By Jae Gerhart
What images come to mind when you think of a prison? Chances are you don’t picture a farm stand full of vegetables that were grown, harvested, washed and displayed by prison inmates. Yet, if you walked into the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility on a Thursday, you would see just that.
Spearheaded by Ellen Baron, horticulture teacher at WHV, and made possible through the dedicated work of the 2019 cohort of horticulture student-inmates, WHV launched its first on-site farmers market Aug. 8.
Peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, green beans, leeks, cabbage, carrots and beautifully packaged “snack packs” filled the farm stand tables. Starting first thing in the morning, the horticulture wing buzzed with teams of students harvesting, weighing, recording and displaying the multitude of fresh vegetables.
By 11 a.m., the farm stand was busy with prison staff buying fresh produce by the armful. Comments such as “This is awesome!” and “Why haven’t we been doing this before?” and “I brought [so and so] to check it out” filled the farm stand tent.
Michigan State University Extension supports the establishment and success of farmers markets throughout the state of Michigan. The students in the horticulture program and their instructor began the farmers market with the support of MSU Extension.
Named the Green Valley Market, the farmers market functions as an extension of the horticulture-based education inmates are receiving while incarcerated. Developing skills for employment and entrepreneurship is a major focus for Michigan’s Department of Corrections, but classes specifically focused on skills in food and agriculture are rare in Michigan prisons.
According to a 2018 report prepared for the Michigan Good Food Steering Committee, food production inside prisons used to be a common way for prisons to increase self-sufficiency, save taxpayer dollars and reduce idleness. Over the years, as horticulture teachers retired, horticulture programs were closed. Now, the WHV is one of three horticulture programs left in the state’s prisons.
Through the WHV horticulture program, the women have an opportunity to obtain their Pesticide Applicator License and a Michigan Nursery and Landscape License. The produce, which last year totaled 12,000 pounds, is donated to the local food bank Food Gatherers, a relationship that has been running for 14 years.
The launching of the farmers market provides inmates additional opportunities to learn about marketing, business management, record keeping and on-farm food safety techniques required for running a successful farm stand. Such skills are critical for inmates who wish to pursue agriculture-related jobs once they reenter the workplace.
Operating a farmers market inside a prison comes with a host of additional challenges that regular farmers markets do not have to consider. For one, money cannot be transacted inside a prison. To overcome this obstacle, Baron worked with prison administration to create a system for staff and guards to buy $1 tokens to shop at the market.
All revenue generated from the farm stand will help make the market self-sustaining, and WHV will donate a portion of the sales to Food Gatherers to support its mission to end hunger in Washtenaw County, Mich.
The most important success, however, from the Green Valley Market may be the opportunity for inmates to connect in a positive way with the prison staff. Food connects people, and this food — grown with care, teamwork and pride — does just that for this community.
Gerhart writes for Michigan State University Extension.