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Farm Labor: Working with Ex-Offenders

Eric Vanbleck thins peaches from a ladder in June. Photo by Elizabeth Coeby Julie Rawson

It is serendipitous that as I sit down to write this article about working with ex-offenders on our farm the 6 year-old daughter of one of our now full-time farm staff, Anamarie, is sitting next to me drawing pictures and spelling out "cook lunch" as I promised her that we would cook lunch together when I get done with this article.

Jack and I have been here on Many Hands Organic Farm since 1982. Our first set of laborers were our four children, who complained bitterly as they reached their teenage years, but who seem to be pretty happy with us as they now are in their late 20's.

We added a mix of working shareholders and live-in apprentices in the late 80's and then traded in the live-in apprentices for local teen and college labor around 1995 or so. Slowly our workforce has gotten more mature; most of our paid staff is part time and in their mid - twenties to early thirties. Our working shareholders come for 80 hours per season and range from early thirties to mid seventies. Our son Dan worked very closely with us as an adult for a few years as a co-manager, has since moved on to a better paying job, and still works some of our land for his own venture. I've learned to be adept at getting the occasional college group that stops by to help out with important and very labor intensive tasks like shelling mountains of peas, splitting a hundred pounds of garlic or planting and mulching it. Suffice it to say that all kinds of folks with all kinds of arrangements have worked on our farm.

For the past 10 or so years I have ended the season vowing to downscale. Every succeeding year I ramp it back up again, having committed to hiring one too many people or re-energized by the consistent consumer demand for our CSA, meat chickens or pork. 2007 was no different than the rest. We were going to do 40 shares in the CSA and not sell to any outside accounts.

Then the Worcester Living Magazine did an article on our farm that came out in February. Not only was a whole array of new customers clamoring for our food, but we got a call from the executive director of Dismas House, a halfway house for ex-offenders with drug related records. Dave asked if the guys who live at "Almost Home", a 4 month residential program for guys who have been through a drug rehab program at the Worcester County House of Corrections or other state correctional facilities could come and volunteer a couple of days per week on our farm. In the end we agreed that they would come for one morning a week and bring a pot luck dish to share for lunch. In return we would send them home with 3 CSA shares. That started on April 20.

The first day was phenomenal. Meridith, the director of Almost Home, checked in halfway through the morning to tell me that she hadn't seen the guys so happy in days, and getting along better with each other than they did at home. I don't think of myself as terribly religious, but when Robert, one of the guys said we had to form a circle, hold hands and give a prayer before we ate our shared meal tears came to my eyes and I was hooked. As the spring progressed and various guys found their various niches on the farm, we got more work done, had more fun and all of us found ourselves looking forward to Fridays. On our end Kathy, Jack, Becca and I would each take a small crew and work closely with them through the morning.

We started to get work done that we hadn't gotten to in years - fences fixed and replaced, perennial patches of vegetables and fruits out from under grasses and bindweed and Bishop's weed. There was always a crew on the wood pile (we burn about 15 cords per year). It became quickly clear that some of the guys had skills that were stronger than ours. Scott took on a project to redo our kitchen walls and ceiling. Edwin became our mechanic and no one could make garden beds with such precision as Brian. Angel was the mowing king, and Jeff took charge of a delicate tree removal job.

Brian and Edwin graduated from the program in May and June. Jack and Becca and I had a powwow and decided we wanted to offer them full time jobs on the farm. In order to do it we would have to ramp up production, sell more shares, and get our retail accounts back on line. When more piglets became available for purchase we upped them to 12.

We have never hired anyone full time on the farm as Jack and I work almost full time for NOFA, and have many other irons in the fire. It was a big step for us, and a huge responsibility to be the major employers for these two young men. And then what about winter when there was no work? What is our responsibility?

Without sharing too much information from someone's private life, let's say that there are a lot of pieces that a person who has been in jail 2 or 3 times has to put back together. In the best of all worlds there are likely huge fines for driving infractions, issues with child support, and lack of infrastructure like clothing, personal belongings, savings of any type, etc.

We have worked through these issues together, helping with loans that were paid back slowly out of payroll, lending the use of our truck to pick up furniture (Brian and Edwin have moved out of Worcester and live just 3 miles from the farm now), helping with nutrition counseling, hooking them up with other job opportunities with local farmers and friends, and providing moral support when the legal system seems particularly onerous because of past offenses.

What we have gained is the high quality work of two focused and motivated individuals who through their labor and intelligence have helped us improve our farming practices across the board, kept our machinery in fine working order, and the friendship of two very thoughtful and trusted people. Brian took over custody of our somewhat intimidating black lab who was scaring our CSA shareholders. Edwin has developed a special relationship with Becca.

What of winter and the future? We decided to take on an early winter CSA which started November 9. Brian and Edwin worked with Jack to build two new hoop houses to grow the food. That will help pay the bills a little later in the season. Brian has located part time work for the three months of December - February. Edwin will be doing some interior decorating for us and will line up some more temporary work for that time period.

What about the other guys? The first guys that came to us in April have all moved on. Some ended up back in jail, some are thriving on the outside. Many are doing alright, but are working at somewhat dead end jobs. It is really hard to get a decent job if you have a criminal record. Whenever I hear that someone faltered and used again, my heart sinks. Some part of me would like to be able to hire all the guys who show an interest in farming, but of course that isn't possible - not yet. It will take time, but I hope to (possibly through NOFA/Mass, possibly through another non-profit group) put together a comprehensive program to help guys who want to farm as their next step find a place to do it, and find mentor farmers who are willing to help them phase back into society.

Jack and I hope to fine tune our relationship with Almost Home so that it can be the most productive for all of us. Recently, I tried to start dealing with the vegetable gap, as I call it. Many of the guys really enjoy working with the fruits and vegetables, but don't know how to prepare them - nor do they prefer to eat them. They, like the rest of our population, are "surviving" with cheap calorie foods and have lost touch with real food. Even though we have been providing Almost Home with our CSA food each week, it hasn't been consistently used by them or the staff.

Two weeks ago I invited Gretchen (on Almost Home staff) and one guy to help me cook lunch from our share that week. So far we have had great results. Gretchen came back all excited about the stir fries she has been making. Last week Jay took complete charge of the stir fry, making sure that it was cooked just enough to preserve all the wonderful flavors.

We have learned (as we learned long ago with all staff) that work gets done well when we work side by side with folks. Luckily we have now 6 of us - Brian, Edwin, Jack, Becca, Kathy, sometimes Dan, and I, to take a small number of guys under our wing while we are working. We have lost a few tools to wrong handling, as one does with any new staff member, but have gained hours of dedicated labor and 30 or more new friends over the course of the past 6 months.

I spend a lot of time checking in with guys about how they are feeling about the work. Kathy cajoles with great positivity (and an iron hand), Jack shares his knowledge as he works, and Brian and Edwin are eminently patient. Becca gets guys to work hard by her focused example. Sometimes the rain or the cold gets folks down, but we suffer through and usually have a great time of it regardless of the weather.

The other day I asked Todd how he was doing, and he summed it up. He said, "Friday is always a great day."

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2007-2008 issue of The Natural Farmer (Volume 2, Number 75), the newspaper of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA).