A mother of a farm
Prisoners and veterans turn farmers at Hungry Mother Organics
Bob Trotta is sweating in the late afternoon sun. Greenhouses and rows of strawberries, squash, eggplant and basil surround him, while hundreds of free-range chickens seek shade in their coop. Trotta is an odds-and-ends man on this five-acre organic farm. He helps schedule the harvest, water the plants, transplant seedlings, load the truck for market—whatever needs to be done. But his workplace is a unique one: the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City. He’s been in prison for four years and is up for parole in August 2011.
“Compared to being out on the yard or doing time in the cell, this is heaven,” he says. “It gets tough sometimes, but if you’ve known where some of us have come from being behind the wall, having this farming program is a lot better than where we’d been. A little bit of serenity gets you away to where you don’t even think you’re in prison.”
Though the farm is on prison grounds, it’s an independent business, Hungry Mother Organics. You may have seen their seedlings at Whole Foods or their new retail site off Highway 395, just south of Carson City, where they sell seedlings, eggs and produce.
When Hungry Mother owner Mark O’Farrell first started looking for land for an organic farm, he didn’t set out to work with prisoners. He was looking for water, compost, space and a good price. The correctional center fit the bill, so he leases land for his farm from the prison. It was a win-win for both parties. “The labor was inexpensive and provided job skills for the inmates,” says O’Farrell. But not everything about prison labor is rosy. Some workers don’t want to be there. Even with good workers, it’s not a dependable source of labor—as soon as they get the hang of it, they’re paroled. With recent budget cuts, a string of early releases caused Hungry Mother to lose seven of eight workers in one month.
Hungry Mother is also trying to work with more veterans on the farm. It was a Vietnam veteran and former inmate, now paroled, who helped get the Whole Foods deal off the ground. Jason Rich, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who also worked privately in Iraq, is a veteran consultant working with Hungry Mother, in addition to his general work as a Hungry Mother employee.
“It’s the idea of farming being therapeutic, where vets can get their hearts and heads together after so many traumatic times,” says Rich. And, says O’Farrell, it’s also a way to get more veterans—or anyone—into farming. He says the demand for organic produce is now stretching some farmers to the limits, and more small farmers are needed. He says larger scale organic operations are not as sustainable as smaller ones.
But creating farmers, teaching job skills, and growing the most food for the most people isn’t Hungry Mother’s real goal. “We want to figure out how to help more people grow their own,” he says. The seedlings they sell and workshops they plan to offer in the fall are part of that. From the standpoint of reducing fossil fuels and reconnecting with natural cycles, O’Farrell thinks homegrown food is a key element of sustainability. “We can grow food, and we’re doing it organically, and we like to think that has some impact,” he says. “But it’s not the impact of even a handful of people growing for themselves and their neighbors.”