Garden of possibility

The Recorder. July 10, 2014. By Richie Davis.

GREENFIELD — Like a lot of young vegetable farmers, Nate Rogers is out at 6 every morning, harvesting lettuce, cucumbers, beets, kale and other produce he’s grown over the past couple of months, getting it ready for market and taking pride in what he — and Mother Nature — have accomplished.

The only difference is that the 24-year-old farmer, originally from Northfield, is an inmate finishing up an 18-month sentence at Franklin County House of Correction for a series of armed robberies. He’s also completing an internship at the Greenfield Community Garden, where he’s earned three credits in Greenfield Community College’s Farm and Food Systems program — which he hopes to apply toward a degree there.

“Working here has definitely opened doors for me, for my future,” says Rogers, who used to help out weeding now and then in his parents’ garden as a boy, but was more interested in sports and video games. He later studied art and psychology at GCC before he “kind of fell off the earth … (losing) interest and motivation.”

When Andy Grant of the community farm sought prospective interns from the jail’s pre-release program this spring, Rogers was one of 12 inmates expressing interest and one of two picked to work on the farm off Leyden Road where community-service inmates have worked for the past two years. As part of a continuing program to connect the farm to the jail and the college and give pre-release inmate hands-on work experience and a taste of training they can continue at GCC, the program grows more than just vegetables.

“It will be difficult, with my felony record, to get a job after I get out,” says Rogers, who adds he’s “been living the last year and a half day-to-day. “Now I’m getting in the flow, trying to maintain my goals, to continue my schooling and see where this leads to.

“This is a big step for me, and I’m quite excited.”

The other intern who also began working on the community farm’s 51/2-acre plot, Justin Mason, became less interested in that work and more interested in another agricultural project at the jail, created as part of the GCC connection. Led by pre-release inmate Larry Harnois, they developed an 800-square-foot garden after an organic gardening class in the jail last fall. That “Kimball House Garden” provides food for the pre-release inmates.

“It’s healthy, nutritious food … definitely a change of pace,” says Rogers.

Apart from giving inmates a chance to discover the benefits of patient work in nature, said GCC intern Joshua Friend, who taught the course, “it offers the opportunity for self-guided initiative. They’re taking initiative over the project. It gets them outside in the dirt, which they say they enjoy better than being in the jail all day watching TV or lifting weights.

“They can tell you stories about the family of foxes that live in the woods and about which rabbits come to nibble at the garden, and they watch the sunrise and sunset when they water the garden every day. They’re super-excited about how much initiative they’re able to take, and that’s something that’s not really available to them in a facility like that.”

Contemplative time

Back at the Greenfield farm, Rogers says, doing the range of chores from germinating and planting to transplanting and harvesting “has been very therapeutic. I like having time to collect my thoughts. In jail, a lot of people lie awake at night going over everything that happened, but it’s a loud environment, and the influences there can be pretty discouraging.

“Being out here, on the land, and just taking time to reflect on your life, you can have peace and quiet. And you also have good people you can talk to — very friendly, open minded.”

Rogers has been on the House of Corrections’ community work crews, painting a church in Northfield, cleaning up a men’s recovery home in Greenfield and the town recreation area in Buckland. But the sense of accomplishment he’s gotten by farming, and from learning from farmer David Paysnick , he says, “is something a little more.”

Grant says that with support from GCC, the plan is for Rogers to continue doing an internship at the farm even after he’s released from his sentence later this month.

“We have an ongoing need for labor, and the amount of labor that (the pre-release) Kimball House has contributed to the community farm has been tremendous,” Grant adds.

“When community members hear about the jail to farm initiative, there’s a strong emotional resonance that we’re on mission. Now that it’s a program that includes college credits and a pathway to future employment, it’s getting better and better.”