia. Beginning and low-resource farmers have the opportunity to learn about available NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Programs (EQIP) funding and receive assistance in completing the application. 

In West Virginia, the EQIP focus is on helping farmers increase income through the use of season-extending high tunnels (a type of greenhouse)and grazing systems to improve pastures for chickens, cattle and goats. As part of the grant, farmers may also ask for assistance with financing for farm improvements. 

3 25 19 Don Bustos Espanola NM c Whitney Flanagan201804292 2An example of a high tunnel greenhouse, which can extend the growing season for vegetables, small fruit, cut flowers and more. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

Another huge problem for beginning and low-resource farmers is finding affordable land to rent. The Conservation Fund is preparing farmers with the skills needed to lease land and landowners with the tools to lease and sell land to new farmers.

Many of the students in the class will be leaving St. Mary’s soon. They told me they see agriculture as a fresh start to a “new life.” Students roundly praised the program, with one remarking, “I learned how to find farmland, how to talk with the owner about renting and to get everything in writing!” Another added, “I never knew how many ways the Natural Resources Conservation Service helped beginning farmers get started.” 

After the class, one student spoke with pride about how the vegetables raised on the prison farm were donated to the local food bank and senior meals in the community, explaining, “When I have my own farm next year, I am going to continue to donate part of what I grow to people who need it.” 

On my way out, I heard the last door clang behind me and thought of the many skilled people who would soon be contributing good things to our food system. I left with more hope that healthy food would be available in West Virginia and also with a grateful heart for the US Department of Agriculture’s innovative programs!

Written By

Peg Kohring

Peg Kohring, Senior Associate for The Conservation Fund’s Conservation Services Program, has focused the last 43 years on implementing conservation solutions that balance the environment and economic development. Currently Peg is working in West Virginia as part of a six-state team funded by a US Department of Agriculture Conservation Innovation Grant focused on increasing access for socially disadvantaged farmers to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs.